Vancouver Whitecaps forward Blas Perez was the star man in Orlando's second Copa America match, scoring both goals to lead Panama to a 2-1 win over Bolivia at Camping World Stadium. By winning, Panama made history, becoming the first non-CONMEBOL team to win its Copa America opener. Much of the game was played in a downpour with the leading edge of Tropical Storm Colin brushing the Central Florida area.
The weather and the fact that this was deemed the de facto third-place game for Group D -- which also features Argentina and Chile -- kept numbers down. The announced attendance was just 13,466, but it was a raucous and noisy crowd that braved the elements to cheer on their countries.
The 35-year-old Perez scored in the 87th minute to snap a 1-1 deadlock that seemed headed for a draw with both teams tiring down the stretch. Second-half substitute Abdiel Arroyo used his strength to power through Bolivian defender Nelson Cabrera to get into the box and squared a ball back across the box from the right wing to Perez at the penalty spot. The Vancouver man one-timed the ball into the back of the net for the winner.
Blas Perez taps into an empty net to make it 2-1, Panama late on. Will that be the winner? #PANvBOL #MyCopaColors https://t.co/z3vg2fwXDc— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 7, 2016
It put an end to a highly entertaining game that was also brutally physical at times, with eight total yellow cards handed out -- six to Panama -- and 43 total fouls.
Bolivia fought back after falling behind in the first half to pull level in the 54th minute. Midfielder Martin Smedberg, who provided excellent service all night, lofted a long free kick into the area that Panama defender Harold Cummings made a mess of, flicking it straight to striker Juan Arce, who fired home from close range to get La Verde on the board.
Juan Carlos Arce sends a clean strike past Penedo to equalize for Bolivia. Game on! #PANvBOL #MyCopaColors https://t.co/5eIbkVn9QE— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 7, 2016
Cummings made up for his error five minutes after the goal. With New York Cosmos forward Yasmani Duk breaking into the box alone, Cummings caught up and deftly tapped the ball away to prevent an excellent chance for Bolivia.
Luis Tejada thought he put Panama on top in the 68th minute, but he was correctly ruled offside. Panama again came close in the 78th when midfielder Alberto Quintero sent a blazing shot on target but Carlos Lampe made a spectacular one-handed diving save to keep the game tied. It seemed a draw was in the cards when a ball fell perfectly in the box for Tejada in the 85th minute, but he missed the net from just a few yards out. But two minutes later, Perez had the game on his foot and he did not miss.
Bolivia nearly pulled back the goal immediately, with Rodrigo Ramallo getting into the box. A defender dispossessed Ramallo but it fell for Arce, who spun but could not get his shot down and it sailed over in the 89th minute. It was Bolivia's final chance.
The first half provided more good scoring chances than the entire 90 minutes of Saturday's match between Costa Rica and Paraguay. Panama got on the front foot early and served notice that Los Canaleros were here to play. Quintero threatened down the left flank early and drew a free kick. That begat a corner, which turned into a shot by Perez that was blocked and fell perfectly for Gabi Torres, who flubbed his lines and fizzed a shot wide of goal just three minutes in.
Three minutes later, Torres sent in a curling, dipping free kick from distance that keeper Lampe had to tip over the bar at the last second. Panama continued to buzz around its final third. At the nine-minute mark, Perez sent a gorgeous cross to Armando Cooper, but the midfielder's volley shot was just high and wide.
Two minutes later, Los Canaleros finally found their opener. Bolivia turned the ball over just outside its own penalty area and the ball found its way out left to Quintero, who sent a dangerous cross into the box. It found Perez, who one-timed a shot past Lampe into the lower left corner for the first Copa America goal in Orlando and the first in the tournament by an MLS player.
Blas Perez turns home Alberto Quintero's cross to put Panama in front. #PANvBOL #MyCopaColors https://t.co/nWb7uWkB75— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 6, 2016
After Perez's goal, the Bolivians finally settled into the match. Two minutes after Panama opened the scoring, Bolivia nearly drew level when Arce got his head to a long ball but directed it right at former LA Galaxy goalkeeper Jaime Penedo for a comfortable save. Three minutes later, Smedberg sent in a free kick from distance that Arce got a piece of, forcing a diving save by Penedo.
Perez nearly doubled Panama's lead in the 27th minute off another superb cross from Quintero, who kept it low. Perez flicked it on, while making a near-post run but Lampe was there to make a vital save. Three minutes later, Perez stole the ball from defender Ronald Enguino and broke in alone on goal. Edward Zenteno and Lampe did just enough to force Perez to turn and fire a curler that was deflected away. Torres nearly came in alone on goal in the 33rd but a timely toe poke by Cabrera broke it up.
Bolivia continued to come into the game and actually ended up out-possessing Panama in the opening period, 53%-47%. Arce sent a dangerous cross in for Yasmani Duk in the 38th minute but it was cut out at the last second by the defense.
Nothing came from a couple of late long free kicks by Panama and Los Canaleros took their 1-0 lead into the break.
Panama will meet Argentina in Chicago on Friday, while Bolivia will travel to Foxborough, MA, to face Chile the same day.
Orlando will host one more match on Wednesday night, when Brazil (0-0-1, 1 point) and Haiti (0-1-0, 0 points) meet in Group B play at 7:30 p.m. at the big campground.