Cobi Jones (left) celebrates his goal after pulling off some late heroics for the U.S. in a draw in Panama in 2004. (Andy Mead/YCJ Photo)

By Michael Lewis

PANAMA CITY, Panama – Leaving things for the last minute is not a particularly good habit to get into, but the U.S. national team has thrived on it on the road during World Cup qualifying.

For the second consecutive away match, the U.S. pulled out a dramatic 1-1 draw as veteran Cobi Jones struck two minutes into stoppage time for a 1-1 tie with Panama last night (Sept. 8, 2004).

Jones, a 57th-minute sub for former MetroStar Clint Mathis, scored from eight yards some 85 seconds into added time to give the U.S. the stunning draw.

Three weeks ago, the Americans pulled out yet another 1-1 draw on an 89th-minute goal by Brian Ching.

The tie kept the U.S. (five points) undefeated in CONCACAF Group A at 1-0-2 and extended the team’s unbeaten streak to 10 games (6-0-4). Surprising Panama (four points) is 1-1-1.

It was the fifth time this year the U.S. scored either the equalizing or winning goal in the 88th minute or beyond.

“We have a natural attitude of never say die,” Jones said. “We’re a team that never quits. We’re going to to play ball for 90 minutes.

“It was a credit to us to come back and get that goal when we’re getting outplayed a bit.”

With the U.S. in desperate need of a goal, defender Greg Vanney sent a left-wing cross into the penalty area to Landon Donovan. Donovan’s shot went directly to Jones, who beat goalkeeper Donaldo Gonzalez to the far post to silence the estimated enthusiastic crowd of 12,000 and Panama president Martin Torrijeos at Estadio Rommel Fernandez.

“It bounced straight down across the goal,” Donovan said of Vanney’s cross. “My eyes got big. As I went to shoot it, it hit a little puddle and stopped. It kind of came off the end of my foot and went to Cobi.

“Things happen for a reason.”

Despite Jones’s late heroics, the U.S. still has trouble winning in Central America. The Americans have won but three times in 15 tries, all victories coming in Honduras. The U.S. is 3-6-6 in qualifiers down here.

The U.S. will take a month’s break before resuming qualifying in El Salvador on Oct. 9 and then take on Panama in a rematch at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. four days later.

Panama, which never has qualified for a World Cup, was on the cusp of a startling upset on the strength of Roberto Brown’s 70th-minute goal against the favored Americans, vying to reach their fifth consecutive Cup.

Ricardo Phillips, a first-half substitute, made a 45-yard run, going in one-on-one with Kasey Keller before firing a shot that the goalkeeper knocked away. The ball was sent back in and hit the right post before Brown scored in a scramble from five yards.

The stadium, already a sea of red with spectators wearing the colors of their team, erupted with smoke bombs and popcorn and drinks flying down from the upper decks.

The match was played under less than optimum conditions. A thunderstorm several miles from the stadium threatened to delay the game, but it abated before kickoff. Still, rain continued throughout the match, making one penalty area waterlogged.

A good three hours prior to kickoff, two radio stations blared loud, deafening, incomprehensible music over loudspeakers for several hundred fans who arrived early. There were only four light towers, which made life miserable for the players, particularly the goalkeepers, and no working scoreboard.

U.S. coach Bruce Arena made five changes from the lineup he deployed in the 2-0 home victory over El Salvador on Saturday. He used more veterans in Keller, defenders Eddie Pope, Frankie Hejduk and Vanney and midfielder Mathis in favor of Tim Howard (he returned to Manchester United), Cory Gibbs, Steve Cherundolo, Bobby Convey and Kerry Zavagnin, respectively.

Both teams had little to show for their attacking soccer in a scoreless first half.

With Reyna at defensive midfielder, Mathis ran the show for the U.S. in the first half. He set up teammates with quick flicks or bloop passes, attempting to circumvent the slick field. It almost paid off in the 21st minute when he chipped a pass from 35 yards to defender Carlos Bocanegra, whose shot was deflected out of bounds by Gonzalez.

Mathis nearly scored himself in the 26th minute as his 12 yard shot, after quick passes by Conor Casey and Ching, were knocked out of bounds by Gonzalez.

The Americans successfully defended a water-logged penalty area in the half with very few slip-ups. That forced Panama to shoot from long range. Julio Medina powered a 22-yard shot to the left of the net in the 17th minute and midfielder Engie Mitre had Keller beat with a 26-yard blast that sailed wide left in the 42nd minute. Mitre knew he had wasted a golden opportunity, punching his arm in frustration.

“The big part of the game was our inability to take advantage of our control we had in the first half,” Arena said.

Slowly, but surely, Panama took control of the match in the final 45 minutes. Brown headed a corner kick right to Keller in the 57th minute and defender Carlos Rivera headed another from three yards over the goal. Phillips almost brought the crowd to its feet, firing a hard, 22-yard shot wide right.

In an attempt to revive his team’s attack, Arena made three offensive-minded substitutions. He pulled Mathis for Jones in the 57th minute, Casey for McBride in the 62nd minute and Ching for Eddie Lewis in the 77th minute.

While the trio did not immediately make an impact, they came through when the game was on the line.

“We wore them down at the end,” Arena said. “I thought it would be the other way.

“The game will be very different in Washington, D.C.”