Three days after shooting to the top of its World Cup qualifying group with a 2–0 win over Jamaica, the United States men’s national team looked like a totally different side, in more ways than one.
U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter rotated out seven of the players who started the Jamaica game, but watching Sunday night’s 1–0 loss in Panama, you would’ve thought his lineup was full of guys who had gone the entire 90 minutes on Thursday. Berhalter took apart his team’s engine and rebuilt it only to find he had left out some crucial components. The sluggish, second-best USMNT played like it was missing its spark plugs.
From the start, nothing seemed to go right. The Americans’ passing was all over the place on the wet and sloppy field; simple balls hit too short or too long, its goal of verticality hydroplaning out over the end line again and again. By the latter parts of both halves, more precise attempts to find runners breaking through gave way to long balls lobbed forward, which Panama ate up with little hassle.
Much of the blame falls with the U.S. midfield. Weston McKennie was left back in the U.S. to nurse a minor injury, hopefully in preparation for Wednesday’s match against Costa Rica. Tyler Adams, who played every minute of the September World Cup qualifying window, was finally rested from the start of a match. The starters––Kellyn Acosta, Yunus Musah, and Sebastian Lletget––were ineffective on both sides of the ball. Too many Panamanian attacks made it all the way into the hands of goalkeeper Matt Turner or the head of center back Walker Zimmerman. Too many American ones died on a bad touch or a hopeful ball played by somebody without enough passing options.
Panama was ready for Musah, who was brilliant in the second half against Jamaica. His early attempts to dribble in midfield saw him stripped by Panamanian midfielders, sending Panama countering dangerously. When Musah finally completed a dribble, it led to one of the few decent U.S. attacks of the half, which is more than Acosta or Lletget can say. Neither found the ball enough, and both were too slow on it when they did have it.
Acosta had his worst game in a long time for the U.S. He had proved himself a capable backup as a defensive midfielder over the summer; he was the best player on the field against Mexico in the Gold Cup final, and played capably in the CONCACAF Nations League final too. (He also played left back for a portion of the second half and all of extra time in the Nations League Final, which is a pretty useful “Other Duties as Assigned” bullet point to have.) On Sunday all his weaknesses were on display. He’s rarely an effective release valve when the team is under pressure, and he has to be at his best to keep up with the speed of these games. Here he was far from it.
But the U.S. kept the game scoreless headed into halftime, thanks to some key interventions from Turner, a good result for a team missing its two outfield security blankets, Adams and center back Miles Robinson. (Like Adams, Robinson played every minute of the September qualifying window.) At the half, Berhalter inserted Adams to stabilize his team’s defense. The effect was immediate. Adams hunts the ball with the relentlessness of a Mario Kart blue shell, and he won it twice in a 20-second span just after coming on, spraying it wide to an open runner. The level of U.S. defensive security increased dramatically; Panama’s attacks were nipped farther out from goal. But even while the U.S. dulled Panama’s momentum, it never produced enough offense to reverse it, which left it vulnerable to a blow from outside the ebb and flow of the game, a Panama goal off a corner kick nine minutes into the half.
Losing this way stings. Every team is going to play poorly in some games, especially given the rigors of this compressed qualifying cycle, but the U.S. has given itself little chance at scoring sudden reversals or sneaky knockouts. It doesn’t look like a team that can steal a goal, especially not on set pieces. It had six corner kicks of its own during this game, and a number of free kicks in dangerous areas, and produced little threat from them. Acosta’s service wasn’t good, but the U.S. has produced little from anyone else’s set pieces outside of the El Salvador game, when nobody could put their headers on target.
If the U.S. can’t find a way to seize games in which it’s not playing its best, then Berhalter has significantly less flexibility going forward with his squad rotation. With all due respect to Turner, Adams appears to be the central component of the team’s defensive efforts. The question ahead of Wednesday’s game is: Who is that crucial player on the offensive end, the key to making everything work, especially when Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna aren’t available? Is it McKennie in midfield, or Musah in tandem with him and Adams instead of two players who are struggling? Can Gianluca Busio shake off a rough Gold Cup and find the speed of play necessary? Without someone to make the team’s ball movement tick over, it doesn’t matter how great of a goal scorer your prodigy center forward is—somebody’s got to get him the ball. (The prodigious Ricardo Pepi, for what it’s worth, had perhaps the most dangerous U.S. shot of the second half after he came on as a sub. It missed well wide. It was that kind of night.)
Perhaps the most regrettable result of Sunday’s loss is that it’s opened the door to what could be a key rival. Panama now sits third in the qualifying table with eight points, behind the U.S. only on goal differential. (Canada is fourth, having played a more difficult schedule than either.) It’s still early enough in the process for a swell or dip in form to shoot any of the eight teams up or down the standings, but a win would have given the Americans an invaluable leg up on one of the three automatic qualifying spots. Now it’s at the very minimum a four-team race, with Wednesday’s opponent Costa Rica lurking just behind. The U.S. has to win that game, as much to slap down an additional challenger as to boost its own hopes. Hopefully a different team shows up for that one.