USMNT falls to Panama away in a disjointed and confused effort

The USMNT suffered its worst outing under Gregg Berhalter after dropping a 1-0 loss to Panama on Sunday night. The team will now have to rebound against a Costa Rican team that has 4 points from its last two games but has also started 8 players in both games this window. ASN’s Brian Sciaretta breaks it all down.


Brian Sciaretta


October 09, 2021

5:10 AM

THE UNITED STATES NATIONAL team suffered a significant setback in World Cup qualifying on Sunday night went it dropped a 1-0 decision to Panama away in Panama City. The performance was poor – across the board and it was a systematically subpar performance where the team played far worse that the sum of its parts.

U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter made seven changes to the starting line-up from the one that impressed in the 2-0 win over Jamaica. The U.S. team struggled from the onset – especially in the midfield where plays often went to die with turnovers and a lack of understanding with each other to get the ball forward.

The U.S. team managed just five shots with none of them on goal.

The decisive moment of the game was in the 54th minute when a Eric Davis delivered corner kick to the near post where it found Gyasi Zardes and Anibal Godoy going for the ball at the same time, it hit the head of Zardes and went in past Turner.

This wasn’t the first time the U.S. team has fallen behind on the road in World Cup qualifying. Last month, the team trailed Honduras at the half but showed tremendous fight and character in rallying for a stunning 4-1 win.

Against Panama, the U.S. team had no answer. For any question about the starting lineup, the subs offered little to no improvement. There was no connection into the attack, the fullbacks were completely ineffective getting forward. 

Central defense for the U.S. team was still pretty decent but it needs to serve as a learning lesson for the rest of the team – and a lesson to learn quickly.

“We were poor,” Berhalter said afterward. “We were really poor with our passing and some of our movement.”

Here are some thoughts, a look ahead to Wednesday, and player ratings for the game.


Credit to Panama


Panama deserved this win for numerous reasons – and Danish manager Thomas Christiansen deserves a ton of credit. While the U.S. team might have had an edge in talent, Panama countered it with experience and chemistry. Eight of Panama’s starting XI had over 40 caps with the team (the cap totals of Panama’s starting XI: 35, 46, 47, 76, 63, 114, 7, 54, 109, 1, 44. The cap total of their subs: 21, 17, 118, 16, 4).

As far as age goes, Panama did not start a player under the age of 25 and used just one sub on a player under 25 (the ages of Panama’s XI: 30, 25, 26, 29, 30, 33, 25, 27, 31, 26, 31. The ages of Panama’s subs: 25, 29, 33, 26, 21).

This was a team that has played together through thick and thin. The players know each other inside and out and the team has a variety of ways they can play. In this case, they did their homework. They knew from the U.S. team’s press conferences that the U.S. was preaching verticality and width. Against Jamaica, the U.S. showed that it needs the fullbacks and the wings to press forward out wide to make this happen.

Panama completely shutdown the U.S. team’s direct approach on the wings and dared the U.S. team to go up the middle. The U.S. team had no response.

Panama won this game tactically with its defensive approach – and age and experience helped, big time.

On the attack, Panama knew set pieces could be the difference. After several attempts of driving corners into the back post gave the U.S. problems, it went to the near post to mix things up – and that is what resulted in the goal.

Defensively, Panama exposed the lack of a defensive presence in the middle of the field. While that did not result in any goals, it put the U.S. team back on its heels – creating more space between the midfield and the front line. The U.S. team had to rely on longer passes and it made building an attack harder. 

On top of it all, Panama’s experience really showed in their ability to rebound from a poor loss to El Salvador on Tuesday night. That loss had the potential of setting the team back mentally – but that did not happen, and Panama was able to play its best game three days after its worse loss. That reflects well on both the players and the coaches.


U.S. midfield struggles with no Plan B


The U.S. team was set up to try to play the same way it did against Jamaica. The problem or repliating that effort, however, was two-fold.

First, Panama was smart and put a lot of emphasis in shutting down the U.S. attack from out wide. Panama’s two fullbacks, Michael Murillo and Eric Davis, were the two best players on the field for the game. They had fantastic two-way performances and they were both supported defensively from the wingers.

The U.S. team was forced to go up the middle as opposed to out wide, and it had little success. The field was never stretched. Dribbling, playmaking, and shooting from distance were not there. Even good attacking players like Musah and Weah couldn’t get anything going.

In other words, there was no effective “Plan B” from the U.S. team.

“We didn’t have control in midfield, and that really hurt us in that game,” Berhalter said. “I’m going to look at the touches that our midfielders had individually, but it was nowhere near what we expect. The distances were too big, the connections were too spread out.”


Set pieces


In the loss against Panama, the U.S. team continued to be poor in attacking set pieces. That made it more difficult and frustrating for the team to concede a goal from a corner kick (the U.S. team has been good defending set pieces this entire year).

But on set pieces, the U.S. team should be much, much better in the attack. Through five games of World Cup qualifying, nothing has come from corner kicks or free kicks.


Duels lost


Duel-winning was one of the biggest contrasts between the win over Jamaica and the loss to Panama.

Against Jamaica, the U.S. team won 63/92 duels (68.4%). Against Panama, however, the U.S. team won 38/84 (45%) duels. That is an enormous drop-off.

As Berhalter has stressed, winning duels is about energy and desire. It reflective of the mindset of a team. It also has benefits on the field – it wins possession, and it can start quick attacks when the defense isn’t yet set.

Panama knew how to win loose ballas or 50-50 chances and the team willed itself to a lopsided advantage to keep the U.S. team on its heels.

“We weren’t great in duels,” said Berhalter. “Panama, we talked about being a very physical team, very difficult team to break down and that’s exactly what they were.”


Opportunity lost


This was a bad loss for the United States and was its first loss in 13 official games in 2021 between Nations League, the Gold Cup, and World Cup qualifying.

It wasn’t a devastating blow. If the U.S. team defeats Costa Rica on Wednesday, this entire window keeps the team on track to qualify for Qatar. This game sets up a potential serious blow, but this loss was not that.

This loss was simply a massively blown opportunity. A win would have put the team in cruise control for qualifying. A 0-0 draw (or any draw) would have had led to grumbling among the fanbase but it would have gotten the job done in terms of not just earning a point, but also taking two more points off the board by not allowing Panama to climb.

“We know we’re playing in extreme heat, extreme humidity, and we know we traveled four and a half hours, and we know we have another game on Wednesday, and we wanted to rotate players,” Berhalter said of the massive squad rotations. “If it didn’t work, then it’s on me, and it’s my responsibility.”

The question now becomes how quickly the U.S. team can compartmentalize this performance, put it aside and refocus for Costa Rica. Good teams rarely get mired in a loss. The U.S. needs to be like Panama and put the bad loss in the rearview mirror immediately.


Looking ahead to Costa Rica


The U.S. team will make a lot of big changes against Costa Rica on Wednesday.

Almost certainly Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie will return to the No. 6 and No. 8 positions, respectively – McKennie’s return is dependent on the quad tightness he suffered against Jamaica subsiding (his MRI was negative).

Sergino Dest at right back and Antonee Robinson at left back should be ready to return and that will provide more width to the attack.

Brenden Aaronson should also return to the starting lineup although it remains to be seen at what position. He could start out wide but he might also shift to the No. 10 in place of Yunus Musah who started the first two games.

Ricardo Pepi, meanwhile, should once again return to the No. 9.

There are still a lot of question marks in the XI that Berhalter will need to think about. The biggest question being on the wings. Paul Arriola has started the first two games and might not start a third. Tim Weah might be in a better position to succeed with more in-form fullbacks. It could also be possible that Matthew Hoppe or Cristian Roldan start out wide.

Central defense remains a question mark as well. Walker Zimmerman has done well so far this window and Berhalter might opt to continue to ride the hot hand. At some point, he will want to give Chris Richards are look as well. Meanwhile, Miles Robinson should be rested. It would not be surprising to see a Robinson – Richards combination against Costa Rica.

As for Costa Rica, big questions will be asked. They will be coming into this game with a very respectable draw and win from the last two games – but the lack of squad rotation could pay a price on the Ticos.

Eight different players have started the last two games for Costa Rica: Keylor Navas, Oscar Duarte, Francico Calvo, Ronald Matarrita, Celso Borges, Yeltsin Tejeda, Joel Campbell, Johan Venegas. The age range of these eight players is 29 through 34. It will be a big ask to have these players start against the United States – if they do, they could fade in the 2nd half.


Player Ratings


The Starting Lineup


Matt Turner: Distribution was a little shaky, he made a few decent saves as well. He couldn’t get out of crowd to field the corner kick on the goal: Rating: 5.5

George Bello: Wasn’t able to provide any attack down his side of the field: Rating: 4.5

Walker Zimmerman: The Georgia native was probably the best player on the day for the U.S. team – which isn’t saying much. Aside from a few aimless long balls, he defended well to help keep Panama from scoring from the run of play: Rating: 6.0

Mark McKenzie: The Delaware-raised McKenzie made nice clearance to prevent a goal in the first half and did well in some areas but his 1/9 duel winning was not helpful: Rating: 5.5

Shaq Moore: The Tenerife-based right back offered little to nothing getting forward to produce attack from the right side: Rating: 4.5

Kellyn Acosta: His set piece deliveries were surprisingly sub-par and he had no chemistry with Yunus Musah in central midfield. As the veteran of this area of the field, he should have been able to help raise the game of others: Rating: 4.5

Yunus Musah: The Valencia midfielder struggled on both sides of the ball. Offensively, he lost the ball too many times and defensively he allowed too much space. It was hard to argue with his halftime hook: Rating: 4.0

Sebastian Lletget: Probably the better of the midfielders, which isn’t saying anything. He drew three fouls and completed more attacking-half passes than any other starter. He also was one of the few players to win over 50% of his duels (3/4). Still, he didn’t offer anything to break the game open or generate decent chances: Rating: 5.0

Paul Arriola: Looked completely spent after the Jamaica game where he pressed and ran relentlessly for 90 minutes. Arriola couldn’t dribble by anyone, register a shot, or create anything dangerous: Rating: 4.0

Tim Weah: 17 touches in 68 minutes left Weah struggling to make an impact. Like Arriola, he didn’t complete a dribble, or have a shot, or have a key pass: Rating: 4.0

Gyasi Zardes: Zardes was simply never able to get going offensively. Part of that is on him, part of that is on wingers and attacking midfielders. He was a bit unlucky to be part of the goal but that’s the way this sport can go when the team can’t create. Every play becomes worth that much more. At some point, he needed to offer something more: Rating: 3.5


The Substitutes


Tyler Adams: Had 48 touches in the second half and was 36/38 in passing – but the midfield cohesion was still off: Rating: 5.5

Brenden Aaronson: The New Jersey native replaced Paul Arriola at the half and played the way Arriola typically plays. He brought energy although his final ball was lacking on the night. He was just 8/12 in passing: Rating: 5.0

Ricardo Pepi: The FC Dallas product is in great form but managed just one shot in this game – which was an improvement from other attackers: Rating: 5.0

Cristian Roldan: The Seattle Sounder put forth an effort that was lacking – winning all six of his duels. He tried to be feisty but the final ball was lacking: Rating: 5.0

DeAndre Yedlin: The Galatasaray fullback wasn’t an improvement for Moore when he came into the game in the 68th minute. Yedlin wasn’t able to get forward or swing in anything dangerous: Rating: 4.5