My 3 Thoughts on Panama-USMNT

Berhalter's Misguided Seven Lineup Changes, A Malfunctioning U.S. Midfield and a Panama Ass-Kicking

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PANAMA CITY, Panama — Here are my three thoughts on the USMNT’s 1-0 loss against Panama in Sunday’s World Cup qualifier, keeping the U.S. at eight points after five games in the CONCACAF Octagonal:

Gregg Berhalter was too conservative with his starting lineup. It wasn’t just that the U.S. coach made seven changes from the last game, but he chose not to start Tyler Adams for the first time in qualifying (despite Adams’s Leipzig-tuned engine being limitless) and didn’t start Brenden Aaronson or Ricardo Pepi (who’d been pulled midway through the second half on Thursday, presumably to save their energy for today). Who’s the only person who could cool off the red-hot Pepi, who’d scored three times in the last two games? Gregg Berhalter. (It’s like the old line about the only person who could hold Michael Jordan to less than 15 points being Dean Smith.) For a guy who has been preaching the value of taking it one game at a time, it was as if Berhalter decided to violate that maxim, choosing to go for six points in the two home games and hoping to steal a point here on the road. But he ended up loading a six-shooter with two bullets on the way to this gun-fight, and now the USMNT flies back home with an L.

Who’s the only person who could cool off the red-hot Pepi, who’d scored three times in the last two games? Gregg Berhalter.

The U.S. starting midfield struggled. Adams may not be the most spectacular player ever, but your appreciation for him really increased in this game, right? With Weston McKennie sidelined by muscle soreness, the starting central midfield of Kellyn Acosta, Yunus Musah and Sebastián Lletget was a major downgrade overall. They were sloppy with their passes, lost the ball regularly and failed to generate much of anything in the way of forward momentum. Often those miscues led to Panama breaks in the other direction. As he showed the moment he came on for the second half, Adams covers acres of space, is clean in his passing and lends a sense of calm to the midfield. These guys didn’t, and that forced the U.S. back line—and especially goalkeeper Matt Turner—into more work than they typically have to do.

That 2-0 win over Jamaica might get some revisionist analysis now. Those were two nice goals for the U.S. in Thursday’s win over Jamaica, but that was literally the easiest of the 14 games in this tournament: At home against the last-place team, which happened to be missing its two biggest attacking stars (Leon Bailey and Michail Antonio). Afterward, Berhalter had said: “The trap is going to be us thinking we’re great and thinking we’ve qualified for the World Cup. And if we do that, we’ll get our ass kicked in Panama Sunday.” I have no idea what the mindset was inside this U.S. team ahead of kickoff today, but Panama did a fair amount of tail-kicking on Sunday. For its part, the U.S. could have used its own ass-kicker out there, a Jermaine Jones on-the-edge type who scares players on the other team. (The closest person to that on this roster might actually be Matthew Hoppe.) After its first loss of World Cup qualifying, the USMNT really does need to get three points at home on Wednesday against Costa Rica in the fixture that was the most decisive moment in failing to qualify for the last World Cup. Sometimes it seems like the pressure in World Cup qualifying never stops.

What are your thoughts on the game? You can share them in the comments below.

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