And as dogged and resilient as they were, clawing back from a 1-0 extra-time deficit to force a penalty-kick shootout via Jesús Ferreira’s clutch late equalizer, it was hard to avoid the conclusion that the better team won at Snapdragon Stadium, home of San Diego’s future MLS club.
“We're not a group that's going to make excuses,” said interim US head coach B.J. Callaghan after his side’s second 120-minute-plus marathon in four days, following Sunday’s dramatic quarterfinal vanquishing of Canada.
“These are all challenges, and each team has different challenges that they have to face, and we continually work and then we talk about how we’re going to respond to them. So for me, it's part of what happens when you are in the group stage and knockout games. You deal with a lot of different factors, and you have to learn how to deal with it, and we were able to get a lot of experience in doing it.”
The USMNT raced out of the gates at the opening whistle, with Cade Cowell thumping a shot off the base of the right post with less than a minute on the clock. Yet the favorites were outplayed for long stretches after that.
Panama manager Thomas Christiansen’s 3-4-3 system – powered by the box-to-box excellence of Houston Dynamo FC midfielder Coco Carrasquilla – constantly stretched and strained the United States’ 4-3-3 setup with ample possession and booming switches of play, leaving the host nation fortunate to reach halftime at 0-0.
Callaghan took the blame.
“The first half is my fault. I didn't set the team up the way they should have been set up,” he said. “We were able to make the adjustments at halftime and I was so proud of the group, the way they came out in the second half and the way they responded. So I don't have anything but positive things to say about how the group handled this match.
“We tried to remain true to our identity, we wanted to go out and press,” Callaghan explained. “Panama, they're a really well-coached team, they're really experienced, they've been together for a long time. So they were able to cause us challenges and in the wide areas, it was difficult for us to get to those long diagonals in the first half, and we expended a lot of energy. … We were just able to make a small adjustment defensively to get some more cover into the wide areas. I thought the guys executed that great, put in another great shift.”
Even as the reconfigured Yanks came to grips with Los Canaleros after the break, aided by the fresh legs of Seattle Sounders duo Jordan Morris and Cristian Roldan, they found themselves even leakier at the back. Panama had a couple of goals waved off for offside decisions and were upset to be denied a penalty kick for what they believed was a Djordje Mihailovic handball near the end of regulation time. They finally got their timing right in the 99th minute, aided by a poorly-organized US backline that kept Iván Anderson onside in pursuit of Carrasquilla’s ball over the top and capped by Matt Turner’s overly aggressive charge well off his line.
So it was fitting when Carrasquilla hammered the decisive spot kick past Turner into the top left corner to send the Central Americans to a Gold Cup final date with Mexico after Panama goalkeeper Orlando Mosquera had denied Roldan.
After the disappointment of the 2022 cycle, Panama look like a program reborn, adding several additional layers of effectiveness beyond their trademark fighting spirit.
“There's been a very important evolution in the game model that we have seen from the team in the last few years. We have advanced a little bit more, with changes to the system,” said Christiansen in Spanish. “Above all is to have the confidence of the people, and the federation in this case. It was sad not to go to the World Cup, but I don't want to say that we failed. Because we did some things very well, and perhaps that will bear fruit now.”
While the Canaleros will now cruise up Interstate 5 to Los Angeles for Sunday’s final against heavy favorites El Tri, the USMNT face an extended break. Their next gathering will be in the September FIFA window, when Gregg Berhalter is expected to be back in charge for friendlies vs. Uzbekistan and Oman in St. Louis and St. Paul, Minnesota, respectively.
As impressively as he’s managed just about every aspect of his unusual interim stint, prompting chatter about his suitability for a head coaching role somewhere, Callaghan sounds likely to return to Berhalter’s side, where he’s been since the former Columbus Crew boss took the USMNT reins at the start of 2019.
“I’ve been part of the US men’s national team for four and a half years in many different roles,” said Callaghan. “It's an honor every single time you have the opportunity to represent the country, and for me it doesn't matter what role that I had to do; I take great pride in that. As far as the future, I haven't thought about that for one second. My focus has been on the players. Right after this result, my focus is on the players and the staff to make sure that they continue to realize what they were able to accomplish over three weeks.
“Each player was given an opportunity to gain this experience,” the former Philadelphia Union assistant coach said of this Gold Cup, “and I hope that they take it, they learn the lessons from it, and it catapults them back into putting in good performances with their club.”