Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Positives & negatives from the USMNT loss at Panama – and what to expect vs. Costa Rica

Real quick: there were no positives from this US men’s national team performance, a 1-0 loss at Panama in which they failed to put a shot on target and never, save for a two-minute stretch just after halftime, matched the hosts’ intensity.

We can talk tactics and formation all the livelong day, but none of it matters if the players who are out on the field don’t get out of second gear. Some of that is obviously on Gregg Berhalter — when everybody (other than Walker Zimmerman) comes out flat, something’s gone wrong with the preparation.

But also… these are professional soccer players. “Get out of second gear and be intense enough to win the game” is line No. 1 in their job description. It is shocking so many missed the mark by so much.

“Physically, the intensity wasn’t there,” goalkeeper Matt Turner said afterward. “They got a boost from their home crowd and we didn’t match and exceed that, and in any qualifying, in any soccer game, you have to earn the right to play on the field, and I think we were behind the eight ball on that tonight.”

Oh hey look, we’re into the negatives already! What fun.

• The US were timid and afraid to push the ball forward.

“I think it starts with the composure and confidence to play,” Zimmerman said after the game. “We saw us create chances in Honduras over and over and over again, and make runs in behind, move the ball from side to side, switch the point of the attack and have guys that are getting in the penalty box and trying to score. And today, it never felt like we could get in a rhythm with possession to have the composure to keep the ball and move the ball, move them around, make them run, and so that hurt us.”

This was the defining trait of the game. I’ve seen folks online or in various group chats claim Berhalter’s system requires hero ball, but it really doesn’t. At its heart it requires the central midfield and fullbacks to be on the front foot and to push into the attack when opportunities present themselves. At their best, certain players can see cracks in the opposing defensive shape and blast through them, turning them into chasms of the sort that produced the first US goal (and myriad other chances) vs. Jamaica, as well as all four goals at Honduras last month.

At their worst you get a performance like the one on Sunday night, which was irredeemable.

“Verticality.” You might’ve heard the word once or twice over the past few weeks, and there were chances to impose it on this Panama side. Didn’t happen.

Kellyn Acosta was the Man of the Match in the Gold Cup final against Mexico playing as a No. 6, and was equally good at that position through the knockout stages of that tournament. Sebastian Lletget was a key component of everything that went right during the second half at Honduras last month.

Those two guys are not starters, but they are experienced vets who have done it before. It was natural to rotate them into the XI for this game in order to protect Tyler Adams’ hamstrings and Weston McKennie’s quad. This was their chance to show the depth the US had built all summer long was not a mirage.

But it was Acosta and Lletget who were most culpable for the poor overall US performance. Lletget spent most of the night either hiding from the ball…

... or passing backwards.

Acosta was worse. It’s not that he didn’t add anything — though to be clear, he didn’t — it’s that his miscontrols and sloppy midfield giveaways were actually what opened the door for a Panama side that had come out tentative and sloppy themselves.

Go back and watch the first 10 minutes of the game; Los Canaleros were not good. But Acosta’s walking nightmare gave them confidence, brought them into the game and gifted them momentum. Anytime the US had a chance to reverse that momentum by bursting upfield, Lletget killed the move by timidly playing backwards instead of creating or even just taking space.

• Those two were the most culpable, but were hardly alone in deserving blame. Left back George Bello and left center back Mark McKenzie were constantly getting caught on the ball and playing back-foot, reactive defense. And when Bello managed to get forward, he didn’t put in a single threatening cross all night.

Same with Shaq Moore on the other side, who 1) lost way too many 50/50s, and 2) was weirdly tight — like, five yards too close to the middle channel — when he did push up, as well as flat-footed when he had a chance to run in behind. It is weird because Moore, like Acosta and Lletget, had been so good during this summer’s Gold Cup! He’s had a full month learning where to be, when to get there, and what to do next and in one outing he just… lost all of it.

I can’t quite wrap my head around it.

Anyway, those long diagonals that can pull apart a 4-4-2 (which is what Panama played) were there, and were hit a few times, but because of Moore’s poor positioning he was never able to take his first touch forward, get around the edge and hit a pullback for the front line to attack.

• Yunus Musah came in for some criticism and I understand the decision to sub him off at the break (I assume it was a planned sub to make sure he has gas in the tank for the Costa Rica game). But he was the only one out there willing to get on the ball and drive upfield during the first half.

• Spacing was a problem EVERYWHERE, as was movement:

• It’s not even worth deeply examining the play of the frontline. They weren’t good, but even Barca’s old MSN frontline would’ve struggled with a midfield and fullback corps as non-existent as the USMNT’s were.

• In years or decades past the US would’ve found a way to get a set-piece goal out of this game, but for the second consecutive outing the set-piece delivery was below par.

• Adams’ insertion at the break gave the US a momentary burst — he actually played forward off a midfield turnover, which is one of just two times on the night that happened for the US — but it’s a cruel irony that the game’s lone goal came off a corner kick that Adams conceded when he didn’t have to. He did well to cut off Yoel Barcenas’s box entry for Michael Murillo, but instead of taking the safe route and blasting a clearance into touch for a Panama throw-in, Adams miscontrolled it off his shin and over the endline.

• Okay, I am so tired of talking and thinking about this game. Let’s just move on.

What it means against Costa Rica

Berhalter has taken a lot of criticism for the heavy squad rotation he employed for this game and, given both the performance and result, I understand why. But:

  1. The biggest thing we learned about three-game windows last month is that teams that don’t rotate in games 1 & 2 get pumped in game 3, and...
  2. Home games are more important than road games.

If the US just protects home-field advantage from here on out and doesn’t take another road point the entire time, they’ll make the World Cup. The Costa Rica game is more important than the Panama game was, and that’s how Berhalter’s approached it. He was damn near explicit about it.

“This is how I looked at,” he said about the squad rotation, “and now it obviously doesn’t look like the best choice, but I think we have to wait ‘til Thursday, because if we would have played the same players from the last game, first of all, two of them weren’t even here, so that was going to be impossible, but if we would have played the same players in this game, I’m not sure we would position ourselves in the best way to win again on Wednesday.”

We’ll see what that means for Los Ticos. Seven field players — central midfielders Celso Borges and Yeltsin Tejada, wingers Johan Venegas and Joel Campbell, and defenders Ronald Matarrita, Francisco Calvo and Oscar Duarte — have started both games so far this window. Of that group, only Venegas has been subbed early enough (twice) to have gotten a significant amount of rest.

Irrespective of who’s out there and how much gas they’ve got in the tank, I expect to see a classic Costa Rican low-block 5-4-1. The US will have to be sharp and will have to be brave and will have to be vertical to break it down, and it sure would be nice if they managed to be threatening on restarts as well.

USMNT Projected XI (and notes)
Doyle's XI v Costa Rica

• I didn’t want anyone to have to play 270 minutes in this camp, but it looks like Zimmerman’s got to, right? I love Chris Richards, but it’d be a hell of a thing to throw him into a game as important as this one for his first World Cup qualifier experience.

• If Sergino Dest can’t go, DeAndre Yedlin gets the start over Moore at RB.

• If McKennie can’t go, it’s Luca de la Torre time in central midfield.

• Brenden Aaronson, Ricardo Pepi and Tim Weah should all have enough gas to go from the start.

• A win would most likely leave the US in second place, five points clear of fifth in the standings (barring an El Salvador home win over Mexico, which isn’t precisely unlikely, but is not what I expect to happen).