As it turns out, the fourth anniversary of the US men’s national team’s Couva Waterloo was not a great day to play another big World Cup qualifier on the road!
The Yanks exhumed some of those ugly ghosts in Panama on Sunday, as a heavily-rotated lineup started poorly, leaked a soft corner-kick goal, then trudged along uninspiringly to a 1-0 loss that squanders all the momentum from their defeat of Jamaica three days before.
Here are three talking points from what I’m comfortable dubbing the worst competitive outing of Gregg Berhalter’s 34 months in charge.
Before this game we discussed Panama’s formidable home-field advantage at Estadio Rommel Fernandez – it’s been key to Los Canaleros’ impressive regional rise from doormats to demons. And the thick tropical heat is clearly a factor in that; it sapped the energy of everyone in white and blue. Add in the heavy, wet pitch and you have decidedly non-ideal conditions for the pressing and aggression that’s served the USMNT well in their best results of late.
But as Berhalter himself said postgame, “that can't be the starting point for why we didn't play well in this game,” because loud fans, stifling humidity and suboptimal grass is everyday stuff in Concacaf. And with seven changes to the XI from Thursday’s win in Austin, there should have been no shortage of hunger from those players for whom this start was a massive opportunity to impress.
Worst of all, the anger and steel that can get you results in an environment like this were missing, as USMNT legend Clint Dempsey made clear on the Paramount+ postgame show:
“There's no, I think, one explanation for it. But our distances were too far, we didn't have that pop, we didn't have the legs that we needed. And we suffered for it,” said Berhalter, who also defended his team’s effort, albeit unconvincingly to this observer.
“We weren't great in duels. Panama, we talked about being a very physical team, very difficult team to break down and that's exactly what they were. And you need quick ball movement, we need guys getting on the ball, moving them around – we just didn't do that enough … And then the playing side of it needs to be better. We were poor, we were really poor with our passing and some of our movement.”
Perhaps the most stinging part of Dempsey’s criticism was the part about fear, “people scared to get on it [the ball]” with the game in the balance. That combination of nerves, inaccurate passing and plodding-to-none movement off the ball led to a whole lot of back passes and hopeful lumps after Panama took the lead, the whole group running out of ideas even after Berhalter’s injection of five substitutes.
“I think it starts with the composure and confidence to play,” said Walker Zimmerman, Sunday’s captain. “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.”
After a resoundingly flat performance like that, there’s a temptation to lash out at the most prominent people involved, starting with the head coach. It would be simplistic to pile 100% of the blame on Berhalter’s head here because basically no one on the pitch had a good night. That said, the boss has some explaining to do.
Berhalter’s substitutions failed to spark the second-half surge that had become this team’s habit. And the starting lineup was a gamble, and he admitted as much, albeit one he felt he had no choice but to make given the brutally compacted schedule.
“We know we're playing in extreme heat, extreme humidity, we know we're traveling four and a half hours and we know that we have another game on Wednesday, and we wanted to rotate players. And if it didn't work, then it's on me,” said Berhalter.
“Now it obviously doesn't look like the best choice. But I think we have to wait till Thursday,” he added later in response to the last in a litany of lineup-based queries from the media. “Because if we would have played the same players from the last game, first of all, two of them [Antonee Robinson and Weston McKennie] weren't even here, that was going to be impossible.
“But if we would have played the same players in the same game, in this game, I'm not sure we position ourselves in the best way to win again on Wednesday. Again, the conditions that we're dealing with here, with the travel, with the weather, made it complicated. And we had to make, I guess, a somewhat risky decision.”
There’s no escaping the fact that the current pandemic-delayed club/country schedule is imposing unprecedented wear and tear on top players around the world. Does that mean that a dog’s dinner in Panama was the unavoidable price for a strong lineup and (the USMNT hope) a firm home win against Costa Rica in Columbus on Wednesday? That’s debatable, and we’ll surely spend the next three days doing just that.
The bigger problem, to me, is that Berhalter shoehorned sweeping personnel changes into the exact same tactical shape and outlook as before, and apparently expected it to work roughly as well as before. The US utilized multiple formations to win the Gold Cup, driven by the reality that not every attacker can be Christian Pulisic, not every defensive midfielder can do what Tyler Adams does – that roles should suit players just as much as vice versa.
Speaking of Adams, the New York Red Bulls academy product was restricted to a sub role here, and it’s understandable. He’d played almost every second of World Cup qualifying up to this point, and that can’t continue indefinitely.
“With Tyler, we wanted him to play 45 minutes because of his load. And the other thing to keep in mind is prior to this camp, Tyler hasn't been playing regularly for [RB Leipzig],” said Berhalter. “He had a little bit of injury, he was in and out of the lineup. So now to ask a player who hasn't had any load, or much lower than the last three weeks, to go play three 90s, I wasn't comfortable with it, and I'll take responsibility for that.”
We all have to accept that physiological realities like this can’t be ignored. What was frustrating about Sunday was Berhalter seemingly believing that Kellyn Acosta can step into Adams’ spot and have everything work more or less like before. And this goes beyond the lone defensive midfield role of his preferred 4-3-3 shape, a vital job that no one has filled anywhere near as well as Adams has.
It may be true that the 4-3-3 usually sets up Berhalter’s top 14 or so players for success. It does not necessarily do so for players 15-30 or so, and this game is another data point in that trend. If Acosta can’t do everything that Adams does (few can), why not flip the midfield triangle and give him a second pivot to play next to and share the core No. 6 duties with? They tried that after the latter entered on Sunday, and it staunched the bleeding a bit.
Maybe the coach feels burned by the wonky 3-4-3 that fizzled so badly in the first half at Honduras, and has resolved to stick with the same shape whenever possible, thus reducing one variable and keeping things simpler for his squad. And in his defense, Berhalter’s specific deployment of Brenden Aaronson and Paul Arriola as replacements, but not facsimiles, for Pulisic and Gio Reyna worked like a charm against Jamaica.
But he has to find ways to win the midfield battle without Adams and McKennie on the pitch, or this will crop up again in the busy months ahead.
“The good thing is, he'll be ready to go against Costa Rica and he should have full power for that game,” said the coach of Adams. McKennie is expected to be available in Columbus, too.
Given all we’ve said and written about this player pool being dramatically deeper and more competitive than those of past cycles, that’s a whole lot riding on just two sets of shoulders.