National Writer: Charles Boehm

Walker Zimmerman: USMNT need three-point response against Costa Rica

It’s not easy for a player to step in front of the cameras just moments after the conclusion of an exhausting match and summarize to reporters what went right and wrong. Walker Zimmerman did a pretty decent job of it in the aftermath of the US men’s national team's stinging 1-0 World Cup qualifying loss to Panama on Sunday, though.

Shortcomings in their buildup sequences and the breakdown in set-piece defending that allowed the game-winning goal were key flashpoints in the Yanks’ first loss of the Concacaf Octagonal round, and Zimmerman provided useful perspective on both in the postgame press conference.

“They tried to overload the six-yard box, put more numbers in closer to our goal, and tried to whip in a ball right on top of our goalie in the near zone,” said the center back of Panama’s targeted strategy on corner kicks and other restarts. “I honestly haven't gotten a chance to look at it back, but it's a zone that we should be able to take care of. And it's something that we have to take pride in, how we defend set pieces.

“That should be a strength of this team, with our size, with our mentality. And that's a goal of ours, is to always be holding an advantage in the set-piece category, because that we certainly have the personnel to do that – to defend and hold a zero and then certainly create more opportunities on the attack.”

Goalkeeper Matt Turner echoed that analysis, suggesting that Los Canaleros spotted a seam worthy of attacking in the USMNT’s win over Jamaica.

“If you look back at the Jamaica game, they had a pretty good chance in the first half off a near-post flick from, I think it was Shamar\] Nicholson,” Turner said in a [postgame availability only for on-site media. “So that was obviously a weak point in the zone, somewhere that they were trying to attack, and we just couldn’t get our heads on the ball before [Anibal] Godoy did tonight. This is a game of inches, and unfortunately we were on the wrong side of it tonight.”

Patterns of attacking play were a problem of comparable or even greater magnitude, with the US completing passes at a decidedly pedestrian 79.8% and failing to threaten Luis Mejia’s goal, with Los Canaleros' frontline consistently disrupting their buildout.

Zimmerman and coach Gregg Berhalter explained what the plan was, and some of the ways in which it broke down.

“Part of what we wanted to do was getting the ball and driving into that space [along the channels] and try and commit the [opposing] winger to either go to the outside back – in that case, I can find the pocket there with the [No.] 8 – or if he sticks on the 8 then I can bypass to the fullback, we can try and start a wing progression,” said Zimmerman. “There were a few times where he stayed narrow, and I was able to bypass to Shaq [Moore] and we tried to go down the line. And then fewer times did the middle open up, wasn't really able to find the middle. And in that case, we were trying to find a weak-side winger for a diagonal.

“It just felt like one of those days where we couldn't really get into rhythm of breaking them down consistently. And that's something that we need to take more pride in, and whether that's our movements off the ball, whether that's our composure on the ball, we need to have the confidence to play. And it's something that we were not at our best tonight.”

In this international window the Nashville SC standout has gone from late roster addition to USMNT captain in Panama City, and could quite possibly find himself starting a third straight qualifier as the scene shifts to Columbus, Ohio for Wednesday’s meeting with Costa Rica (7 pm ET | ESPN2, UniMas, TUDN, ESPN+).

Los Ticos pulled off a much-needed 2-1 comeback win over El Salvador in San Jose, their first victory of the Ocho, and will surely have taken note of what worked so well for Panama against the States. With goals hard to come by – Costa Rica have scored just three times in their first four games, albeit while conceding just three as well – the incisive set-piece service of striker Joel Campbell and others has been key for their chance creation. But Campbell (ankle sprain), as well as striker José Guillermo Ortiz (COVID-19 positive test), won’t travel to the Columbus Crew’s home.

Add in the lingering memory of their 2-0 upset win in their visit to the US in the 2018 Hexagonal, a disastrously costly result for the Yanks, and it all sets up for a nervy, intense night at Field.

“It's massive, it's a really big game. We all have to be up for it. There's no other option,” said Zimmerman. “You look at your home games, those are the games that you have to win. And they become increasingly more important when you don't get a result on the road.

“So for us, it's about making sure everyone [has a] short-term memory, we move on, we digest this quickly. And we make sure that we get three points at home against Costa Rica. And that'll be a six-point window and puts us in a spot where we're ready to move forward into the next one.”