It was something between a friendly and an official, oh-so-important Gold Cup group stage game, and the US men's national team's 1-0 win against Panama on Wednesday night in Kansas City felt exactly like that. Not quite a friendly, not quite a do-or-die official competition.
I fully and completely understand why both coaches treated the game that way. For Gregg Berhalter's part:
- Resting the starters is good
- Keeping starters in danger of yellow card accumulation away from a second yellow is good
- Giving literally all of his depth a run out so they're in some sort of rhythm and up to the speed of tournament play ahead of the knockout rounds is good
I wouldn't have done the full-on, 11-man rotation that he did. But I get it. It's a defensible position, and a defensible approach to Gold Cup play (I would hope for more judicious rotation if in a Copa America or at the World Cup itself).
Beyond that, a lot of these guys needed a personal win. These starters composed most of the starting lineup in the pre-Gold Cup friendlies against Jamaica and Venezuela, in which the US got drilled. There was prolonged, deep and justifiable doubt about whether they – the individuals themselves – were up to international quality.
For many (not all) that doubt remains. The US starters against Panama(*) gave a better accounting of themselves than they managed at the beginning of the month, but none of them showed they are "the answer," or even "a better answer than what we saw the first two games of the Gold Cup."
(*) Jozy Altidore, who is a starter when healthy, is the exception to this top-down, 1000-foot view.
I'm counting this as progress. It wasn't just that they won, it was that they gave a good, physical accounting of themselves. There were savvy fouls and a few fun encounters off the ball. It wasn't a full-on Concacaf bloodbath, but at times it got close. And when it did, the US handled themselves (and Panama) well enough.
A few scattered thoughts from the game:
• I was surprised to hear the FS1 crew talk about the forward battle between Altidore and Gyasi Zardes. I know Zardes has done well, but Berhalter has been explicit that when Jozy's healthy, Jozy's the starter. He got a good run out in this one, will probably come off the bench in the quarters, and should be good to go 90 in the semis and hopefully the final (if the US make it that far).
Here, have a bike:
He's a starter.
• The other guy who I thought had a chance to win a starting job was left back Daniel Lovitz. Panama didn't go directly at Lovitz the way some teams have gone right at Ream, which probably owes to Lovitz's greater mobility and defensive instincts. But Lovitz really, really struggled to turn good positions when the US were in possession into meaningful ball movement and penetration.
I think Ream still starts.
• The difference in mobility between the first-choice CB pairing of Walker Zimmerman and Aaron Long compared to Matt Miazga and especially Omar Gonzalez was stark. Berhalter has talked about how having CBs who can win 1v1 match-ups in isolation is crucial for a team that sometimes wants to press and always wants to push numbers forward, and while neither Miazga nor Gonzalez got roasted, there were some iffy moments (especially in the first half).
• The whole end point of Berhalter's system is to create a 3-2-2-3 set-up in the attacking third. Throughout the first few games of his tenure he did this by using The System™ in which the right back would come in and operate as a hybrid DM next to the true No. 6, while the other two CMs would operate as No. 10s.
Throughout the Gold Cup (and especially apparent in this game), the US has scrapped that particular rotation. Instead, right back Reggie Cannon played endline-to-endline – in effect becoming the right winger – while Cristian Roldan pulled a little deeper next to Wil Trapp:
This is a pretty standard pattern of play for the #USMNT in 2019, and it's good to have something to go back to. But you can see Panama's defenders queuing up to cut out the pullback. pic.twitter.com/UwoFXLPfsK— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) June 27, 2019
Cannon was among the best of the new faces, and his verticality was a real weapon. But in that spot he has to be vicious and drive the ball toward the six-yard box, forcing the Panamanian defense to make a decision rather than just hold their spots and pick off the pass.
• I was surprised to see Wil Trapp dropping deep and splitting the CBs at times. The US actually haven't done much of that to speak of so far under Berhalter, but that was part of how the US got to the 3-2-2-3 in this one. As Trapp dropped deeper, so did Cristian Roldan and Djordje Mihailovic in front of him, while the wingers tended to come up and inside into the playmaker roles.
It's a new wrinkle that brought the US to a familiar end point. Three games, three wins, and now onto the quarterfinals.