Matt Turner could not produce a miracle save to stop Panama from scoring. (Chuck Burton-USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
A rather lackluster effort by the U.S. men’s national team dearly Sunday night as the Americans dropped their first World Cup qualifier ever to Panama.
The Central Americans walked out of Estadio Rommel Fernandez with a 1-0 victory and three points in the fourth game of the Octagonal for both teams, in Panama City, Panama. It also was the USA’s first loss of Qatar 2022 qualifying.
Not even five second-half substitutions could shake the USA (2-1-2, 8 points), from its slumber as demonstrated very little urgency. Panama (8) raised its record to 2-1-2.
The USMNT, which dropped to second place, was unbeaten in eight qualifying matches (6-0-2) vs. the Panamanians entering the match.
The Americans took only five shots, the fewest by a USA side in its last 28 qualifiers.
“It was clear we didn’t have our best stuff,” USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter said. “We have a number of guys who performed below expectations.
“We didn’t have control of the field, and that’s what hurt us.”
Center back Walter Zimmerman, who wore the U.S. captain’s armband, attributed the problems and disjointed and lackluster play to confidence, or in this case, the lack of it.
“I think a lot of it was confidence to play with the ball, keep possession, try and slow the game down at times, and just better game management,” he said. “It felt like sometimes we’d get the ball we’d turn it over, whether that was trying to go forward or trying to force a pass, and ultimately, that led to them having decent runs of possession, and a lot of transition moments where we had to kind of scramble back and try and get our shape to defend.”
The USA never could find itself and establish any sort of momentum.
“It just felt like one of those days where we couldn’t really get into a rhythm of breaking them down consistently,” Walker said. “That’s something that we need to take more pride in, 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 that’s something that we were not at our best tonight.”
Rotating the lineup to give several players a rest, Berhalter used only four starters from Thursday’s 2-0 home win over Jamaica – goalkeeper Matt Turner, center back Walker Zimmerman, who skippered the team, Paul Arriola and Yunus Musah.
For the opening 10 minutes, the USA enjoyed the advantage and had the first scoring opportunity four minutes after kickoff. Zimmerman headed a Kellyn Acosta on target that goalkeeper Luis Meija barely tipped over the net for another corner kick.
For the final 40 minutes, Panama took control. While it did not put a shot on target, Los Canaleros enjoyed a huge possession advantage (58-42) and sent several crosses into the penalty area, especially from the right side.
Goalkeeper Matt Turner, for the most part, was up to the task.
In the 45th minute, he slapped away a shot by Yoel Bárcenas from outside the box for a corner kick.
By halftime, Berhalter had seen enough and brought on attack-minded Brenden Aaronson and defensive midfielder Tyler Adams for Arriola and Musah, respectively.
They helped a bit – to a point.
Panama finally broke through in the 54th minute as Gyasi Zardes headed a header by Anibal Godoy off Eric Davis’ corner kick past Turner for a precious one-goal lead. Godoy was given credit for the goal.
“They tried to overload the six-yard box, put more numbers and closer to our goal, and tried to whip in a ball right on top of our goalie in the near zone,” Zimmerman said. “It’s a zone that we should be able to take care of, and it’s something that we have to take pride in, and how we defend set pieces. That should be a strength of this team, with our size, with our mentality.”
With the USA desperately needing a big push on the attack, Berhalter made a triple substitution in the 68th minute, putting on Ricardo Pepi, Cristian Roldan and DeAndre Yedlin for Zardes, Shaq Moore and Tim Weah.
No real energy was added to the team and the USA played with little urgency, especially during crunch time.
Asked why the USMNT lacked energy, Berhalter replied, “It’s sports, it’s humans. There’s no one explanation for it. We didn’t have that pop, We didn’t have the legs that we needed. We suffered for it.”
The USA host Costa Rica in the third and final game of the October window in Columbus, Ohio.
“Now it’s about rebounding, focusing on the game on Wednesday in Columbus, and having a positive game there and getting three points,” Berhalter said.