Nothing worked, and as the Americans departed this steamy capital early Monday saddled with a defeat that looked worse than the 1-0 score line, they faced growing questions and pressure ahead of Wednesday’s clash with Costa Rica in Columbus, Ohio.
The good news for the U.S. team is, despite the setback, it sits second in the Concacaf table, even with Panama but ahead on goal differential. As expected, Mexico leads the eight-team pack that will send three representatives to Qatar late next year and a fourth to a playoff.
To this point, however, the United States (2-1-2) has enjoyed just two exceptional halves: the second in Honduras on Sept. 8, when it scored four goals to overcome a 1-0 deficit, and the mesmerizing second in the 2-0 victory over Jamaica on Thursday in Austin. The rest have ranged from poor to promising.
There have been no first-half goals — and, predating the qualifiers, the Americans have now gone eight consecutive matches without scoring before intermission. On Sunday, they were no threat in either half and were blanked for the second time in qualifying.
“We were really poor with our passing,” Berhalter said. The same could be said with set pieces, an aspect that Panama mastered, including a corner kick that led to its goal early in the second half.
“A lot of it was confidence to play with the ball,” defender Walker Zimmerman said. “It felt sometimes we would get the ball and immediately turn it over, whether it was trying to go forward or force a pass. Ultimately, that led to them having decent runs of possession and a lot of transition moments, where we have to scramble back.”
It was more than “sometimes.” The Americans were constantly relinquishing the ball and retreating to defend Panamanian forays. There was also an absence of intensity and passion; Panama was much more sure of itself.
The problem was in midfield, where, Berhalter admitted, “we didn’t have control.”
His lineup decisions had a lot to do with it, a pronounced drop-off from the performances submitted by Tyler Adams, Yunus Musah and Weston McKennie against Jamaica.
Kellyn Acosta struggled in all areas Sunday. Musah, 18, failed to find the rhythm that propelled the team in the second half against Jamaica. And veteran Sebastian Lletget did not add anything. There was no chemistry.
Adams, the team’s axis, was held out of the lineup — like many other first-choice players — because of workload and fitness during a stretch of three matches in seven days, Berhalter said. Without him, though, the Americans were lost. (He entered at the start of the second half, providing greater structure but no attacking upgrade.)
McKennie did not make the trip because of concerns about a quadriceps injury suffered late against Jamaica. His availability Wednesday remains unclear.
Like Adams, Musah played only a half and should be ready to log major minutes against Costa Rica.
Without a midfield engine, the front line did not have adequate support. The individual performances, though, were lacking as well. Starting for the second straight match, winger Paul Arriola worked hard but offered no technical skill. Winger Tim Weah was quiet, and striker Gyasi Zardes was a downgrade from Ricardo Pepi, the 18-year-old sensation.
Berhalter’s plan was clear: Preserve Pepi and winger Brenden Aaronson for Wednesday and use them as needed in the second half in Panama. They were needed, but against an opponent in high gear, their contributions were limited.
Berhalter did not get anything from his outside backs, Shaq Moore and George Bello. Overlapping runs are critical weapons in the U.S. attack, but neither could match what Sergiño Dest and Antonee Robinson provided against Jamaica. (Although, in fairness, Panama is much better than Jamaica, and this was an away match.)
Dest did not play, and Robinson remained in the United States to avoid quarantine when he returns to England late this week. Both are expected to start against Costa Rica.
While Berhalter’s lineup rotation was understandable, there were questions about the number of changes and choice of players. Four young Europe-based players ripe for action remained rooted to the bench all night: forward Matthew Hoppe, midfielders Gianluca Busio and Luca de la Torre and defender Chris Richards.
Instead, Berhalter turned to experienced MLS players: Zardes, Arriola, Acosta, Lletget and Zimmerman.
Over the past two years, given the number of U.S. players competing in major leagues overseas, Berhalter has been handed a deep and talented player pool — one that should be good enough in this three-game window to withstand injury absences to star attackers Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna and other regulars.
It’s on the coach, though, to choose the proper players and ensure the group — a young, unrefined unit — is properly positioned to earn points under any circumstances. On Sunday, he failed.
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