USMNT in do-or-die situation after falling to Panama, 2-1

Photo courtesy of LAPRESSE

After a comfortable 2-0 win over Bolivia in the opener of the Copa América tournament, the United States Men’s National Team drew Panama in their second match of the group stage on Tuesday, June 27. Although the United States was able to shut out Bolivia, they needed to convert on their goal-scoring opportunities against a Panama side that beat the United States in penalties during their last matchup. Interestingly, manager Gregg Berhalter kept the same starting XI in both the Bolivia and Panama matches in a show of decisiveness and a belief in this group’s potential. 

Sadly, the first 20 minutes of the game were not a great display of this potential. Midfielder Weston McKennie scored a goal in the seventh minute, but it was called back upon Video Assistant Referee (VAR) consultation. Goalie Matt Turner, who is a proficient shot stopper, went for the ball on a long cross and wound up hurt after Panama midfielder Cesar Blackman crashed into him. Turner’s leg injury forced manager Berhalter to eventually replace him with Ethan Horvath. He stayed in the game, but it was obvious that he was rattled by the hit. To make matters worse, winger Tim Weah lost his cool and struck Panama player Roderick Miller in the head at the 18 minute mark. He received a red card for his actions, getting thrown out of an incredibly pivotal game for the team. 

Fortunately, left-back Antonee Robinson found striker Folarin Balogun and delivered a perfect ball off the inside of the post to give the U.S. a 1-0 lead in the 22nd minute. Still, it was going to be a challenge to hold that lead. The combination of Turner’s injury and Weah’s absence —forcing the United States to play 10 vs. 11 — allowed Panama to make the score 1-1 after Blackman got past Turner for their first goal of the game. Turner nearly made a save, but the ball inched past his right hand.

The game turned scrappy shortly after the equalizing shot. United States captain Christian Pulisic, the team’s star midfielder, broke into Panama’s box and promptly got hit on what looked like a foul. The referees held their whistle, but had to issue a yellow card after full-back Joe Scally got shoulder-checked by Panamanian forward Eduardo Gurrero. After a Balogun attempt bounced off the crossbar, both teams went into halftime. Horvath replaced Turner and Berhalter switched things up for the United States by going to a more defensively-oriented 5-3-1 formation. Prioritizing defense with a 1-1 score indicates Berhalter was largely playing for the draw. 

In the second half, the United States instantly gave their fans a scare after Horvath made a narrow save in the 51st minute. Pulisic sent a nice pass towards Balogun, but he was not able to capitalize on it. Balogun’s contributions to the United States’ attacks were vital, but Berhalter made the decision to sub him out for defender Ricardo Pepi in the 72nd minute. It was a confusing call to make because of Balogun’s offensive importance, and it would have increased the chances of another United States goal if Balogun remained in the lineup. The decision loomed especially large in the final 20 minutes of the game. The United States’ best chance for a late lead came when McKennie sent a cross towards Pepi that he could not head in. Now desperately needing a defensive stop, the United States’ efforts went unnoticed as Panama took advantage of an opportunity to put the nail in the coffin. Midfielder Abdiel Ayarza sent a pass straight to the foot of forward Jose Fajardo, who launched it into the back of the net for a 2-1 Panama lead. 

In a stroke of luck for the United States, Panama’s manpower advantage vanished after midfielder Adalberto Carrasquilla was sent off after fouling on a tackle attempt. This gave Pulisic an opening to find defender Chris Richards for a game-winning header, but Richards’ header flew over the goal and sealed the 2-1 loss.    

The United States lost this game due to time of possession, Panama’s aggression and passivity in their own attack. Panama had the ball for almost 74% of the match and had 13 shots on goal to the United States’ six. Those are difficult factors to work against, especially considering Panama’s 18 fouls often came in critical moments. Already on the hot seat for his previous performances as manager, this was not a great showing from Berhalter. It should be noted that he had fairly difficult circumstances to work with, seeing as how he played with a man down for practically the entire game. Still, the substitution of Balogun for Pepi drew ire from fans, as well as switching to a formation primarily designed for a draw instead of a win. Not bringing in midfielder Yunus Musah, whose pace, possession and defense would have been helpful in the game, is a decision with ramifications that loomed large in the clutch. He and the rest of the team will need to be better in a monumental matchup vs. Uruguay. Uruguay is the odds-on favorite to advance out of Group C, which includes the United States, Bolivia and Panama. They have earned that designation by demolishing Bolivia, 5-0, in their matchup immediately following the United States– Panama match. 

Uruguay is a challenging matchup because they have a deep, talented roster who will force the United States to play far above the standard they have shown thus far. Defenders like José Giménez and Ronald Araujo will threaten the United States’ offensive attack while being supplemented by star midfielder Federico Valverde. They have plenty of offensive firepower of their own with talents like right winger Facundo Pellistri, legendary striker Luis Suarez and forward Darwin Nuñez. It is a do-or-die matchup for the United States—they cannot afford any managerial gaffes or breaks in composure if they are going to make it out of this group stage on their own merits. If they lose against Uruguay, their Copa América hopes rely on Bolivia upsetting Panama and point tiebreakers. 

Fans will find out whether the United States can pull off the upset on Monday, July 1.