Exactly four years after the USMNT suffered its most humiliating defeat maybe ever, the team marked the anniversary by making more painful history. The U.S. traveled to Panama for a qualifier on Sunday and got rolled, losing 1–0 in the first-ever qualification defeat to Los Canaleros. That grim scoreline was absolutely deserved, as the USMNT was inarguably the worse team and never once came close to approaching the idea of maybe considering the concept of hinting at the notion of perhaps attacking the goal.
All the good vibes and positive momentum from the team’s comfortable 2–0 win over Jamaica evaporated before kickoff, when Gregg Berhalter’s highly rotated, MLS-veteran-heavy starting XI was announced. That depressing lineup crafted the worst statistical performance of the Berhalter era: five shots, zero on target, and 0.22 xG. I have no idea how the U.S. inched its way up to a quarter of an expected goal, since they appeared to spend their time with the ball ineffectually dicking around in their own third as Kellyn Acosta pretended he was a statue. Here’s a telling highlight of how the night went:
Yet despite the disastrous performance, the USMNT is still second in the CONCACAF qualification table, with a home game later this week and a theoretically fresh, rested squad to throw at Costa Rica. The USMNT is still comfortably on track to qualify for the World Cup. The Panama loss was embarrassing and the empty trip hurts, but it’s worth putting the game in perspective and considering it on its own terms. Getting owned by the Panamanians doesn’t mean the U.S. project is failing or that the rest of CONCACAF is improving faster than the USMNT or that Berhalter has lost his team. It simply means that a USMNT made up of under-skilled and overused MLS veterans is not good enough to win a tough one on the road, or, really, take any meaningful steps towards doing so.
Berhalter has been open throughout this window that the two home games are the ones that matter. “The trap is going to be us thinking we’re great,” Berhalter said after last week’s win. “And us thinking we’ve qualified for the World Cup. And if we do that, we’ll get our ass kicked in Panama on Sunday.” After the Panama loss, he took responsibility for the loss, pointing out that he needed to rotate the squad before the Costa Rica game. “We had to make a somewhat risky decision,” he said.
As for that decision: Only three field players started both games, while seven new starters rotated in. The result was one of the worst starting lineups you could possibly construct from this roster. The frontline of Gyasi Zardes, Paul Arriola, and Tim Weah could neither counterpress to get the ball back nor link up at all with the midfield; the stellar fullback play of Antonee Robinson and Sergiño Dest gave way to lost 1-v-1s and reflexive back-passing from Shaq Moore and George Bello; and the team’s supposed anchor Kellyn Acosta put forth one of the worst displays I can remember from any U.S. player in a competitive game in years. They simply did nothing. Pressing to win the ball back? The U.S. started one possession in the attacking third. An emphasis on direct play? Zardes spent most of his time in the U.S.’s half, and when he did get near a goal, it was his own.
If there is a meaningful takeaway from the rotten performance, it is that the supposed “stability” offered to the team by its appreciably worse MLS veteran corps is a mirage. I understand the theoretical pitfalls of playing, say, Matthew Hoppe over, say, two older guys that Hoppe spent the Gold Cup outplaying, but also, if those older guys can’t do anything besides lose the ball and fall down, it seems like Hoppe or Luca de la Torre or Gianluca Busio are risks worth taking. If Sebastian Lletget isn’t up for moving forward with the ball from this extremely open position, maybe Berhalter should reconsider whether he’s really all that reliable. If Chris Richards is playing like one of the best center backs in the Bundesliga, maybe he should, you know, see the field. If this is what experience buys us, maybe it’s not worth all that much.
It is still not time to panic. If Christian Pulisic and other core members of the USMNT blew it yesterday, we’d have to consider the overall arc of the team a bit more seriously. Qualification is a long process, as this young team is learning. One bad game won’t sink them, yet.