Squaring off against the last edition of the U-20’s toughest foe in CONCACAF qualifying, you would think that being up a man for nearly 80 minutes would be more than enough for an assured victory. You’d be quite wrong.
The first half was chippy and sorely lacking in quality. The United States enjoyed a narrow majority of possession through the first 20 minutes, but couldn’t turn any shot on goal. Possession proved especially difficult to maintain for both midfields, with the two sides both making poor passes and giving away fouls. The midfield trio of Erik Palmer-Brown, Tyler Adams, and Luca De La Torre competently pressed the Panamanian defense and won the ball in midfield, but very rarely found outlet passes to Sebastian Saucedo or Brooks Lennon on the wings, and Jeremy Ebobisse remained isolated up top, bereft of the ball for the vast majority of the half.
In the 18th minute, Panama’s Justin Simons was issued a straight red card for a nasty challenge on New York Red Bulls youngster Tyler Adams. After continuing to play but looking a bit hampered, Adams was subbed off in favor of forward Emmanuel Sabbi.
Tab Ramos clearly wished to close the distance between Ebobisse and the rest of the U.S. with Sabbi’s introduction, but despite adding a forward and being a man up, Panama took the lead in the 37th minute. Midfielder Leandro Avila collected a lofted ball in the corner of the box, turned on U.S. right back Marlon Fossey, and took a shot that deflected off of Fossey’s outstretched leg to nestle perfectly over Keeper Jonathan Klinsmann and into the far post top corner. It was a moment of luck and beauty in an otherwise ugly half devoid of cohesion from either side.
The second half featured more of the same for the United States. After Jeremy Ebobisse crashed an open header off the crossbar in the 48th minute, the U20s saw precious little success going forward. Panama preferred sitting back and then allowing forward Ronaldo Cordoba to poke and prod at the U.S. back line. Eryk Williamson and Coy Craft were introduced in place of Tommy Redding and Luca De La Torre, respectively, to inject more potency into the U.S. offense, but even still the U.S. simply failed to break the Panamanian lines and generate any dangerous chances of their own.
The cracks in Panama’s defense finally began to show around the 80th minute. Justen Glad, of all people, flashed a low, 20 yard shot towards the near post that Panama Keeper Charles Taylor only managed to parry away for a corner. Justen Glad and Coy Craft nearly combined to put Glad in on goal again a few minutes later, and a goalmouth scramble resulted in another corner. After another few minutes, Brooks Lennon narrowly missed chipping the ball to Craft in the box. An 87th minute run by Marlon Fossey found Saucedo at the back post, whose first-time ball back into the middle found an open Ebobisse, but his finish was weak and Taylor managed to scramble back to react well to it. Chance after chance poured into the Panama box, but the U.S. was simply unable to finish. After some back and forth and injury hijinx in the dying minutes, Panama held on for the victory, 1-0.
There’s no real way to sugarcoat this: this was one of the worst performances I’ve ever seen at any level from the U.S. Ebobisse’s big chances went begging, but a lack of ingenuity and inability to simply connect passes doomed the U-20s. Sebastian Saucedo, Brooks Lennon, and Luca De La Torre are just as culpable as Ebobisse, as ultimately the U.S. failed to generate chances they should have been able to create up a man for 77 minutes. Only the introduction of Coy Craft and Justen Glad’s marauding runs up the left side managed to spark consistent chances, and it might have simply been because they had too many bodies in attack to not create something. Now they’ll need to win their remaining 2 games in the group and hope Panama drop points against either Haiti or St. Kitts and Nevis in order to finish top of the group and avoid a likley matchup with Costa Rica and Mexico in the final round of qualifying. There’s still plenty of chances for the U-20s to qualify for the World Cup, but Tab Ramos will need to get his side firing on all cylinders quickly if they want to avoid an extremely difficult final round. The U-20s are back in action on Tuesday against Haiti.