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United States v. Panama, Gold Cup: What we Learned

Gregg Berhalter put out an entirely rotated starting lineup against Panama and left the game with a 1 -0 victory and the top spot in Group D. It was a slow game, but here’s some thoughts from the match.

Panama v United States: Group D - 2019 CONCACAF Gold Cup Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Hey, so that’s the Gold Cup Group stage. The US, who came into this tournament on the back of two bad and very bad displays against Jamaica and Venezuela, respectively, went out and dispatched their first two (far weaker) opponents to set up a show down for the illustrious prize of top of Group D. That illusive distinction carried with it the enviable reward of avoiding a match against Group C heavyweights, Jamaica, playing the tournament darlings, Curaçao, instead. (I am astonished that that sentence is 100% accurate in context.) But to do so, the US had to handle a Panama team in transition. Berhalter trotted out a 100% rotated starting eleven that took down the Panamanians 1-0 in a languid match in Kansas City to top the group. Here’s what we learned.

The Format

Assuming that the US can handle Curaçao (lol), the USMNT will play against the winner of Jamaica and Panama. And then, on to the final. In contrast, Mexico has to play against Costa Rica in the quarter final (ouch), the winner of Canada and Haiti (so... Canada) in the semifinal (also, ouch), all before finally playing the US in the final. The US has a clear path to the final, while Mexico (clearly the best team in the region) have a seriously difficult task ahead. Which is good for the US! But it shows just how poorly structured the tournament is. The CONCACAF Gold Cup is a seeded tournament, with the organizers specifically setting the tournament up so that Mexico and the United States are set to play each other in the final. But the way they organized this specific tournament meant that the US wouldn’t face any serious tests until, at best, Jamaica in the semifinal.

This fundamentally applied to the group stage, too. Look, I get that there aren’t all that many good teams in CONCACAF. In that sense, it’s a small federation, full of small island nations striving to punch above their weight. And seeing these teams battle and beat nations like how Haiti topped Costa Rica and Curaçao upset Honduras. But the way that the tournament was set up made it so that there were too many dead-rubber games. Topping the group doesn’t really matter very much for the best teams since both teams advance and they face the possibility of playing each other again in the final. There was nothing for the US or Panama to play for in their game, nor for Haiti or Costa Rica. Nor was there anything at stake in Trinidad and Tobago v. Guyana or Bermuda v. Nicaragua. You can functionally add Mexico v. Martinique to that list, too. That’s just terrible tournament scheduling. That’s way too many games without stakes and it could have easily been addressed with better scheduling and more balanced groups.

Playing for a Job

If you were on the field for the US to start against Panama, well, I hate to inform you that your job is at risk.* Gregg Berhalter took his entire lineup from the past two games off the starting eleven and rotated the whole team. This rested important players like Pulisic and McKennie and Boyd, keeping them away from injury and bad yellow cards, and gave depth a chance to show what they can do. Unfortunately, that depth didn’t really stand out all that well. The USMNT may have controlled that game, but the team lacked the kind of fluency that the team needs, particularly in attack. There simply was a major drop off in terms of incisiveness in attack from the starters. Some players had better displays than others (Reggie Cannon looks promising, Trapp and Mihailovic, maybe not so much.)

In particular, the attackers looked weak. That’s been consistently a problem, with the US struggling to really get chances created out on the field without Pulisic and/or Boyd out wide. Berhalter’s system leans very, very hard on the wingers to create goal scoring chances, but the likes of Lewis and Morris were not nearly as incisive as they need to be.

All of that is a big deal with the number of players waiting on the wings to break in. Tim Weah and Miles Robinson are waiting to snatch up a spot. Berhalter has already signaled to Jackson Yueill that he might have a future with the national team. And all those players on the field out there are at risk of getting bumped by a youngster or newly discovered dual national.

*Unless you are Jozy Altidore. Altidore went out there, hopped on his bike, and did wheelies over the rest of that lineup.

The USMNT will be back for a knockout round match against Curaçao on June 30th. The US Women’s National Team will take on France in the World Cup’s biggest match tomorrow.