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USA vs. Panama, 2022 World Cup Qualifying; What we learned

The USMNT ended in heartbreak, with a dispiriting performance on the way to a 1-0 loss. Here’s what we learned from it.

Panama v United States - Concacaf 2022 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers Photo by Eliecer Aizprúa Banfield/Getty Images

Well, that’s two hours of my life I’m not getting back.

The United States came out and played absolutely listless soccer on the way to a 1-0 loss away to Panama. It was a shockingly poor display. Excluding Walker Zimmerman, Matt Turner, and maybe Mark McKenzie, everyone who started had a bad game. The team came out and just couldn’t do basic things right. It was baffling.

On the other hand, if you are a Panama fan, you are probably ecstatic. They managed to completely disrupt the American midfield shape and press, grabbing a lead off a corner early in the second half. Indeed, Panama should be pretty happy with how they’ve done so far in the Ocho overall. In their initial 5 games, they’ve picked up 4 points vs. the US and Mexico to reach third place, one of the automatic qualifying spots.

Of course, we don’t cover Panama here at Stars & Stripes FC. We focus on the US and that means I have to talk about how they did. So let’s get right to it and talk about how they did.

Dwindling Sense of Control

Here’s the big, elaborate explanation for why the US were so poor:

The midfield was bad.

That’s it. That’s all I got for you. The midfield was bad. They didn't do much of anything right, and as a result, the team was bad. To be clear, the midfield was not the only thing that went poorly. As I said earlier, almost everybody played poorly. But it’s hard to blame the attacking players when their teammates can never find them the ball. I’m being very serious when I say that the midfield was fundamentally broken. I mean, just look at the passing network.

Average passing network for Panama (top) and the United States (bottom). From

When we look at Panama’s network, we can see they’ve got a coherent team shape. The players are spaced out so that they have the room to pass to each other. You can see that space being used with fairly solid lines going up the field. It’s a little distorted to the right, but you can see that there are players forming defensive, midfield, and attacking lines. In contrast, with the United States, you have a defensive line, and then a blob. All the players in midfield and the attack collapsed into the same general area, with very few lines in between themselves.

Now part of this is just because the US made substitutions at half time and because they changed their shape. But the team still shouldn't look this distorted. The visual dysfunction is a function of dysfunctional play. The players in the midfield, particularly in the first half, were just bad. There’s no getting around that. Kellyn Acosta, Sebastian Lletget, and Yunus Musah were just bad. Because the midfield didn’t function, the attack never got the ball. As a result, we saw the worst attacking output the US has seen under Berhalter.

What were those three bad at, exactly?
Basically everything.

They didn’t contest duels or second-balls. They didn’t contest space. They didn’t do anything to really make Panama’s players uncomfortable. The passing sucked. You can see from that map, the midfield was mostly playing the ball backwards towards the defense. Acosta’s distribution in particular was shockingly slow. He kept doing this weird thing where, as he received the ball, he would let it pop up in front of him before actually controlling it and playing it on. That gave time for Panama’s attackers to close him down ... which they did, at times taking the ball from him entirely. Acosta was also evidently the designated set-piece kicker, a role he dutifully executed with mind-melting levels of mediocrity.

Then there’s the question of spacing. If you played soccer as a kid, you probably heard a million times that you are supposed to make little passing triangles, that you are supposed to move so that a passer has two open options to pass to at any one time. Yeah, the USMNT didn’t do that. Acosta was pretty lackadaisical with his positioning, basically just cemented into the middle of the field, even when the center backs needed someone to pass to. Just two(!!) Panamanian players were able to shut down the US’s progressive passing. And the problem continued higher up the field, as well.

This is just shockingly bad play from what should be experienced players who know how to handle these sorts of situations. That isn’t to say that Musah somehow played well; he didn’t. When he had the ball, he seemed to mostly wander with it and he lost it in some dangerous places. But you can at least chalk up his shortcomings to youthful naivety. He is just 18 and this is just his second competitive international. But even then, he still outplayed his more senior midfield partners.

At half time, Berhalter made some adjustments. According to what he said during his press conference, the changes for Aaronson for Paul Arriola was preplanned in order to manage both players minutes. It sounds like it was the same for Tyler Adams for Musah. In the process, the team shifted into a 4-4-2, with the Berhalter’s objective apparently shifting to recognize just how poorly the team was performing and now going to play defensively to just try and grind out a draw. Lletget and Acosta remained on the field for the full 90, though Lletget shifted to the side somewhat. While Adams was an improvement over Musah, Lletget and Acosta really didn’t get better. Worse, the defensive stance in midfield left the US listless when they suddenly had to chase the game.

Looking at how the team played, I don’t know how you would have fixed it. The players who were supposed to perform, — players who have performed in the past — just didn’t. You can go and say that we should have put on Pepi earlier or bring on Hoppe, but really, does that fix things if they don’t ever get the ball? Do you bring on de la Torre? I mean, maybe he fixes things. But I think his skill set is pretty similar to Musah’s, and Musah didn’t do much at all. This isn’t to say that other players shouldn’t have been brought on. When players play that poorly, you need to take them off. Rather, I’m saying that, when I look at the options on the bench, I don’t really see a fix.

No, I think what the team needed was to field players they didn't have. More specifically, I think we really, really missed Weston McKennie here. McKennie stayed in the States due to a knock he picked up during the Jamaica game and was not available. But I feel like his physicality and his forward drive was exactly what was missing on the night.

Clipped Wings

As mentioned above, while almost the entire team sucked, I think the bulk of the problem was in midfield and I don’t really intend to talk about the rest of the players much. I do, however, want to go over the deficiencies of both the starting fullbacks independently, because they also stood out for their poor play.

George Bello is a target. Panama identified Bello as a weak link and it served them well. And Bello is, indeed, a weak link. Defensively, you can see he makes basic mistakes. There was one point in the first half where I was basically screaming at my screen because Bello’s defensive posture actually encouraged an attacker, who was already in the final third, to move towards goal instead of away from it (I think McKenzie had to step in and prevent the shot). But it’s not just a defensive problem. Against Panama, Bello didn’t do anything to contribute to the attack. You can see from the pass network, he was sitting really deep and almost exclusively passing to McKenzie and Turner. I get why Bello was brought. At this point, we aren’t comfortable with Dest on the left and A. Robinson was forced to miss this match due to English COVID Protocols. In that circumstance, you need to call in somebody and Bello is at least a left back who has played there for the national team. But at this point, it’s clear he’s a liability who doesn’t offer any real upside. Based on this one performance, I am not going to call for anyone to be left out off the team. But this isn’t just one poor performance from Bello. For the most part, he’s never really looked the part for the national team. This is the one player who I think we should move on from after this game, at least for now.

Shaq Moore was also bad, but in a way I have a hard time explaining in words. Instead, here’s a few pictures I pulled from the above clip from Joseph Lowery.

So the clip starts with Zimmerman on the ball, shifting right, in a normal build up pattern. The normal expectation is that he passes to the right back. Except Moore is not there; Paul Arriola is. Where is Shaq Moore? He’s way high up the field, actively marked by two defenders, and sitting behind another defender such that he can’t receive a pass. In other words, he’s playing like a winger, and a bad winger at that.

Based on the performance, I don’t really understand why Moore started. DeAndre Yedlin was not good — he was way over aggressive in his defending and out of sync with the rest of the team — but he wasn't doing this. Moore had a good Gold Cup, but play like this is not going to work.

Which inevitably brings us to the question: Where was Joe Scally? I get the impulse to not bring Scally as cover at left back. While he’s been playing regularly for Borussia Monchengladbach, a mid table German team, most of his (short) career has been at right back. In a situation where you know the clear starter, A. Robinson, is probably not going to be available, it makes sense to bring in someone who has experience playing with the team at that position, i.e. Bello. I was fine with Moore over Scally going into this camp, but that was before Moore lost himself on the field. In retrospect, it’s hard to look at the performances we actually got and say that it wasn’t worth it to at least bring him. Why couldn’t one of those three (3 !!!) right back spots go to Scally, who happens to be proficient on both sides of the field?

Closing Thoughts

No sugarcoating it, this was a bad performance. But it was only one performance. While I think individual players need to be reevaluated, this one performance shouldn’t immediately lead to most players getting binned. You can’t really evaluate the quality of individual players when everyone sucked. Why did everyone suck? I don’t know. Maybe it was the field conditions, the weather, the travel. Maybe everyone ate some bad lasagna. Sometimes dud games happen. The important thing is that there are not more of them.

While this poor result is a setback, it’s not a big one. The mantra is win at home and draw on the road. Do that, and you are sure to qualify for the World Cup. Losing on the road stings, but it’s just one point off the pace for the World Cup. The US remains in second place in qualifying, well within a qualifying spot.

It does, however, make the home match v. Costa Rica more important. I’m a big believer in the difficulty of trying to qualify out of CONCACAF. The weather, the travel, the fans, the fields, these conditions (among others) makes playing in North America very, very tough. But the format is not one of those difficult elements. If you are a good team, slipping up in the Hex one time would not cost you a World Cup berth. The Ocho is only more forgiving. This isn’t like the African qualification process (CAF), where one bad game can completely screw you. However, you can’t keep making mistakes. This makes winning at home more important. The USMNT needs to respond well in the next match.

That’s it from me. Let me know what you thought of the game, what else stood out to you. The USMNT next plays Costa Rica in Columbus on Oct 13 (tomorrow). I will actually be attending the game as press, so if you are also in town before the match, message me on Twitter and maybe we can talk soccer. I’ll also be attending the press conference after the game, so if you’ve got a question during the match for Gregg Berhalter, tweet it @Adnan7631 and @StarsStripesFC. If I get some good questions, I might ask them after the match.