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USA v. Panama, 2022 World Cup Qualifier; What We Learned

The USMNT took a huge step to cement qualification for the World Cup with a big 5-1 win over Panama. Here’s some take-aways from the match.

Panama v United States: 2022 World Cup Qualifying Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images

This home match vs. Panama had the makings of a trap-game. The USMNT had short rest after a particularly high intensity match up in altitude in Mexico. And this home fixture vs. Los Canaleros simultaneously was the easy, winnable match of the window, and the closest thing to a must-win we’ve seen in this qualifying campaign. The MNT could have come in tired, with a disinterested attitude, and blown the match. After all, that’s pretty close to what happened 4 years ago against Trinidad and Tobago. But credit to this team, they didn’t blow this match. Instead, the USMNT took Panama to the sword and won 5-1. That win doesn’t technically put the US into the 2022 FIFA Mens World Cup, but, in practicality, it does (as we will discuss). With that said, let’s talk about what we learned.

Briefs: Tactics

I’m going to keep the tactics section a bit brief for this game in part because a lot of it is stuff we’ve seen before, and in part because when you are winning 3-0 within a half hour, the planned tactics kind of stop really mattering.

For me, the key shift in the match came somewhere around the 10th minute. There’s a lot of talk about how relatively little possession the US had v. Panama. But what I am interested in is when did the US have that possession?

Possession per 5 minute intervals, recovered from MLSsoccer.com

Based on this chart, the USMNT had the bulk of their possession for the game between the 5th and 15th minute. What that means is that, within that timeframe, and especially from the 10th to 15th minute, the USMNT were able to hold control of the ball and, when they lost the ball, they were able to completely smother Panama’s ability to complete passes. What happened after that? Well, the team got a penalty that they scored in the 17th minute. That penalty fundamentally changed the game and allowed the US, who had a slew of players tired after playing vs. Mexico, to sit deeper and press less aggressively than normal.

And that sets up the story of the match, as reflected in the stats. The US let Panama have the bulk of the ball (60.7%), but they denied Panama the ability to generate good chances. Panama, playing with their potential World Cup berth on the line and then trailing, were forced to play aggressively, high up the field. As a result, the US found space to drive into and attack and generated very high quality shots. While the US merely outshot Panama 15:10, the USMNT’s expected goal difference (xG) was almost 5 times higher than Panama’s (funny how that reflects the scoreline, huh?).

Next Man Up

Credit is due to Gregg Berhalter for how he has put together this iteration of the USMNT. The US now has a proper “Next Man Up” culture. If someone misses a game due to injury or suspension or even just fatigue, Berhalter can look at the next person on the depth chart and plug them in. It’s not necessarily going to be a 1:1 replacement; there’s a reason the starters start and there’s naturally at least some drop off in talent or fit. But the players

1) understand what they need to do in the pre-existing formation and tactical scheme

2) strive to take the opportunity to move up the depth chart without undercutting the overall team chemistry

For me, it’s the last part that I think is really important. Watch international soccer long enough and you’ll come across plenty of national teams that underachieve because of individual player egos and a squad atmosphere that becomes toxic. In contrast, Berhalter has successfully created a competitive environment where the players, largely very young players at that, seem to actually like each other. You need that kind of positive environment for a player like Luca de la Torre, a back up, to be so involved and proactive in defending his teammates. It’s because the group as a whole has that competitive attitude without taking it out on each other.

And what we’ve seen with right back this window is a perfect example of this. The roster initially had Sergiño Dest, Reggie Cannon, and DeAndre Yedlin who could play right fullback. Well, Dest suffered an injury with his club team, FC Barcelona, right before the window. And then Cannon tested positive for covid before the Mexico match. That left just DeAndre Yedlin to play on Thursday, which he did to a more-than adequate degree. But Yedlin picked up a yellow card in that match and, due to yellow card accumulation was suspended for this match v. Panama. So in flies Shaq Moore from Spain as the 4th man up. And you know what? He succeeds, putting in a good shift.

Credit is also due to Paul Arriola who, with a goal and an assist, would have been my Man of the Match had he stayed on and played through the second half. Arriola is not first choice as a winger with the USMNT. While winger does have two spots on the field, he’s got 4 players ahead of him, with all 4 players playing on European clubs in the Champions League. As a result, he doesn’t get on the field very often. However, in the minutes he has actually played, I think he’s been pretty overlooked for his contributions, including from me in these pieces. At home vs. Jamaica, Arriola really turned Jamaica inside out in the first half, even if the team didn’t get on the scoresheet because of it. And, with the team trailing vs. Canada, Arriola came on and provided a much–needed dose of urgency in the attack. Even in the dismal away fixture v. Panama, Arriola was one of the few attacking players who actually looked like they were trying to be effective. And, finally, at home against Panama, that effort, that discipline, that all came together to reward Arriola with his name on the scoresheet.

Add it ALL Up

Let’s talk for a second about the standings and what that means for the Costa Rica match. Here’s how things currently line up:

The USMNT sits in second, behind Canada and tied with Mexico. The first three spots automatically qualify, while 4th gets a playoff match against the winner of Oceania’s qualification campaign (one of New Zealand and the Solomon Islands, probably New Zealand). Costa Rica currently sits in 4th, three points off the United States. The rest of the teams are eliminated. Now, the US is guaranteed at least 4th. However, they do still play away against Costa Rica and there is technically a mathematical possibility of Costa Rica overtaking the US.

If Costa Rica wins on Wednesday, they will be tied on points with the US and it goes to the first tie breaker, goal difference (GD). The USMNT currently has a GD of +13, while Costa Rica has a GD of +3. Costa Rica needs to overcome that gap in order to overtake the United States (if the two teams are tied on points and GD, it goes to the second tie breaker, goals scored, which the US wins). This means that Costa Rica will need to win by at least 6 goals in order to overtake the US (remember, every goal Costa Rica scores will be a goal conceded by the US, so they count double).

That’s the kind of gulf that makes me feel comfortable that the US doesn’t have to worry. While the USMNT has never beaten Costa Rica in Costa Rica, a 6-0 drubbing would be a historically bad loss. For reference, a forfeit registers as a 3-0 loss. In other words, the team could just forfeit the match and that would be enough to automatically qualify for the World Cup. Costa Rica themselves have not won a single game by more than one goal through this qualifying campaign, scoring two goals only on three occasions (against El Salvador (twice) and Honduras).

Indeed, there’s a decent chance that the US could go and win this. Costa Rica’s been forced to go all out through this window in order to qualify and they aren’t as deep as the US. There’s a good chance that their two must-wins v. Canada and El Salvador drained their (aging) squad a great deal. On top of that, the reporting that I’m seeing is saying that Costa Rica has to worry about the possibility of picking up suspensions for the play off match vs. the Oceania winner through yellow card accumulations.

I have to imagine that, given how unlikely it is for Costa Rica to overcome that GD gap, they don’t take the risk of losing an important player for the play-off and rotate significantly. And winning vs. Costa Rica happens to create an off-chance for the US to place first in qualifying. If Canada (who have qualified) loses down in Panama (who are eliminated), then the US could overtake them with a win so long as they can close down that goal difference. Placing first in qualification doesn’t really mean anything aside from bragging rights, but it would still be a nice thing to see.

Closing Thoughts

This win officially knocked Panama out of World Cup qualifying. My sympathies go to Panama, who put up a really good run early on in qualifying but have fallen short over the course of the back half of the schedule. A second straight World Cup (just their second ever) would have been huge. That said, I did kinda call their regression back in October.

I am baffled at how Antonee Robinson NEVER. STOPS. GOING. The young Jedi put in a 90 minute performance away vs. Mexico, making gut-busting runs the whole time at 7,000 feet above sea level. And then he turned around 3 days later and went full throttle for another 90 minutes. While the team’s missed key players at almost every position, Robinson’s consistency and health has turned a position of traditional weakness into one of stability and reliability.

I know the miss v. Mexico is what sticks out in everyone’s mind, but I actually thought Pulisic’s movement was much improved vs. Mexico. He drove at space more aggressively than he has with the national team for a really long time, including on that missed chance. That aggression continued with a goal to complete his hat-trick. And it especially showed on the second goal, with Pulisic driving in behind the Panamanian backline and eventually setting up Antonee Robinson to make the cross for the winning goal. And that third goal! Well, instead of having me babble about it, why don’t we just gaze in awe?

We’ve only seen a little of Luca de la Torre, but, for me, he’s cemented himself as the first alternate in midfield. He’s assured in possession and brings a welcome degree of dynamism and creativity to the midfield.