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USMNT v. Panama, 2020 friendly: What we learned

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The USMNT came out against a familiar foe in Panama and walked away with a 6-2 rout. Here’s what we learned.

Wales v USA - International Friendly Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

Apparently, this international camp will be defined by contrast. The United States Men’s National Team came out against Wales and thoroughly controlled the game, but couldn’t grab a winning goal. Against Panama, the team didn’t have that same control, but was able to bag goal after goal, to the tune of 6-2. Personally, I think the latter is more fun to watch.

As with so many of these friendlies, this match against Panama comes with its own caveats. Panama appears to be on the down swing, with pivotal players like Blas Pérez, Jaime Penedo, and Luis Tejada coming to the end of their careers. It’s not the same Panama team that pipped the U.S. to a World Cup spot in 2017. In spite of their decline, Panama remains fairly representative for much of the middle-talent in CONCACAF. Indeed, there’s a good chance that the USMNT will see Panama in World Cup qualifying. Panama has to go through a qualification round before the final round of qualifiers. They are the favorites to win their group. If they win the play-off round, likely against Curaçao, they will play against the U.S. With that in mind, winning and putting in a good performance was important. Here’s what we learned.

Shots Fired

Ahead of this match, the big question looming over the USMNT was “How does this team get goals?” Well, we got a few answers.

This team can get goals directly from free kicks.
This team can get goals from pressing high and cleaning up shots rebounded off the keeper.
This team can get goals by playing cut backs in the box.
This team can get goals by crossing into the box.
This team can get goals by corners.
This team can get goals by crossing deep to the back post.

Of the lot, that third goal was probably my favorite. But all together, it showed that the USA CAN actually score goals, and can score goals from a variety of methods (so long as they actually play striker). The next step for the team is to repeat this kind of consistent chance creation against a better team and in more competitive matches.

A Pressing Concern

The single biggest change between the 2019 and 2020 versions of the USMNT is the press. Last year, Gregg Berhalter had the team come out and play in a mid block, trying to find a middle ground between an organized and compact low block that shielded the goal, and an aggressive high press. I criticized the way that the team defended as too passive, with the team unable to win back the ball in important places on the pitch, particularly in the friendly loss to Mexico. However, for the February match against Costa Rica and last week’s match versus Wales, the MNT took up a high press, chasing down the Welsh players deep in their own half and trying to aggressively win the ball back. What did the MNT do against Panama? They went high:

Pressing high has completely elevated how the team plays; it’s not merely about having Tyler Adams back and fielding better talent. A high press suffocates teams, blunting their ability to attack unless they have a plan to beat the press. And it creates opportunities to attack by forcing the opponent to give up the ball in dangerous parts of the field. For a team that has consistently struggled in attack, playing higher up the field is a really good sign.

Everyone, Fullback

I think, overall, Sergiño Dest + Reggie Cannon is a better combination than Antonee Robinson + Sergiño Dest. Cannon has more technical ability and a better passing range than the Fulham fullback, which makes him better suited to the MNT’s possession game and better resistant to an opposition press. Cannon also brings an attacking style that clearly better meshes with how the team plays (he got an assist this game).

However, moving Dest to the left reduced his impact. He still is fantastic in possession and has both the ability and the willingness to clown players. But he doesn't get on the ball in the same threatening locations. Against Wales, he would get on the ball far into the opponent’s attacking third, almost to the byline. Interestingly, in this match, Cannon received the ball in similar places. But as good as the former FC Dallas man’s crossing and movement can be, I’d frankly prefer Dest in those places given his dribbling talent. In this game, it didn’t matter, but against better opposition, it might. Playing Dest on the left and Cannon on the right might be the best way to maximize talent. But if the MNT needs to maximize its offensive ability, the team may have to figure out a compromise on left back and play Dest on the right.

A Taste of CONCACAF

There’s one aspect of this game that was missing from the match versus Wales entirely. The game against Panama brought a taste of CONCACAF. What Panama lacked in defensive quality compared to Wales was more than made up by the fact that they came out and played just like a CONCACAF team would.

Wales came out and approached the friendly with the sort of mindset of a UEFA nation. When a UEFA nation feels like they are over matched, they tend to sit back in an organized low block and minimize risk. When a CONCACAF nation feels like they are over matched, they wait for an opening and then punch you. It’s a kind of approach that gets major underdogs goals, like Panama did on the night, or even wins against highly respected teams.

Panama had a dedicated game plan that bred from familiarity with the United States. Where Wales sat back, attempting to cautiously play out the back, Panama attacked selectively. They tried to play extremely linearly, moving the ball up the field as fast as possible. That’s how they got their first goal. Panama got the ball up to Juan Tejada just past the center circle where Tyler Adams bungled into him, conceding a foul in an unthreatening portion of the field. Then, Panama scored as easy as One, Two, Three. One pass back to a center back. A second long pass out to Panama’s left. And a cross into the box. The whole sequence caught the entire backline off guard with how quickly moved the ball around and up the field. It was much more aggressive soccer than what Wales put forward, soccer played by an opponent that was far more comfortable playing as a serious underdog. That’s one way to beat a press: you play selectively and quickly, bypassing the midfield where possible.

In the second half, Panama came out swinging...literally. Now that they were down two goals and had nothing to lose, Los Canaleros weren’t afraid to kick or shove or otherwise foul their opposing numbers. But it still wasn’t random abuse from an inferior side. In the second half, Panama paired physical play with a high press that wasn’t there in the first 45 minutes. This broke up the American press, allowing Panama to threaten the American backline for an extended period of time.

However, it didn’t work. Even though the team that was out there was extremely green, with three teenagers and only 2 players with more than 20 caps, the USMNT held strong. After conceding, they rallied and scored 3. And, when pressed in the second half, they held firm. Panama only scored their second after a raft of substitutions and with what looks to be an offsides run. Even then, the team rallied once more to score three goals.

World Cup qualifying in CONCACAF can be highly difficult. The teams might not match the skill of South America or Europe, but the conditions make it so that those who go in expecting easy wins come back chastened. The fields are terrible. The weather is varied and oppressive. The referees are careless and sometimes negligent. And the opposition is not afraid to hurt you. This young USMNT side got a sample of that and still came out having absolutely trounced their opposition. It’s the kind of win that says to weak CONCACAF teams “If you try and play with us, we will wreck you.” It’s the kind of win that justifies a little bit of swagger. It’s the kind of win that, between the experience and the reputation, gets you more wins.

Closing Thoughts

The MNT has a clear right side attacking bias. I don’t know why. I would have figured that if both Gio Reyna and Sergiño Dest were on the left, the team would play more through there, but that’s not what happened.

Gio Reyna looked much improved on the left. Reyna looked much more comfortable passing to his teammates and coming onto the ball in this game. He isn’t yet the big star for the MNT that he might soon be, but he definitely showed his promise. The only thing is that Christian Pulisic plays on the left. And that means that Reyna’s starting spot isn’t as clear-cut as it may seem.

Berhalter needs to figure out his center back pairing. For this match, Matt Miazga made a second straight appearance while Tim Ream rotated in for John Brooks. Unfortunately for the two of them, it wasn’t their best performance. While I can be more charitable for the second goal (it looked offsides to me), the first was a bad mistake, particularly for Miazga. Brooks seems to be the established choice on the left, which leaves the right side of the paring wide open. And there are a lot of candidates for that slot. Along with Miazga there’s Mark McKenzie, Aaron Long, Walker Zimmerman, and Chris Richards. One of them needs to step up and make that spot their own.

Among others, Nicholas Gioachhini had a good night.

That’s all from me. We aren’t sure when the USMNT will next appear, but the USWNT are set to kick off against the Netherlands, the World Cup runners ups, on Friday, November 27. As always, stay safe.