USA captain Christian Pulisic: ‘Game of our lives’ with Uruguay

ATLANTA — The United States men are in a precarious position in the group stage of Copa América 2024 after a 2-1 loss to Panama on Thursday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

The Americans will likely need to defeat Uruguay, their highest-ranked opponent in Group C, on Monday in Kansas City to advance without outside help.

U.S. captain Christian Pulisic said that’s a fight his team is ready for.

“We have to go, and we have to represent our country with passion, pride,” Pulisic said. “We have to go and play the best game of our lives, and that’s it. We want to go, we want to win, and we want to continue in this competition.”

Thursday’s game against Panama went awry early for the United States when forward Timothy Weah was sent off for a jab to the back of an opponent’s head in an incident away from the ball. The Americans mostly scrambled to defend for the following 70-plus minutes.

There was some immediate hope, however. Folarin Balogun put the U.S. ahead four minutes later on a sublime strike that found the top corner, but Panama equalized through César Blackman four minutes after that.

USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter made three changes at half-time — including in net, with Ethan Horvath replacing Matt Turner, who sustained a leg injury sustained early in the first half — and the Americans sat in and defended in a 5-3-1, playing to preserve the draw.

The tactic mostly worked — until the 83rd minute, when second-half substitute José Fajardo beat U.S. defender Cameron Carter-Vickers — one of Berhalter’s half-time subs to shift to a five-back — to a ball six yards from goal.

“It’s down to one moment,” Berhalter said of the USMNT’s second-half performance. “When you look at the stats, you look at the chances that we gave up, it was really only that one moment. The guy gets an open look, and we didn’t deal with the first ball very well, we didn’t deal with the second ball very well, and then [there’s] too much space between our center-backs on the cross.

“But besides that, we’re talking about very, very little production from Panama and really a tremendous effort by the guys that did get in there, work for each other, keep our shape, and keep moving.”

Panama was reduced to 10 players in the 88th minute when Adalberto Carrasquilla was sent off for a reckless challenge on Pulisic that caused a shoving match and gave the Americans a free kick in a dangerous position. Panama committed 19 of the 23 total fouls in the match, and received three of the five yellow cards.

Among those fouls was a rough challenge on Turner in the 12th minute that involved a lower-body collision before Turner fell awkwardly on his shoulder. Berhalter said at one point after the match that he was “not gonna bite on that conversation” about center official Ivan Barton, but the U.S. coach expressed confoundment that there wasn’t a yellow card issued to Panama on the play that ultimately hurt his No 1 keeper.

“We talked beforehand about the tendencies of this referee, and we knew what he’s capable of and to be honest I think we played right into his hands,” Berhalter said.

Turner declined to speak to media postgame other than to say he was OK as he walked by gingerly. Berhalter said Turner would be assessed by the medical team later Thursday night.

The USMNT lost to Panama in a penalty shootout in last year’s Gold Cup semifinal — albeit with a MLS-heavy side — and also lost away in World Cup qualifying in 2021. Thursday’s loss to Panama was the first on U.S. soil since the 2011 Gold Cup group stage.

The last time the U.S. lost a competitive match on home soil after scoring first was also at the 2011 Gold Cup, in the final against Mexico.

After the game, USMNT players unanimously acknowledged the obvious: Weah’s early red card changed the game. They also said Weah owned his mistake and that he would learn from it. (Tournament regulations prevented Weah from being available to media postgame.)

Midfielder Tyler Adams, who started and played the first half again for his first back-to-back starts since the 2022 World Cup, said the loss was a learning experience for the squad.

“You can take a lot from that game,” Adams said. “That was a great experience for us, and I think we’ll probably look at that game as kind of a replica of what we’re going to face going into this one. Obviously, Uruguay is a very good team. We know we’re going to need to be at our best, but at the end of the day we can compete when we have 11 players on the field. It’s going to be a completely different game.”

Uruguay is not mathematically a must-win for the USMNT, but anything short of victory should make advancing to the knockout stage difficult and potentially impossible. The U.S. would need help from the other group game in that scenario. Panama sits level on points (3) with the U.S. in the group heading into the final matchday, but has an inferior goal difference.

Panama will be favored against a Bolívia team that hasn’t won outside of home soil in nine years, and a victory for Panama would force the U.S. to defeat Uruguay.

“I don’t feel pressure for it,” Pulisic said. “[It’s] just like every game. If a win against Uruguay is what we need, then that’s what we have to go do. We’re privileged to be in this position and have this opportunity to represent our country. I feel lucky to go into games like that, so I’m excited for it.”