USMNT’s maturity issues exposed after Copa América loss to Panama

ATLANTA — Coming into the 2024 Copa América, the U.S. men’s national team was supposed to show growth following its solid showing at the 2022 World Cup. It was supposed to have matured. It was supposed to take the next step towards moving into the world’s elite.

But on Thursday, the U.S. not only showed it still has a long way to go, but it took a massive step backward, suffering a 2-1 defeat to Panama that severely damaged its hopes of reaching the Copa América knockout rounds.

The U.S. now needs a win over group favorites Uruguay in order to ensure they advance. Making matters worse is that Panama’s win means Uruguay can’t clinch a spot in the quarterfinals, meaning La Celeste will have something to play for in it match against the U.S. instead of possibly resting players.

It’s a defeat that stings on multiple levels, but what cuts the deepest is that what transpired was nothing the U.S. hadn’t seen before. CONMEBOL may be running this tournament, but this was a match straight out of Concacaf, complete with the chippiness, suspect refereeing decisions, and gamesmanship that has long been a staple of matches in the region.

Yet the U.S., as much as they claimed to be ready for whatever Panama could dish out, seemed incapable of coping with it in critical moments. The game completely turned in the 16th minute when U.S. winger Tim Weah, tried to deliver not one, but two jabs to Panama defender Roderick Miller — only the second one connected — leaving referee Ivan Barton little choice but to send Weah off when VAR spotted the infraction.

It was an excusable act of indiscipline from a player who had previously received only one red card in his entire professional career. While tournament rules prohibited Weah from addressing the media, he did address his teammates afterward and apologized.

“Timmy knows the mistake he made. That’s it,” said teammate Christian Pulisic. “He’s going to learn from it. It sucks. It’s not the way you want to put your team in that position. It hurts. Just the minimum, it’s a lapse of judgment. It’s just one simple second, you respond to something.”

The U.S. reacted superbly, with Folarin Balogun delivering a sumptuous strike in the 22nd minute to put the tournament hosts ahead. But the Canaleros were level four minutes later through César Blackman. His goal capped off a dizzying rollercoaster ride that the U.S. didn’t necessarily enjoy. It included a disallowed Weston McKennie goal, and a leg injury to goalkeeper Matt Turner that eventually forced him from the match.

But following Blackman’s goal, the U.S. flat out struggled to gain any kind of foothold in the game, with Panama dictating terms both tactically and emotionally. Barton seemed to perpetually be drawing the ire of the U.S. team.

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

The only question that remained was whether the U.S. could hold out. They didn’t, with substitute José Fajardo delivering a one-time finish in the 83rd minute after U.S. defender Cameron Carter-Vickers was slow to react. It didn’t help that the U.S. struggled mightily to maintain any semblance of possession.

“Obviously we would’ve loved to keep the ball a bit more, but with the man down and not really in control, it’s hard to then wrestle that back,” said defender Tim Ream. “So yeah, it would’ve been great, but we knew our transition and our counter attacks were going to be the key from that point forward, and that’s kind of what we tried to focus on.”

There have been recent warning signs of the U.S. struggling against Concacaf opposition. There was the loss to Trinidad and Tobago in the second leg of their Concacaf Nations League tussle last November, due in part to another lapse in discipline, that time from Sergiño Dest.

Then there was the fortunate result against Jamaica in the same competition back in March, when the U.S. was rescued by an own goal in stoppage time that allowed it to prevail in extra time. Yet the message that is being broadcast loud and clear isn’t getting through.

Some of that will no doubt be laid at the feet of Berhalter, as it should. But it can’t be a situation where all of it is. These players have now experienced a World Cup, as well as the rigors of a qualifying campaign. This is on top of the experience that has been accumulated at club level. Weah should know better, plain and simple. The same was true for Dest against T&T.

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Did Berhalter get the tactics wrong after Weah’s red card?

Herculez Gomez questions Gregg Berhalter’s decision to go with three defenders after the USMNT went down to 10 men vs. Panama.

Maybe this team, a generation that has been continually lauded for its talent, isn’t as good as it has been made out to be. At the least, it still has some growing up to do.

The irony in all of this is that the U.S. player with the least amount of experience was the one of the few who seemed most up for the fight. That would be Balogun, who in addition to his goal put in a strong shift up top, doing what he could to not only be dangerous, but draw fouls that provided the U.S. with set piece opportunities and allowed it to catch its breath as well.

Through no fault of Balogun’s, it wasn’t enough, and now with Panama likely to take care of Bolívia in its final group stage game, the U.S. has to find a way to get a win against Uruguay while also sufficiently padding its goal differential.

“There’s going to be frustration from this game. ‘Well, what about the ref or what about this?’ Like, we can’t be sitting here making excuses,” said midfielder Tyler Adams. “We’re not that kind of team. We can’t be that kind of team. I think when you let that start to creep into your mindset, then you’re set up for failure.”

About the only good news is that there is still one more group stage game to play, and much like its game against Iran at the 2022 World Cup, the U.S. knows what it needs to do.

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

Otherwise, recriminations for both the manager and the players will take place.