We Beat Panama 5-1…But Was It Good Enough?

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The USMNT needed a win on Sunday night, and they earned it in spades with a 5-1 drubbing of Panama. So why wasn’t that good enough? 

First let’s get the obvious accolades out of the way. More than any other game during qualifying, this was the one that Gregg Berhalter’s squad needed to win. Had the team taken anything less than three points, they would be at serious risk of not qualifying and setting up another nightmare scenario like what unfolded in 2017.

Fortunately, the team won, and won by a lot. That means the game plan worked, and Berhalter and the boys all did their jobs well, and then some.

Christian Pulisic scored a hat-trick, the attack generated had 15 shots, and we won 5-1! How then, could anyone other than the most jaded of obsessively pessimistic analysts be dissatisfied?  

I am. I am dissatisfied. However, not because of the overall performance, but because of trends I see that could hurt the team in its attempt to perform in the big show in Qatar later this year.

I’m walking away from this game with a sour taste in my mouth, and it all started brewing inside me during the last 20 minutes. The last 20 minutes of this game showed what kind of one-dimensional, conservative tactician Berhalter really is.

photo: Matt Mathai

For the second time in two games, this time with a five-goal advantage and with Panama running around like a bunch of headless chickens, Berhalter sent on substitutes with very obvious orders:

Bunker. Completely.

Now I know you’re going to say “We didn’t need goals, so bunkering is fine”. If you said this, you wouldn’t be wrong. Bunkering is “fine”. It’s sound. It’s defensible. It’s safe. But it’s not what we should be doing in this type of situation, and I’ll tell you why. 

When we see a team bunkering at the end of a game, it’s usually because they are the underdog and trying to hang on for dear life. They have scraped together a goal, and somehow managed to keep the ball out of their own net. They’re not feeling confident in attack, so they just put everyone behind the ball and hope to weather the storm while the opposition attacks.

Whenever a defender can get a foot on the ball, it’s launched forward, knowing full-well there’s no one from their team who will be able to get it. With no attackers to receive the ball, the other team can push higher and higher.

We did it at the end of the game against Mexico too, and still came out with a point. In that case, it was appropriate in the cauldron (even if the half-capacity cauldron) of Azteca.

So what’s the problem this time around?

The problem with bunkering is that it invites the other team to attack with everything they’ve got. It is a tactic that screams inferiority.  

We were destroying Panama. We were the better technical team and we had a five-goal cushion. Realistically speaking, we could have done anything at all for those last 20 minutes, and Panama was not coming back under any fathomable circumstance.

Berhalter has spent nearly four years “teaching” this team to play with a possession-based style, but for some reason he decided we weren’t good enough in possession to protect a five-goal lead for 20 minutes.

Or alternatively, he chose the wrong time, and the wrong quality of opponent to practice this tactic…again…for the second time in 72 hours.

To flip the well-known phrase on its head: the best defense is a good offense.

If we have the ball, they can’t score goals. We needed cool heads, and to circulate and recycle passes ad nauseam. I’m not saying we needed to attack and push for a sixth or perhaps a seventh goal against Panama.

In fact I’m saying we shouldn’t, but we should not have gifted possession to an entirely overwhelmed opponent.

Tactically, it’s a simple drill: get the ball from the keeper to the center backs, who trade possession back and forth between each other before pushing up one side. When that side closes, go back again and switch to the other side. If Panama pushes up so high the CBs are smothered, they can play a mid-range pass to a midfielder who brings it forward to link up calmly. Then pass back and repeat.

It’s an important drill, but in a rare opportunity against real opponents in a game situation.

image: Matt Mathai

There’s no need to drive forward, and at a 5-1 advantage, there’s no need to score. But that doesn’t mean we should give up the ball and hope they can’t break us down. We need to know how to keep the ball, and we had a chance to practice doing just that. We ended up with lower pass completion and only 39% possession on the night, and a lot of that comes from the bunker-and-boot-it ineptitude of the at the end of the game. 

But in the end, we won. The target from the start (and since that horrible day in 2017) has been to qualify for the final tournament in Qatar, and we have essentially done that.

We can straighten all of this out later, right? Maybe.

Maybe Berhalter has just been playing down to the CONCACAF competition this whole time, and when the World Cup comes, he’s going to turn it on. Maybe he’ll select only the best talent and let them loose with those European tactics that wouldn’t work against chippy teams on the pitted fields of CONCACAF.

Maybe we’ll see our players performing as well in the US jersey as they have in their Champions League games. I mean, Jordan Pefok didn’t shank any sitters against Manchester United or Atalanta.

It’s possible, but I don’t believe it. I believe the way you practice is the way you play in real game situtions. I don’t think there’s a magical switch that gets flipped to suddenly change what’s been drilled.  

And believe me, what has been drilled is not something that is going to be as successful against Argentina, France, England or Italy….er….not Italy, as it has been against Panama, El Salvador, and Jamaica. This game was an absolutely perfect opportunity to possess the ball against a desperate team.

We needed to make Panama chase us. We needed the experience of stringing together 50 passes that accomplish nothing other than tiring out and frustrating the opposition. The possession-based team that Berhalter is trying to craft needs to be able to do this, but it’s not something that is ingrained enough in the historical fabric of the USMNT to ignore those rare low-risk chances when we can practice it in a competitive situation.

This is a skill for a team, meaning it can be learned and repeated. So why hasn’t it been learned an repeated? Does Berhalter think we’re not good enough to keep the ball?

He’s a vocal coach on the sidelines and he’s barking orders for 90+ minutes a game, so why not remind Zimmerman to keep a short and long option in mind before getting the ball from Steffen? Spread wide when Steffen has the ball in the back, and be ready to distribute. Don’t follow the attacker when he comes inside to pressure the goalie.

Instead, everything was launched 50 yards upfield in a seeming panic.

It’s not insane to think that we could go up a goal or two against a top team during the World Cup. It’s happened, and could happen again in a few months.

If that happens, do we simply sub out our attackers and bunker? Maybe we should just let Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann, or Paul Pogba go to town, praying they don’t find a crack in our rock-solid defense? Does that sound like fun? We all endured the firing line against Belgium in 2014. It worked then, for 90 minutes, but that was a rare instance of individual heroism by a keeper having the best game of his career.

Realistically speaking, we’ll need to recover after playing 25 minutes of a high press, and being able to control the game while recovering would be nice, and less exhausting.

After decades of waiting, following several generations of players, and enduring too many promises broken, we finally have a group of players that are good enough to take their game to the other team. I don’t want to curse them with any labels, but from top to bottom, this is the most skilled pool of players that any USMNT coach has ever had at his disposal.

photo: Matt Mathai

After four years of learning curve and possession, why won’t Berhalter let the players play, and let the football gods decide? 

This is basic. It’s not easy, but it’s simple. It’s what good head coaches of good teams do, and I believe we are a good team. But this is where we get to the crux of the problem.

After watching the game against Panama, I don’t think that Berhalter believes we’re a good enough team to escape the bunker mentality.

For USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter, only his tactics can save us. We’re well drilled in how to win in CONCACAF. We will almost certainly qualify on Wednesday, barring some force of god stopping the game from happening. On Friday is the draw when we will find out our World Cup opponents (oh, how I missed this 5 years ago), and that will begin a whole new journey.

But just like Berhalter doesn’t trust his players to execute, I don’t trust Berhalter’s tactics against the best in the world.

I don’t think a team like ours should put everyone behind the ball for the final 20 minutes, even in a close against a hypothetical team better than Panama. If Berhalter can’t trust Giovanni Reyna, Kellyn Acosta, Gianluca Busio, and Jordan Morris to keep the ball from Panama, what are we supposed to do against Germany or Brazil or Ital….Portugal? Why even show up?

We won in Orlando. We’re all but qualified for the World Cup. The thing is, we’re going to have to actually PLAY in the world cup. We have the personnel to be able to do something special, but they’re being muzzled.

The coach is blinded by his confidence in his own strategies. He has proven that he knows how to use the talent at hand. However, he doesn’t trust that the best generation of players we’ve ever had can get it done. I’m disappointed because it seems he won’t let our golden generation do what they do best…play the game.

All I ask is for the coach to have the same confidence in our players’ ability to control a game as their collective skill dictates.


Dan Whelton

Dan is a statesider living in Connecticut. He was a latecomer to obsessing about the beautiful game, with the spark coming while watching the US play into the quarter finals in 2002. That fire was fanned when he married into a football-centric French family, full of eternal football souls. When he's not coaching the youth teams of his two children, he loves watching and discussing the continued development of the sport in this country, and of the players that represent the U.S. on teams all over the world.

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  1. avatar
    DAM says:

    Nah. Not saying you are wrong about how we played the last 20 (though I will point out that anyone expecting different in a 5-0 game with 5 subs used on both sides probably is being overly optimistic and maybe a bit naive), but you are reading way too much into it. Game states matter. If we are up 5-0 in a world cup game and Gregg decides to bunker and we only win 5-2, I am okay with that decision as well. It’s also about about availability and legs (ferreira for instance was completely gassed) and personnel and the fact that we do still technically have to travel and avoid a complete meltdown in CR. We also aren’t France yet. When we bring in guys like JMo and Busio… they may not perform as well as we would like making it hard to think the team can just keep flowing. I could go on for days on this. It’s rare that I have disagreed with an article on this website this much.

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