Gregg Berhalter enjoyed a win vs. Panama on his debut as U.S. men's national team coach, while Djordje Mihailovic and Christian Ramirez scored and Nick Lima, Corey Baird and Jonathan Lewis all assisted in their first matches in a U.S. shirt.

By Avi Creditor
January 27, 2019

Gregg Berhalter enjoyed a successful debut as manager, with the U.S. men's national team handling Panama 3-0 with relative ease in their friendly Sunday night, officially kicking off a new era that has been over a year in the making.

Djordje Mihailovic scored in the 40th minute, while Walker Zimmerman (80th) and Christian Ramirez (89th) put it away late in a match that just over 9,000 saw live at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. Some of that atrocious attendance figure in a cavernous NFL stadium likely has to do with it being a January friendly, which isn't typically played with any true stakes. There's still surely a large segment of the U.S. soccer-watching population turned off by the events of the last couple of years, and that group is not going to be eager to shell out money to watch a friendly that doesn't feature all of the program's top options. The match also happened to fall on the same night in the Phoenix area as the WWE's Royal Rumble, for whatever that's worth.

But winning is the greatest elixir for a fan base desperate for direction, success and a team it's proud to watch, and so far it's one win in one match for Berhalter as new leader of the USMNT.

Here are three thoughts on the game:

A day of solid debuts

Berhalter's debut as manager was the most notable introduction of the night, of course, but he gave five U.S. players their international debuts from the start and two more off the bench. Of the newbies, Nick Lima was fantastic as a versatile right back and assisted on the USA's second goal, while Mihailovic opened the scoring five minutes before halftime–on an assist from another debuting player, Real Salt Lake's Corey Baird. Jonathan Lewis and Ramirez combined for the USA's third, with the NYCFC winger torching his defender before crossing for the LAFC striker, who tapped home from six yards out five minutes after making his long-awaited international debut.

"It's just nice," Berhalter said after the game of all the successful player debuts. "It's nice to put in the work over an extended period of time and get a reward like that."

The two that were most eye-opening were Mihailovic and Lima. Mihailovic, a 20-year-old Chicago Fire midfielder who tore his ACL in October 2017, was seen as a bit of a surprise call-up, but Berhalter was effusive in his praise of Mihailovic's performance in camp, and he rewarded him with a start as one of two attacking, central midfielders (Cristian Roldan, who was also excellent on the night, being the other). 

"He's been one of the players that his line has just been going upwards," Berhalter said. "If you look at some of the small things he does, you can tell how intelligent of a soccer player he is."

Lima was dynamite in a role that required a lot of energy, focus and attention to detail, and you get the sense that he'll get another chance to play it under Berhalter's watch. His tackle, recovery and assist to Zimmerman was somewhat reminiscent of Wayne Rooney's highlight reel tackle-to-assist play in MLS last season (albeit without the lengthy tracking back element), and he also had a vital role in setting up the opener. He completed 32 of 39 passes (82%), was positionally sound in defense and transitioned well into the attack when called upon. The 24-year-old San Jose Earthquakes star was a clear winner on the night and takes that momentum into his home stadium for next weekend's friendly vs. Costa Rica.

Ross D. Franklin/AP

Playing with a purpose

Berhalter has spoken since he took over about establishing a culture and a style of play that permeates throughout the program. The seeds of that were very clearly planted over the last few weeks in California and started to sprout vs. Panama.

The U.S. enjoyed two-thirds of the possession, passed at an 87% clip and nearly doubled Panama in total passes (601-314). There was a very clear intent to press high and to press after losing possession, and it translated into a largely dominant match. There were two, maybe three pockets of time in which Panama seemed comfortable, one being in the opening minutes before any semblance of control was able to be taken, and the U.S. otherwise enjoyed a rare night on the front foot. This all comes with the massive caveat of it being a January friendly against a highly experimental Panama squad. Nobody is going to extrapolate the result from this match and conclude with the USA lifting a trophy in Qatar. But the early signs are promising.

In terms of tactics, Berhalter's squad transitioned back and forth between a 4-3-3 and a 3-2-2-3, with Lima pushing into central midfield next to Bradley when the U.S. was on the attack. Not all of the decisions were perfect, and not all of the execution was pinpoint, but that's unrealistic considering it's a squad of players in the midst of their club preseasons and trying to adapt to a new manager and style. The overall takeaway, though, was a match that presented some very legitimate building blocks. 

"What we're trying to do is put players in positions that play to their strengths," Berhalter said in his post-match remarks.

It's amazing how how often that statement went unheeded during the previous regime, and it's not all that surprising that it can be an uplifting element for the players. 

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There's no captain controversy

The meaning and matchday influence of the captain's armband is debatable. Sometimes, it's a nominal honor. Other times it's symbolic or used as a tribute. Other times it's a true reflection of the leader of the unit. Being officially dubbed captain by the manager for the long haul is ultimately the biggest statement that can be made, but in terms of it being a game-to-game call while the new national team comes together, there's not a ton that should be read into it.

So in a vacuum, Aaron Long wearing the captain's armband for a January camp friendly vs. a Panama B team isn't that huge of a deal when it comes to the national team power structure (from a personal standpoint for Long, however, it's another notch on his belt on his rise from afterthought to quality defender). But him doing so on a night when Michael Bradley, the former captain, was also in the starting lineup was cause to raise more than one eyebrow.

If anything, it's a sign from Berhalter that past status means little. He left his former captain in Columbus, Wil Trapp, on the bench until the 84th minute, for instance. As it relates to the big picture, Long donning the armband instead of Bradley is not going to be a takeaway that resonates throughout the national team for months to come, nor was it anything more than a footnote on the night, but it is another reminder that Berhalter is out to truly start from scratch by doing things his way. Berhalter, in his comments after the match, said that he discussed the decision with Bradley and didn't "look at it as a knock against anyone else" who did not wear the armband. Instead, he saw it as a reward for the competitiveness he witnessed from Long throughout camp.

Oh, and as for Bradley, he was pretty strong in his 83 minutes on the night, even without an extra piece of cloth around his bicep. He was 72 for 75 passing (96%), played in a pair of incisive balls to Roldan that put the U.S. in scoring positions and looked quite comfortable doing what Berhalter asked of him.

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