The U.S. men's national team missed a chance to fortify its place atop the Concacaf World Cup qualifying Octagonal table, and instead it was served a piece of humble pie.
Anibal Godoy's 54th-minute header off a corner kick gave host Panama a famous 1-0 win over the U.S. at Estadio Rommel Fernández in Panama City on Sunday night. It was Panama's first win over the U.S. in World Cup qualifying in nine all-time meetings (1-6-2) and brings the U.S. back down to earth after a comfortable 2–0 win over Jamaica last Thursday. It also marked the U.S.'s first defeat in 2022 World Cup qualifying after a 2-0-2 start.
The result dropped the U.S. into second place in the region's table, three points behind Mexico. Panama is level with the U.S. on eight points but sits in third on goal differential, while Canada is a point behind them both. The top three teams automatically go to the World Cup, while the fourth-place finisher heads to an intercontinental playoff for one more ticket to Qatar.
The U.S. never truly threatened Sunday, mustering just five shots total (and none on target) and never really looking all that dangerous save for a half-chance off a fourth-minute corner kick, with Walker Zimmerman having his header tipped over the bar. It may well have been going high anyway.
Perhaps some of the U.S. dysfunction came down to heavy rotation. It's no secret that the compressed World Cup qualifying format has required teams to put their depth to the test, and the U.S. looked down its roster to come up with its squad for the match. Manager Gregg Berhalter made seven changes to the lineup that started vs. Jamaica, rotating his squad in a big way.
Tyler Adams and Miles Robinson, the only two field players to play every minute of qualifying to date, were both on the bench to start, as was goal-scoring hero Ricardo Pepi, whose two goals in Austin, Texas, gave the U.S. the three points that vaulted the team to first place in the Concacaf Octagonal. Weston McKennie (muscle strain), Antonee Robinson and Zack Steffen (both travel protocols due to being based in the U.K.) did not join the team in Panama, either, giving Berhalter a different deck of cards with which to play vs. Los Canaleros.
Instead, Gyasi Zardes earned the start at center forward, with Tim Weah operating on one of the wings. Kellyn Acosta and Sebastian Lletget teamed with returning starter Yunus Musah in the midfield, while left back George Bello, center back Mark McKenzie and right back Shaq Moore rounded out the changes.
The U.S.'s first chance of the match came off the aforementioned early corner kick in the fourth minute, with Acosta's service picking out Zimmerman, and the U.S. captain on the night doing his best to steer it on frame.
Panama caught the U.S. with numbers forward a couple of minutes later, with Acosta racing back to defend a run down the right hand side, and Moore stepping up in the box to cut out the cross and end the danger.
The hosts missed a golden opportunity in the 14th minute. Freddy Góndola controlled a ball on the left side and then crossed through the box, picking out Rolando Blackburn, but the veteran forward completely whiffed on the chance, with the ball harmlessly going out for a goal kick, when a simple redirect would've given Panama the lead.
Panama nearly scored in more sensational fashion 13 minutes later. Eric Davis, whether it was his intention or not, came inches from scoring directly off a corner, with U.S. goalkeeper Matt Turner awkwardly getting a touch on it. Turner was called into action to swat away a subsequent corner from the other side, which he did in a more confident manner, and the U.S. cleared the third corner of the sequence without a problem.
Turner came up with another massive save in the 34th minute, though he would've been saved by the offside flag. Góndola got free down the left again and was in on goal, but the U.S. goalkeeper defended his near post by outstretching his right arm and making the stop with his fist.
Turner was at it again in the 45th minute. With the halftime whistle nearing, Édgar Bárcenas had a go from 20 yards, but the U.S. backstop read the left-footed, rising curler the whole way and swiped it out for another Panama corner.
With the U.S. playing sluggishly in the first half, Berhalter went to his bench for reinforcements, with Tyler Adams and Brenden Aaronson coming on for Musah and Paul Arriola.
The changes didn't keep Panama from breaking through, though, and it was only a matter of time before the U.S. got burned after conceding so many set pieces. Godoy got his head to Davis's corner kick in the 54th minute for the only goal the host nation would wind up needing.
In response, the U.S. made three more chances, with Pepi, DeAndre Yedlin and Cristian Roldan all coming on to replace Zardes, Weah and Moore.
Pepi had a chance to equalize almost immediately after coming on, but he pulled his 70th-minute chance wide of the far post.
The U.S. genuinely struggled to create anything beyond that, though. A general theme on the night was an inability to wrest any semblance of control for a defined stretch, and save for some desperate forays forward that resulted in a single shot on goal, the result wound up being a deserved loss.
The U.S. returns home and returns to action on Wednesday night in Columbus, Ohio, where it will face a Costa Rica team coming off a come-from-behind, 2–1 win over El Salvador to further muddle the region's table. The teams in second place through sixth place are separated by just three points.
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