USA vs. Panama preview: Berhalter faces pressure to win back USMNT fans

For better or worse, it’s time to accept that Gregg Berhalter is now the US Men’s National Team (USMNT) coach. Unfortunately, he was done a disservice by the US Soccer Federation because instead of naming him coach soon after the Trinidad debacle and giving him 18 months to prepare for his first competitive games, they waited until December 2018 to make the hire (despite knowing he was the guy since day one), which gives him just six months to prepare for his first competitive games.

The annual January Camp has given fans a first real look at what Berhalter plans to do with the team going forward. And it all wraps up with a pair of friendlies against familiar CONCACAF foes Panama and Costa Rica.

Berhalter hasn’t managed a single USMNT game so far, yet plenty of praise has been heaped on him. His roster selection of entirely MLS players (not unusual but still surprising that no Scandinavian based players were called in) was universally celebrated by the American soccer media. The LA Times ran a big piece about how Berhalter was making the players share dorm rooms instead of staying in a hotel. Fluff pieces were written about how great it was the Berhalter was hiring all of his Columbus Crew assistants to coach the national team, thus ensuring continuity (remember in October when US Soccer said Josh Wolff joining the staff wasn’t a permanent move). And MLS’ website had a small nugget about Berhalter writing “Press after loss of possession” on a white board at training (how revolutionary of a concept from a truly visionary coach. Getting the ball back after losing it. How has nobody ever thought of that before?). Even FIFA’s website had a big write-up about “Berhalter Ball.”

The group of players initially called in for this camp consisted of 28 players which Berhalter, in a surprising move, whittled down to 23 for a travel squad to face Panama and Costa Rica. The two goalkeepers are Sean Johnson and Zack Steffen (who is familiar with Berhalter as a former member of the Columbus Crew). The back line consists of Reggie Cannon, Nick Lima, Aaron Long, Daniel Lovitz, Mark McKenzie, Keegan Rosenberry, Auston Trusty, and Walker Zimmerman. The midfield group is made up of Paul Arriola, Corey Baird, Russell Canouse, Marky Delgado, Jonathan Lewis, Sebastian Lletget, Djordje Mihailovic, Cristian Roldan, Wil Trapp (familiar with Berhalter from his time with the Columbus Crew). And much to the dismay of many US fans, Michael Bradley (who in a totally unsurprising show of arrogance recently stated his belief that he can and should be at the World Cup in Qatar in 2022 despite the fact that he will be 35 by then).

The striker pool for the camp is a shallow one with just three players called in: Jeremy Ebobise, Christian Ramirez, and Gyasi Zardes (familiar with Berhalter from his time with the Columbus Crew). Only two of these 23 players have more than 20 caps (Bradley and Zardes) and only five of these 23 players have scored a goal for the US (Zimmerman, Bradley, Arriola, Lletget, and Zardes). Bradley is the only player over the age of 30 but on the flip side of that, Mark McKenzie is the only player under the age of 20 (though Auston Trusty and Djordje Mihailovic are both exactly 20).

One of the lines usually parroted about the games at the end of the January Camp is that there’s not a whole lot to take from the results. It’s usually against weaker opposition and neither the US nor the opponent are playing with their full complement of players. However, the games this time around are vitally important. Winning both games and looking good doing so is an absolute must. US Soccer can throw around all of the cool slogans and buzz words they want, but until the USMNT starts winning and winning at a high level, the fans will continue to not show up for the games or watch on TV (TV ratings were down a second straight year in 2018 and attendance was down a third straight year.) It all gets started in Phoenix against Panama.

Panama, unlike the US, actually qualified for the World Cup in Russia last summer. It was their first ever trip to the World Cup and not much was expected of them. Those expectations were certainly on the money as they lost 3-0 to Belgium in their first game, got crushed by England 6-1 in their second game, and fell 2-1 to Tunisia in their final game. But there was a historic first along the way as Felipe Baloy became the first player to score a goal at the World Cup for the Panamanians (and is still the only one as the goal against Tunisia was an own goal).

Since the World Cup, however, it’s been bad for Los Canaleros. Since their return from Russia, they’ve lost 2-0 to Venezuela, 3-0 to Japan, drawn South Korea 2-2, lost to Honduras 1-0 and Ecuador 2-1. In fact, Panama has not won a game since April of 2018 when they beat Trinidad & Tobago 1-0. They are currently on a ten game winless run, with eight of those games being losses. After the World Cup, Hernan Gomez resigned as manager and in his place Gary Stempel was appointed for his second stint as Panama boss (having previously coach the team from 2008-2009). The roster he called up for this game is entirely domestic based. Only two of the players in the squad have more than 30 caps (defender Fidel Escobar with 31 and forward Abdiel Arroyo with 39). It’s a much younger roster than the US one, with four teenagers and the oldest player topping out at 29. Arroyo could give the US trouble as he has scored six goals for Panama (including against Chile at the Copa America Centenario). Of the players on the roster, Escobar is the only one to have played professionally in the US (a loan stint with New York Red Bulls and another one with New York Red Bulls II).

Notes:

1. The players not to make the 23 man travel squad were: goalkeepers Alex Bono and Tyler Miller, defender Justin Glad, and midfielder Kellyn Acosta. Also not making the travel squad was defender Greg Garza, as he had to withdraw from camp with a quad injury.

2. This is the second January Camp game the US has played at State Farm Stadium, the first being a 1-0 win against Venezuela in 2012.

3. Since 2011, the US has played Panama a total of twelve times.

4. As of Saturday, only 6,000 tickets had been sold for a stadium with a capacity of 63,400.

When and where to find the game on US TV and streaming

Sunday, January 27, 2019
State Farm Stadium
Glendale, Arizona
8pm ET
Live on ESPN2, UniMas, Sling Orange and fuboTV (free trial)

All-Time Series

USA leads 12-1-6

Last Meeting

October 6, 2017
Orlando City Stadium
Orlando, Florida
USA 4-0 Panama

Current FIFA Ranking

USA: 25
Panama: 71

Next Game

International Friendly
Saturday, February 2, 2019
USA vs. Costa Rica
Avaya Stadium
San Jose, California
3:30pm ET

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