USMNT's loss to Panama is a tough, necessary reminder for World Cup qualifying

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Waiting for the United States to announce its starting lineup has become a tumultuous experience. Your projected eleven might be spot on or completely wrong, then it's released and dissected in the moments leading up to the match.

Sunday was no different. In fact, the lineup head coach Gregg Berhalter went with was more shocking than predictable. It featured seven changes from Thursday’s squad against Jamaica. It was as close to a “B team” as you can get on this stage for World Cup qualifiers, and it showed as the USMNT suffered a 1-0 loss in Panama.

The lone score was credited to Anibal Godoy but might’ve been an own goal by Gyasi Zardes, who got the start over Ricardo Pepi, who is in incredible form right now. Besides the fact they gave up seven corner kicks and defended terribly on the set piece leading to the goal, the loss goes far beyond just dropping points on the road.

“You don’t want to make an excuse, but I think the [weather] was a factor," said Berhalter after the loss "The other team had to play in it also, that can’t be the starting point for why we didn’t play well in this game.”

Use all the excuses you want about having to travel on short notice to play in tough road environments. One thing is — and always has been — clear: There are no easy games in World Cup qualifying, regardless of conditions or location. The USMNT know that very well. Exactly four years ago today was an infamous night they’d like to forget in Couva, Trinidad & Tobago, where they lost 2-1 and failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1986.

That day and result launched the hysteria surrounding the USMNT to the moon. A lot of those players have since been replaced with younger, more promising kids. Some still remain. In between there have been bad moments (none to that extent) along with great ones, too. For example, entering Sunday’s contest the USMNT was on a 13-match unbeaten streak, the third-longest in the country’s history. They hadn’t lost a game since May 30 in Switzerland. In between they snagged a few trophies over bitter rival Mexico.

But that run came to a screeching halt and those trophies don’t mean anything when trying to qualify for a World Cup.

Gregg Berhalter got too cute in tinkering with his lineup against Panama, and it cost the USMNT in World Cup qualifying. (REUTERS/Erick Marciscano)
Gregg Berhalter got too cute in tinkering with his lineup against Panama, and it cost the USMNT in World Cup qualifying. (REUTERS/Erick Marciscano)

Berhalter trying to rest certain players is respectable considering there’s a game in a few days against Costa Rica in Columbus, but he might’ve been a little too naive with the group he chose to start. The halftime subs of Tyler Adams and Brenden Aaronson for Yunus Musah and Paul Arriola spoke volumes. Whatever idea he had planned didn’t work. By the time Pepi, DeAndre Yedlin and Cristian Roldan entered in the 68th minute to chase the match, it was too late.

“It wasn’t through a lack of trying," Berhalter said. "We just didn’t have that 100% today. We were really poor with our passing and some of our movement.

"Overall we performed below the expectations that we have for ourselves," he added.

Sometimes, especially in these type of games, all it takes is a goal. The United States were frankly never close to that.

Nobody qualified or failed to on Sunday, but the loss needs to serve as a major lesson for Berhalter and company. Don’t get too cute when tinkering with the lineup because it could end up costing you. Instead of going into Wednesday's game against Costa Rica with confidence, they will now enter it under more added pressure.

How they deal with it will tell us a lot about this team, despite being without crucial pieces like Christian Pulisic and Giovanni Reyna. 

Regardless, the four-year anniversary of one of the worst days in U.S. Soccer sent perhaps the most important and necessary message for this young group: don’t let history repeat itself.

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