The rollercoaster ride continues! USMNT hits bump with World Cup qualifying loss to Panama

Mark Mckenzie USMNT Panama 2021
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It's going to be a bumpy ride for the U.S., as Gregg Berhalter's squad dropped points for the third time in five matches

Up and down we go. Peaks, valleys and everything in between.

Buckle up, everyone. The U.S. men's national team's World Cup qualifying rollercoaster ride is only just beginning.

After reaching a thrilling high with a big win over Jamaica on Thursday, the U.S. found itself once again holding on through a rapid descent on Sunday in Panama. It came in the form of a 1-0 loss for the visitors at the Estadio Rommel Fernandez, the latest sign that this qualifying run will be anything but straightforward for the USMNT.

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Just days after jumping to the top of the Octagonal with a calm win over Jamaica, the U.S. has fallen right back to the pack with its first loss of the qualifying cycle. Anibal Godoy's second-half goal did the damage, and the result was fair on the run of play.

This bump, though, was largely self-inflicted. For a team that has been stressing taking games one at a time, the U.S. either looked too far forward or too far back. They either believed their own hype after Jamaica, which head coach Gregg Berhalter warned them not too, or they eyed another potential three-pointer against Costa Rica this week.

The end result was a humbling defeat, one that will fall on both Berhalter and the players for a lack of urgency that led to a lack of points.

Berhalter opted to make seven changes to his starting XI due to fatigue, injuries and Covid protocol, with the U.S. coach turning to several familiar faces to navigate what would always be a difficult game in Panama. In came Gyasi Zardes, Kellyn Acosta, Walker Zimmerman and Sebastian Lletget, all veterans with plenty to prove alongside a number of newcomers. 

There was no Christian Pulisic or Gio Reyna, who missed this camp with injury. Tyler Adams, Ricardo Pepi and Brenden Aaronson, meanwhile, were stashed on the bench.

But Berhalter's team was one that could have, and probably should have, still had enough to go toe-to-toe with Panama. They didn't, as the U.S. looked disjointed, lethargic and, ultimately, overmatched by the occasion.

Panama USMNT gfx 2021

From the opening whistle,  the U.S. looked a step slow, a step off the pace, against a Panama team that gave everything it could possibly give in its home stadium. And even late introductions of Pepi, Adams and Aaronson couldn't save the day as the U.S. squandered the day.

"It obviously doesn't look like the best choice," Berhalter said, reflecting on the changes, "but I think we have to wait until Thursday.

"If we would have played the same players from the last game, first of all two of them weren't even here, so that was going to be impossible, but if we would have played the same players in this game, I'm not sure we would position ourselves in the best way to win again on Wednesday."

The midfield, which included Acosta, Lletget and Yunus Musah, was all but invisible. Zardes, up top with Arriola and Tim Weah, struggled to generate chances. The U.S. had just five shots, with none on target, in what was undoubtedly the worst attacking performance of the Berhalter era.

And, in the second half, the defense was beaten after being bailed out several times in the first half by a Man of the Match-worthy performance from Matt Turner.

In the 54th minute, Turner, through no fault of his own, was finally beaten as Panama sent the home fans into a frenzy by curling in a set piece. Eric Davis' in-swinging ball was flicked on by Anibal Godoy right onto Zardes, who was helpless as the ball caromed into the back of the net.

It was a deserved goal for Panama, who were given another reason to celebrate on the four-year anniversary of its qualification for the 2018 World Cup. The U.S., meanwhile, was left to think over a poor performance on its own four-year anniversary of missing that same World Cup due to its infamous loss in Trinidad & Tobago.

Sunday's loss won't ring those alarm bells, at least not yet. It was a horrendous performance, both stylisticallly and statistically. It was a game that did provide reasons for concern and plenty of reasons to question Berhalter's rotations and the players' efforts.

This process, this marathon, is still only just beginning though. The U.S. still sit second on the table, level with third-place Panama, heading into a visit from Costa Rica later this week.

That match will only be more important for the U.S. after Sunday's setback. With a win over Costa Rica, the U.S. will feel more than okay with a six-point window. With a loss, things will be a bit murkier as the U.S. will find itself in a real battle through the first six games of this 14-game slate.

"It's a really big game," said Zimmerman, who captained the U.S. on Sunday. "We all have to be up for it. There's no other option."

This process is going to be an emotional one for the U.S. It will be a ride that will force this young American team to learn plenty about itself. It's a series of games that will force this group to balance the emotions, to ride out the highs and lows and, ultimately, book its ticket to Qatar.

Doing that will require them to survive dips like Sunday and, in a perfect world, escape them with a point or three in hand. That wasn't the case in Panama as the U.S. was handed its latest CONCACAF lesson.

And so the rollercoaster ride continues. Keep your arms and legs inside the ride at all times. It's going to be a bumpy one.