USMNT loses first-ever World Cup qualifier to Panama, dropping behind Mexico in standings

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The U.S. men get out one hole only to dig themselves a new one.

On top of Concacaf's World Cup qualifying standings after a win over Jamaica on Thursday, the Americans are now behind archrival Mexico after a shockingly lackluster effort against Panama on Sunday night.

The 1-0 loss was the USMNT's first-ever to Panama in World Cup qualifying, and only second overall.

Now the Americans face another must-win game Wednesday, when they host Costa Rica in Columbus, Ohio. For those keeping track, this is the second must-win game of the qualifying cycle, which is only five games old.

"It’s massive. It’s a really big game. We all have to be up for it," said Walker Zimmerman, the U.S. captain against Panama. "You look at your home games, those are the games you have to win. They become increasingly important when you don’t get a result on the road."

The U.S. men got off to a rough start in qualifying, getting just two points from games in El Salvador and at home against Canada last month. They were in trouble in Honduras until Ricardo Pepi energized the team in the second half, springing Antonee Robinson for the equalizer and then scoring the go-ahead goal.

He also had assists on two more goals, which lifted the Americans into the all-important third place in the standings. The top three teams automatically qualify for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, while the fourth-place team goes to a playoff.

Pepi scored both goals against Jamaica last week, which put the Americans at the top of the standings. Now they trail archrival Mexico, ahead of next month’s game in Cincinnati.

"The good thing is, we're still in second place, we have the most goals scored and one of the least amount of goals allowed," coach Gregg Berhalter said.

If the Americans learned anything four years ago, when they failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, it should have been that they can't leave any points on the table.

And given the U.S. men's previous dominance of Panama, they definitely did Sunday.

Berhalter will be second-guessed for making seven changes to his lineup, which likely contributed to the Americans looking out of sync all night.

They were a mess in the midfield, unable to hold possession because of repeated, sloppy mistakes. They didn't have any offensive presence, either. Zimmerman's header off a corner kick in the fourth minute that sailed a few inches above the crossbar the closest to a goal they came.

Kellyn Acosta reacts after losing to Panama in a Concacaf World Cup qualifier at Rommel Fernandez stadium, Panama City, Panama.
Kellyn Acosta reacts after losing to Panama in a Concacaf World Cup qualifier at Rommel Fernandez stadium, Panama City, Panama.

Despite Christian Pulisic (ankle) and Gio Reyna (hamstring) back in Europe, Berhalter didn't start Pepi. Three minutes after coming on in the 67th, the teenager took a shot from inside the box that was wide of the far post, and he -- and the rest of the Americans -- never threatened again.

Panama, meanwhile, had several chances in the first half off set pieces before finally scoring in the 54th on Anibel Godoy's glancing header off a corner kick.

"Now (the lineup changes) doesn’t look like best choice, but I think we have to wait until Thursday," Berhalter said. "If we played the same players from the last game (against Panama) … I’m not sure we would position ourselves in the best way to win again on Wednesday."

Perhaps. But the Americans were firmly in control and now they're going to have to scramble.

Again.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: USMNT drops behind Mexico in Concacaf standings after loss to Panama