USMNT loss to Panama raises concerns about team's offensive struggles

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Panama's Michael Murillo, center, United State's Sebastian Lletget, left, and United State's Tim Weah.
Panama's Michael Murillo, center, controls the ball between Sebastian Lletget, left, and Tim Weah of the United States during Sunday's World Cup qualifying match. (Arnulfo Franco / Associated Press)

Estadio Rommel Fernández Gutiérrez, the Panamanian national team’s aging, oval-shaped home in the southeastern edge of the capital, has played host to hundreds of games in its long history.

But few resembled Sunday’s World Cup qualifier with the U.S., which was played on the anniversary of the biggest soccer game in the country’s history.

Four years ago, Panama scored in the final two minutes of its final qualifier to beat Costa Rica and claim CONCACAF’s final invitation to the 2018 World Cup in Russia, a ticket that had slipped from the U.S. team’s grasp in Trinidad earlier in the night.

On Sunday, the Panamanians had the Americans right in front of them and they beat them again, with Anibal Godoy’s header in the 54th minute standing up for a 1-0 win.

The loss — the first to Panama in more than a decade and the first in the current qualifying campaign — snapped the Americans’ unbeaten streak at 13 games. And it was a well-deserved result given the way Panama dominated, much to the delight of the passionate crowd of more than 30,000 that fueled a frenzied atmosphere.

“We didn’t have that pop. We didn’t have the legs that we needed. And we suffered for it,” U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said of a team that struggled in temperatures and humidity that hovered in the lows 80s. “We didn’t have that 100% today. We were really poor.”

That was especially true of the U.S. attack, which is becoming a growing cause for concern.

Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna, the team’s biggest offensive threats, were missing with injury, as was midfielder Weston McKennie. And with the U.S. playing the second of three games in a seven-day window, Berhalter held leading scorer Ricardo Pepi out until the 67th minute, one of seven changes from the lineup that beat Jamaica last week.

U.S. players leave the field after losing to Panama on Sunday.
U.S. players leave the field after losing to Panama on Sunday. (Arnulfo Franco / Associated Press)

And as a result, the U.S. managed just five shots — fewest in 40 games under Berhalter — putting none of them on goal. The U.S. hasn’t scored in the first half in eight straight games — that hasn’t happened in more than three decades — and has scored multiple goals just five times in its last 15 tries.

“You could blame all the different variables in the game. But we just weren’t good enough as a team,” said midfielder Kellyn Acosta, who left the stadium with a wide swath of bandage around his head after a late-game collision with Panama’s Armando Cooper. “Sometimes when you get kicked in the mouth, you learn from it, and you grow from it.”

If the game felt like a street fight to the Americans — one they lost — the entire night was a carnival for the Panamanians. When the team clinched its World Cup berth here four years ago, the president declared a national holiday.

The sea of red that packed those same stands Sunday began celebrating again more than an hour before kickoff, when members of the 2018 team that played in Russia were trotted onto the field for a salute.

However the crowd wasn’t looking back, it was looking forward to next fall’s World Cup, with a giant red-and-white banner hanging from a second-deck railing declaring “Russia was a dream, Qatar a pledge.”

That celebration grew in intensity when Godoy’s early second-half header off an Éric Davis corner deflected in off U.S. forward Gyasi Zardes for the only goal of the game. And as the final seconds of stoppage time ticked off, many in the crowd joined in deafening chants of “si se puede,” (yes we can); others rushed the field at the whistle.

Afterward Berhalter was looking forward too because even with the loss the U.S., like Panama, is 2-1-2 and trails only Mexico in the eight-team qualifying table. That leaves the U.S. with a chance to move back into first with a win over Costa Rica on Wednesday in Columbus, Ohio.

“We’re still in second place, right?” he asked. “That’s the good thing. We take every game as it comes and Wednesday’s another opportunity to get three points and further establish our position.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.