Tuesday Oct 19, 2021

Faulting USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter for Panama loss? It’a stretch & overreaction

Faulting USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter for Panama loss? It'a stretch & overreaction

Faulting USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter for Panama loss? It’a stretch & overreaction

Information about Faulting USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter for Panama loss? It’a stretch & overreaction

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Referee Cesar Ramos blew his whistle just two seconds after the seven minutes of stoppage time he’d promised in Sunday night’s CONCACAF World Cup qualifier in Panama City, even though that period had been interrupted by two different citizens who guessed correctly that their dashes onto the field would help secure a victory for Panama over the U.S. men’s national team.

Seven added minutes had been a light estimate in the first place, given there’d been a five-minute delay late in the second half when U.S. midfielder Kellyn Acosta and Panama’s Armando Cooper had accidentally knocked heads, and there were several other players who were treated for minor injuries.

Perhaps Ramos looked at it the way so many who were viewing from the American perspective surely did: He couldn’t stand to watch any more of this.

MORE: USA loses for the first time to Panama in qualifying

You can blame Gregg Berhalter for his tactics in the 1-0 loss at Panama, or for his lineup selection. Or both. It’s happening a lot, but it’s as lacking in effort as the Americans were during whatever period of time these two teams actually were involved in playing soccer.

It’s also just as boring.

Berhalter was willing to accept the blame for the defeat, the first for the team in any competition in 2021. “If it didn’t work, it’s on me,” he said afterwards. “If we had played the same players as the last game [2-0 win vs. Jamaica], I am not sure we would position ourselves to win again on Wednesday. We had to make a somewhat risky decision.”

Berhalter removed from the lineup striker Ricardo Pepi, who delivered two goals in last week’s victory over Jamaica but had played seven 90-minute matches in 24 days before entering the U.S. camp early this month. He removed winger Brenden Aaronson, who rang up an assist in the Jamaica game but had gone 89 or more minutes five times in 19 days. He removed midfielder Tyler Adams, who had played the full 90 three times in the September qualifying window.

DECOURCY: Why Pepi is the one dual national the USMNT had to have

Berhalter installed Gyasi Zardes (below), Tim Weah and Kellyn Acosta in their places, and it didn’t work. The U.S. couldn’t hold the ball, couldn’t create chances, and couldn’t generate danger on set-piece opportunities. He then sent Aaronson and Adams into the game at halftime with the score still 0-0, and it actually got worse. It wasn’t their fault, particularly, but neither did they provide an answer.

(Getty Images)
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Was there a player or combination left unexplored that could have turned around this effort and made it work? Forward Matthew Hoppe sat and watched Zardes constantly a step away from where he needed to be, but Hoppe rarely has played center forward for the U.S. Midfielder Luca de la Torre might have contributed more than Sebastian Lletget — which, on this occasion, was nothing. Suggesting a selection here or there might have changed the performance or outcome, though, is to underestimate how comprehensively meager the USMNT had been in Panama.

Really, it’s OK to blame the players once in a while.

“Now it [rotating players] doesn’t look like the best choice, but I think we’ll have to wait until Thursday,” Berhalter said.

MORE: Qualifying standings, results & schedule

“The conditions that we’re dealing with here with the travel, with the weather, made it complicated … And the good thing is, we’re still in second place, right? That’s the good thing. We have the most goals scored and one of the least amounts of goals allowed. So our goal is to go into Wednesday’s game and get three points.”

The U.S. missed a chance to return home with the scoreless draw that this game appeared destined to become because of a corner kick sloppily conceded by Adams and a fortunate header by Anibal Godoy off a sizzling corner kick by Eric Davis.

To assail Berhalter over this result is a stretch given the circumstances, and it’s certainly an overreaction. This was the 18th international game for the USMNT in the calendar year 2021. It’s their second defeat. It is their first loss in a competitive game — not a friendly, but something played for real stakes — in 727 days. That was 14 games without a defeat, including two finals against Mexico that ended with the American players holding aloft a trophy.

(Getty Images)
https://images.daznservices.com/di/library/sporting_news/39/ce/gregg-berhalter-usmnt-october-10-2021_4dir1cgnthc813oczj5arhwat.jpg?t=1823893868&w=500&quality=80

That anti-Berhalter hysteria could reach such a pitch that a petition would be launched at Change.org to get him fired — in a year when he has won 78 percent of his games and beat the country’s archrival twice — makes one wonder why anyone would want this job.

He entered this window without his two most gifted players, Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna. He traveled to Panama without midfielder Weston McKennie (injury), and goalkeeper Zack Steffen and left back Antonee Robinson, who were sent ahead to Columbus for Wednesday’s game against Costa Rica because of Panama-related quarantine requirements in the UK, where they play their club soccer.

In Panama, Berhalter expected experience would be helpful against a veteran team playing comfortably at home. It was not, not on this night. He was wrong. That happens with coaches sometimes. It happens with Berhalter less often than most — and way less often than his critics believe.

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