The U.S. men’s national team had never lost to Panama in World Cup qualifying. The USMNT had never played this poorly under head coach Gregg Berhalter. And if you hadn’t heard by now, the 1-0 loss in Panama City happened on the four-year anniversary of the lowest point of the program’s recent history: its stunning elimination on the last day of 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying.
But here’s why it’s so fitting, and it has nothing to do with the misery theme: Back on Oct.10, 2017, Bruce Arena was criticized for being arrogant enough to start identical lineups for the USMNT’s final two matches of qualifying: a 4-0 whipping of Panama, followed four days later by a surreal, lifeless display in a stunning, costly 2-1 loss to previously eliminated Trinidad & Tobago in Couva. Now here we are, four years later, talking about USMNT lineup changes and a World Cup qualifying loss. This time the argument is that Berhalter made too many from one match to the next — seven, to be exact.
Perhaps the right approach for a national team coach is somewhere at the midway point between zero subs and seven subs. That would make sense since some of the greatest teams in the sport have a clearly identifiable spine that defines them and establishes their structure, values and essence. The parts that complement and enhance the backbone can change from game to game, but the core is irreplaceable.
That often fundamental team concept sometimes gets lost in the age of analytics and sports science: This is a game involving humans, and soccer takes 11 of them — no small number — working in perfect concert to execute plays, plans and movements with precision. As humans, these players are fueled by intangibles on the field: their camaraderie, will, their spirit of sacrifice to run, cover and support one another. It’s why we still get those special sports moments when the human qualities of a less-talented team can trump the greater talents of another as measured by tablets, sensors, cameras and countless other quantifiable data points.
The U.S. women’s national team is coming off an experience at the recent Olympics that laid bare the conflict between old-fashioned team-building and modern athlete and team management. Head coach Vlatko Andonovski and his staff were hammered for being overly calculated with their lineup selections throughout the tournament. The U.S. women never jelled, and it showed on the field. They managed games thinking ahead to the next one. It backfired and the USWNT fell short of its gold-medal goal in Tokyo.
Now, weeks removed from that experience, the women’s national team players are talking about new goals in camp, and they have nothing to do with metrics.
“What’s stood out to me the most is that there is a lot of emphasis on being a team. And not just on the field but off the field as well,” Sophie Smith told Sporting News before one of the USWNT’s matches against Paraguay last month. “The biggest takeaway I’d say I’ve gotten from this camp thus far is that we have to be a team. In order to win big games we have to have that chemistry on the field and that chemistry on the field comes from chemistry off the field.”
Smith wasn’t at the 2021 Olympics, but Catarina Macario and Becky Sauerbrunn were in Tokyo, and they echoed that exact same theme. The Ringer’s deep dive into the USMNT’s failure to make the 2018 World Cup also pins it on chemistry. What’s clear is that it’s not built from one day to the next.
Is there chemistry with the current U.S. men’s national team? That’s tough to say. Goalkeeper Zack Steffen talked about how chemistry was a work in progress in 2020. But shows of character like the UEFA Nations League final against Mexico and the CONCACAF Gold Cup in 2021 seem to indicate something is taking hold. Then again, those were largely different squads and if there is chemistry, there weren’t signs of it against Panama. Does the U.S. men’s team have a spine? With the recent emergence of Matt Turner, Ricardo Pepi and Brenden Aaronson and the return to health of Yunus Musah, that’s still up for debate.
In explaining the loss to Panama in his postgame comments, Berhalter had moments where he recognized the more human aspects of the game, but he had a hard time putting his finger on what specifically was at play in that respect.
“It’s sports. It’s humans. There’s no one explanation for it. Our distances were too far. We didn’t have that pop,” he said. “To me, there’s that intensity side of it and it wasn’t for a lack of trying. It was a lack of — I don’t know. We just didn’t have that 100 percent today.”
But the discussion with the media also focused on technical aspects such as load management — specifically in the case of Tyler Adams, who entered the match at halftime — and game models the USMNT staff uses in match assessment.
“When you talk about evaluating the game, for us we look at our game model and how we performed based on that and we give instruction based on that. And it’s really clear,” Berhalter said. “That’s what we’ll do in this game.”
You can only wonder whether the game models can account for chemistry, the type the U.S. women’s national team lost and is trying to get back. Andonovski made calculated gambles at the Olympics based on such information and they didn’t pan out when the team came up against adversity. The USMNT similarly failed when faced with adversity in Panama, from the sapping weather conditions to an aggressive Canaleros team that punched the USA in the nose.
Panama, on the other hand, was fueled by several intangibles: a charismatic coach (Thomas Christiansen, above) inspiring a team and an entire nation to summon the magic of an Oct. 10 anniversary that evokes very different feelings for Panama: The date was the anniversary of their first World Cup qualification in 2018, which partly came at the expense of the USA. These emotions contributed to helping Panama break through a barrier: beating the USMNT in qualifying for the first time.
Is Berhalter being forced into a lineup shuffle because of the congested schedule? For sure, to an extent. But ultimately, the coach’s job — and it’s a hard one — is to make sure that all the aspects of team-building are coming along together: on-field chemistry and team spirit alongside workload balances and game models.
“I think the way to look at it, and this is how I looked at it: It obviously doesn’t look like the best choice, but I think we have to wait ’til Thursday,” Berhalter said of his lineup decisions against Panama. “If we were going to play the same players [vs. Jamaica] in this game [vs. Panama], I’m not sure we would position ourselves in the best way to win again on Wednesday [vs. Costa Rica].
“Again, the conditions that we’re dealing with here with the travel and the weather made it complicated. And we had to make, I guess, somewhat of a risky decision. The good thing is that we’re still in second place. That’s the good thing.”
The U.S. men’s national team headed into the final day of qualifying in October 2017 in third place. It probably also thought that was a good thing at the time.