Five thoughts from the USMNT win over Panama to kickoff new era
The first game of the Gregg Berhalter was a comfortable win over Panama in a scrimmage-like atmosphere. But it was still a useful learning experience for both the players and the coach. ASN's Brian Sciaretta breaks down his five thoughts on the game
BY Brian Sciaretta PostedTHE FIRST step in the Gregg Berhalter era was positive as the U.S. team rolled to a 3-0 win over an inexperienced Panama team. Once the U.S. scored the opening goal, the result was never in doubt and the game took the feel of a scrimmage.
January 28, 2019
January 28, 2019
But the fact the opponent was weak doesn’t mean the game wasn’t a good opportunity for Berhalter to learn about a new group of players or for the players to learn about Berhalter’s system. In that regards, Panama was a good place to start before gradually increasing the talent of the opposition.
Over the past year, the U.S. team embarked on a very challenging schedule with friendlies against the toughest opponents in the world. Often the young U.S. team looked overmatched to the point where it was fair to question if the team was learning anything.
Easing into tougher opponents with a new coach and a new system might turn out to be the way to go. But overall, most of the players looked comfortable and excited for the moment. That hasn’t always been the case with January camp where the players are in preseason.
With that said, here are the talking points.
Mihailovic, Baird, Lovitz & Lewis: raw but promising
For most of the debutants, it was a positive first step. But looking at four in particular – Djordje Mihailovic, Corey Baird, Dan Lovitz, and Jonathan Lewis, there were very solid moments from each player and times when all looked raw.
Mihailovic, 20, has had a very good January camp and it was only natural to expect a few moments where he looked new to the stage. As everyone knows, the talented Chicago playmaker missed most of 2018 with a torn ACL which he suffered in the 2017 playoffs. He came back at the end of the season and as soon as he shook off the rust, the offseason began.
But Mihailovic’s goal was both lucky and well-taken. The deflection on the shot was helped by Mihailovic’s smart decision to hit it with the first touch. With some of his poor passes, it is easy to forgive since they took place in the final third when he was trying to make things happen. It is easy to see Mihailovic becoming a big part of the U.S. U-23 team over the next year.
Baird also had some turnovers but also had the assist on Mihailovic’s goal. He was easily a net positive for the game and should get the opportunity to play against better competition.
Jonathan Lewis is also eligible for the U-23 team. The NYCFC winger was active on the left side and was always looking to take defenders on with the dribble. It didn’t always work but he was very successful on the third goal when he made a great run to set up Christian Ramirez’s tap-in. For Lewis, he really needs to be in a situation where he plays more at the club level – which is odd since he seems to do well whenever he plays. Without that playing time, it will be hard to see him taking a bigger role within the team.
Finally, Dan Lovitz also had an interesting game. He looked uncomfortable and shaky at the start but clearly grew into the game by the start of the first half. He should have had an assist with a solid ball into the box which Gyasi Zardes missed. His passing improved throughout the game.
But for Lovitz, he is a left back and the position remains weak and unsettled. So the bar is lower but Lovitz could hang around in the mix if he builds off his outing against Panama.
Zardes missed too many chances
Gyasi Zardes had a frustrating game. Aside from a few nice layoffs which could have resulted in goals, he just missed too many chances. In the first half, he had open headers from great crosses delivered by Lovitz and Jeremy Ebobisse. In the second half, he had an opportunity from close range that was hit right at the keeper.
Unlike previous games, his first touch wasn’t what let him down but rather it was his finishing. Christian Ramirez looked better in his limited minutes with some effective passing and then a goal (granted it was a tap-in). But while Zardes is familiar with Berhalter and his system, the leash could and should be short.
Lima helped his case the most
The right back depth chart is all up in the air right now and a lot of players have a clean slate. Nick Lima certainly made nice first impression with man of the match performance in his first cap. He helped set up the first goal and made the play of the game for the second when his well-timed tackle forced a turnover which was followed by him hitting a perfect cross to Walker Zimmerman.
This is healthy. It’s good to put pressure on DeAndre Yedlin and have more backup options beyond Reggie Cannon, Shaq Moore. Then you have the likelihood of Sergino Dest entering into the mix. But the U.S. team needs players who can cross well from the fullback positions and Lima has shown he can do that at San Jose and in his first step with the national team.
For that reason Lima had the biggest impact in the game and was also the player who helped his stock the most.
Central defense race tightened
Central defense is the hardest position to figure out for the national team. There are a lot of good players are top European clubs, but many of these players don’t play. Matt Miazga, Cameron Carter-Vickers, and Erik Palmer-Brown haven’t been playing much this year. In addition, John Brooks has yet to show the consistency at the international level.
So that is why the development of domestic options is also important because, more than any other position, central defenders need to be playing regularly.
The decision to have Aaron Long wear the captain’s armband was telling and it sent a message that he is has a very strong chance to be in the mix moving forward. He has enjoyed a stunning rise since being converted to central defense in 2016. During the three subsequent seasons, he has broken through barriers with ease. In 2016 he was the USL Defender of the Year. In 2017 he was a solid MLS starter. In 2018 he was the MLS Defender of the Year and earned his first USMNT cap. Now to start 2019, he has worn the U.S. national team armband.
What is Long’s ceiling? No one knows exactly but the fact he has enjoyed a seamless upward trajectory should open everyone’s eyes.
Meanwhile, Walker Zimmerman has played well in his limited times for the national team but he offers aerial ability that is unique to the other defenders in the pool. At this point, the fact he offers something different could also keep him in the mix as the European-based players struggle for minutes.
Roldan’s movement helped
Cristian Roldan, in particular, looked especially comfortable in Berhalter’s system from the beginning. The U.S. team was always on the front foot of an overmatched opponent but unlike his previous appearances, Roldan looked lively and active. While he did not have a goal or an assist, he helped to open up the game.
Of course it was a weak opponent, but Roldan earned the opportunity to see if his form can translate against a tougher opponent and Costa Rica will provide that test next weekend.