U.S. Under-20 Team Falls to 10-Man Panama Side
February 18, 2017
DESPITE PLAYING ONE MAN UP for 72 minutes, the United States U-20 national team fell to Panama 1-0 in the first game of World Cup qualifying. The Americans maintained possession throughout the contest but demonstrated utter confusion as to what to do with the ball.
Nothing went right in this game. Tyler Adams, the victim of the red card challenge, tried to play on but came out in the 33rd minute; after intermission he was hobbling around on crutches. Panama couldn't muster much of an attack, either, but in one critical moment Leandro Ávila's right-footed shot deflected off U.S. fullback Marlon Fossey and then drifted over goalkeeper Jonathan Klinsmann's outstretched arms and into the back of the net.
Serious questions have to be asked of this team and why it could not take advantage of a lesser team missing a player for more than three-quarters of the contest. For all talk about the players not on this squad—including Christian Pulisic, Gedion Zelalem, Cameron Carter-Vickers, Weston McKennie, Nick Taitague, Josh Perez—this team had plenty of talent to win the game. Instead it performed well below the sum of its parts.
Here are my thoughts on the game.
Was There a Plan of Attack?
Ramos has had this core together for almost 18 months but today the team looked like complete strangers—and that falls on the coach.
There were a few puzzling decisions. Moving Erik Palmer-Brown into a defensive midfield role was fine but asking Tyler Adams to play ahead of Luca de la Torre in central midfield was strange. After Adams left the game, de la Torre tried to be the creative playmaker and the Fulham product struggled mightily in the game. That should hardly be of a surprise as de la Torre has not played much with this team during the second half of the cycle.
But that was far from the only problem. The off-the-ball movement was perhaps most concerning as few players were doing what it took to get open for chances. Set pieces yielded nothing and crosses were only effective late in the game.
Jeremy Ebobisse has been the top goal scorer on this team and since he is the lone forward in a single-striker setup, he must produce. The 20-year-old was involved at times—he had a header off the crossbar early in the second half and forced a great save 10 minutes from the end—but he has to come finish his chances when they materialize.
Toward the end the U.S. got the better as Panama tired but the Central Americans benefitted from some outstanding goalkeeping and preserved the win.
Where and how to improve
If the United States wants to pick up the pieces, it has to make a lot of changes.
The backline was decent and not really at fault for the goal. Palmer-Brown should stay in defensive midfield, but the central midfield triangle needs a redo. Adams is likely injured and de la Torre does not appear to fit with this team and shouldn’t start.
One solution could be sliding Sebastian Saucedo from outside and into de la Torre’s role and adding another winger opposite Brooks Lennon. That could fall to either Jonathan Lewis or Coy Craft.
Ramos could also shift to a 4-4-2 and provide more support to Ebobisse with another striker—potentially Sabbi or Lennon. But no matter what Ramos does, the players have to move together better and be on the same page.
This will a huge test for Ramos. All teams need a Plan B and if Ramos has one, he should use it.
Tough road ahead
The United States now faces an uphill climb. In 2015 the under-20 team struggled in qualifying as well, also losing to Panama. But with a new format in place, the Yanks are in worse shape than they were two years ago.
Here’s why: With the loss, Panama is very like to win the group. If that happens, the Yanks' best case scenario for Group B is second place. The second place team in Group B advances to a second group which will now likely consist of Mexico and hosts Costa Rica with only the top two teams advancing to South Korea for the World Cup.
To get to that point the U.S. must beat a pretty good Haiti team, and it must play much better than it did today.