The U.S. Men’s National Team has faced Panama 22 times in its history, and most of those matches have taken place with something on the line, whether it be World Cup qualifying points or Gold Cup survival. Whether cheered on by raucous Panamanian fans or eager American fans, the rivalry has always come along with its own traditional soundtrack.
The 23rd meeting, set for Monday (2:30pm, FS1/UniMas/TUDN) will be much different. It will be taking place far from North America, in Wiener Neustadt, Austria, and it will take place in an empty stadium, as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic that continues to rage around the world. It isn’t quite the setting either team would be hoping for to serve as preparation for future clashes with more on the line, but beggars can’t be choosers given the current state of the world.
“The whole world doesn’t have that right now,” Berhalter told reporters on Sunday about the atmosphere that will be noticeably absent as these Concacaf rivals square off. “That is a challenging thing, even the games against Wales that you would you would love to have the National Stadium full and, and people there and unfortunately, don’t have that. We won’t have that again (on Monday), we may not even have that in qualifying.
“Qualifying may look completely different, and that’s just something you have to deal with,” Berhalter said. “And there is a different element to that as well. The motivation does change when when it’s an empty stadium. So these are things we’re taking into consideration.
“For us though, you know, this game is important just to get the group playing together again to get the group competing and looking for a win.”
The Americans are coming off a 0-0 draw with Wales on Thursday, in a match that had few clearcut scoring chances, but that did see the USMNT dominate possession and outplay the Welsh on their home field. For a first match in almost 10 months, it was an encouraging performance by a young team, but also a performance that showed how much work still needs to be done.
“I think there’s there’s certainly room to improve,” Berhalter said. “On the defensive side, I think it was really strong, but when we have one shot on goal in a game, that’s not enough. And so there, to me, is a lot of room to improve on the offensive end.”
Just how many changes Berhalter will make to the squad that faced Wales remains to be seen, but the USMNT coach made comments that would seem to support either approach.
“I think this is a great opportunity for some of the guys that aren’t as familiar with Concacaf opponents to get that experience,” Berhalter said. “So for us, we’re really happy with this game. We’re going to continue to try to build on what we what we had last game. It will most likely look similar, but with some slightly different personnel.”
One of the changes the USMNT will make is to start Reggie Cannon at right back, a lineup move Berhalter confirmed on Sunday. The Boavista right back is leading candidate to be a first-choice defender for Berhalter when next summer rolls around, with Sergino Dest deployed at left back. Having a chance to give his ideal back four a start together against Panama makes plenty of sense for Berhalter, especially given how few times Berhalter will be able to see the likes of Dest, Cannon and John Brooks before World Cup qualifying kicks off next summer.
“Now as you’re getting towards this time, you start to feel the urgency when you think about it, this group won’t be until March again,” Berhalter said. “And then potentially Nations League, doubtfully Gold Cup, so we’re basically going to have four more games together after this game. That’s a small number. It is crucial that we get guys playing together, we get guys comfortable with each other, so that that’s definitely part of it.”
Changes to the USMNT attack appear more likely — especially given the absences of Christian Pulisic and Josh Sargent — with Nicholas Gioacchini and Sebastian Soto vying to start in the striker role that Sebastian Lletget occupied against Wales, albeit operating as a false-nine (striker dropping into midfield consistently).
The false-nine setup failed to produce many quality chances against Wales, but Berhalter appeared to chalk that up more to wingers not capitalizing on space than on Lletget’s efforts in the false-nine role.
“I talked before the game about stretching the defense. And I didn’t think we did that nearly enough (against Wales), Berhalter said. “If we do play with a false nine, it’s imperative that the wingers are run behind the line wingers. And I didn’t think we got that enough. And as we switched, and sometimes a winger came in, and now Sebastian can run behind the line. I just think we can improve.”
Berhalter could choose to play Gio Reyna as a false nine, freeing up a place on the wing for Ulysses Llanez and Tim Weah to start against Panama. Konrad De La Fuente started against Wales in his USMNT debut, but is unlikely to get the call against Panama.
Central midfield is another area where changes are expected, with Richie Ledezma a leading candidate to step in and start, potentially for Yunus Musah, who enjoyed an impressive USMNT debut against Wales, but who also not yet cap-tied to the United States.