When Panama national team coach Thomas Christiansen made the decision to stick almost the entire same starting lineup through the first four World Cup qualifiers, it felt like a bit of a gamble given the potential for fatigue and injuries caused by the grind of qualifying. While the other seven teams in the Octagonal rotated their squads a healthy amount, Panama used nine starters in all four matches heading into Sunday’s showdown with the United States.
One person who considered that continuity a strength rather than a potential flaw or mistake was none other than U.S. men’s national team head coach Gregg Berhalter. Asked by SBI Soccer the day before Sunday’s match whether the Americans could have a leg up on the Canaleros due to having the more rested squad thanks to heavy squad rotation, Berhalter saw things differently.
“I think it’s an advantage for Panama, because of the continuity,” Berhalter said. “They’re playing together all the time.”
The fact Berhalter made that point on Sunday makes his own lineup decisions for the USMNT all the more puzzling after Sunday’s 1-0 defeat. Some lineup changes were always going to be part of the plan for the Americans heading into their trip to Panama City — what with Weston McKennie and Antonee Robinson missing the match — but Berhalter’s decision to make seven changes and sit his most in-form players went beyond what anybody could have expected.
The result was the worst USMNT performance of the Berhalter era. Sure, there were some truly poor showings by players most USMNT observers would have suggested to start —Tim Weah, Yunus Musah and Kellyn Acosta to name three — but as much as the players chosen to take the field in Panama deserve a share of the criticism, it is Berhalter who should shoulder the majority of the blame. His lineup choices felt like a gamble made by a coach who was either being too worried about running some of his best players into the ground, or too confident in his bench’s ability to perform, or both.
You could understand if Berhalter was worried about Ricardo Pepi’s workload, and whether he might be exposing the red-hot FC Dallas striker to an injury (losing Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna to injuries in September’s qualifiers might have had him a bit gun-shy), but Berhalter didn’t stop there, going on to make several decisions that came together to turn an exercise in squad rotation into a painful example of squad deflation.
Here are the lineup decisions that came together to form the dominoes of disappointment on Sunday:
Sitting Ricardo Pepi and starting Gyasi Zardes
The minute Zardes was announced as the starting striker ahead of Pepi it was a decision that Berhalter would be judged most harshly for, and if Berhalter had stopped here, and not made so many other changes, he might have avoided this move looking so bad.
Zardes isn’t the kind of player who can make things happen on his own, so when the supporting cast fell so painfully flat, the Crew striker was never going to be the one to rescue the train wreck of a starting lineup.
Starting Paul Arriola again.
The D.C. United winger was excellent against Jamaica, giving his all in an inspiring 90-minute performance. As impressive as Arriola, it was difficult to envision him being called on to start again just three days later in Panama, especially when he only recently returned from a stint on the sidelines due to an injury.
The result was an invisible showing for Arriola, who didn’t win a single duel and completed just seven passes during his 45 minutes before being subbed out at halftime.
Sitting Miles Robinson, starting Mark McKenzie
It was clear to see that Miles Robinson wasn’t at his best against Jamaica, so if there was something in the way he was training, or something his testing and fitness readings was showing to leave Berhalter concerned, then fair enough, but choosing McKenzie over Chris Richards was a head scratcher.
Yes, McKenzie has more international experience than Richards at this point, and he showed well against Honduras in September, but he has not been playing regularly for Belgian side Genk, which may have been why he looked so tentative against Panama. Richards has been a regular starter in the Bundesliga with Hoffenheim, and had been rated ahead of McKenzie going back to their time as teammates on the USMNT Under-20 team.
As for the idea that Richards might not be ready to start in a road qualifier, consider Berhalter’s own words when asked by SBI about his young centerbacks last week:
“They do lack experience,” Berhalter said. “But the only way to get experienced is by actually getting on the field.”
Resting Adams and Aaronson
The most perplexing of Berhalter’s changes wasn’t sitting Pepi, but rather sitting Brenden Aaronson and Tyler Adams, who had come together to establish themselves as the heart and engine of the USMNT, particularly in the extended absence of Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna. Facing Panama on the road was always going to be a battle against a physical and experienced team, the exact kind of battle Adams is more suited to fight than any single player on the USMNT roster, and as much as Berhalter may have had concerns about Adams, the fact Adams was able to come on at halftime made it that much more difficult to understand how he would be left out of the fight from the start.
Aaronson, much like Pepi, has been on an absolute tear, and he has also been playing heavy minutes, but Aaronson is no stranger to heavy workloads and should have been deployed from the start ahead of Arriola.
Starting Shaq Moore over DeAndre Yedlin
We all remember how impressive Shaq Moore was during the Gold Cup, but the harsh reality is Moore lost his starting job with Tenerife and has been playing very little in recent months. Meanwhile, DeAndre Yedlin has settled into a regular starting role for Galatasaray, has significantly more international experience than Moore.
The result of all these moves together was the worst performance by the USMNT in a competitive match during the Gregg Berhalter era, and it came in part because of Berhalter’s second straight failed attempt at deploying the right lineup for a road qualifier.
The good news for Berhalter and the USMNT is that they still find themselves sitting in second place in the Octagonal, and a win on Wednesday could potentially leave them with a four-point cushion in the top three. Weston McKennie and Antonee Robinson should be back to start, and the trio of Pepi, Adams and Aaronson should take their rightful places back in the starting lineup.
As brutally disappointing as Sunday’s loss was, it could still be of value to the USMNT if Berhalter learns from the lesson and accepts the blame he rightfully deserves. Much like his young squad, Berhalter has some things still to learn as a national team coach.