A day after arriving in Panama for the second Concacaf World Cup Qualifying match in the present window, USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter said road qualifiers are becoming a little less daunting for the young Americans.
“I think it was just about learning,” Berhalter said. “Again, you know, we spoke a lot about how you can talk about what these games are like, but until you play them, you don’t really know and, and for our group it’s about learning what these games are about. It was an important step for this team. It’s not talked about enough how young this team is and what we’re doing.
“You need to learn, and we need to get game experience, and all these games are helpful in doing that. So tomorrow night will be, you know, another game that’s going to help us grow as a team.”
Ricardo Pepi electrified the USMNT in his home state of Texas Thursday night, scoring both goals in a 2-0 win over Jamaica.
Yunus Musah, Sergino Dest and Brenden Aaronson enter the Panama game looking to build on an impressive performance from Thursday. Aaronson notched an assist Thursday and already has five goals in his first 10 USMNT caps.
“I think he’s (Aaronson) a great example for the rest of the group is just that slow and steady improvement really, really helps get you places and you know, he’s done a great job with the team,” Berhalter said. “You know, his work rate, his energy, his final product is all was all really strong. So he’s done a good job.”
The struggles from the USMNT’s opening loss to El Salvador seem to be behind them. Midfielder Kellyn Acosta said he thought the El Salvador loss taught a needed lesson early on, and the team has turned a corner since Ricardo Pepi’s heroics in Honduras and the latest result against Jamaica.
“Getting the win away (from home against Honduras) was huge,” Acosta said. “I think from a confidence standpoint, huge for all of us knowing that, now you can go into you tough conditions and grind out and get a result. I think that helped the group, realize that we’re capable of doing it, and realizing that, you know, it’s gonna take a lot to do so.”
Panama presents a challenge just as difficult as the USMNT’s previous road qualifiers in Honduras and El Salvador. Panama started World Cup Qualifying by drawing with Costa Rica, manhandling Jamaica for a 3-0 win and then earned a surprising point against Mexico. A loss to El Salvador is the only blemish for Los Canaleros through four games of qualifying.
Berhalter will feel comfortable with several different lineup choices, but Panama’s starting lineup is fairly static and filled with experience.
Los Canaleros have had largely the same lineup thus far in qualifying, with consistent starters such as centerback Fidel Escobar, forward Rolando Blackburn and midfielder Anibal Godoy. Blackburn started this qualifying cycle with two goals in four games.
“I think it’s an advantage for Panama, because of their continuity, they’re playing together all the time,” Berhalter said. “And you get them early in the window. They’re not fatigued, they’re not tired. So tomorrow, I think will be a good game. They’re going to be fresh, you know, probably play a similar lineup.”
Weston McKennie, Zack Steffen and Antonee Robinson are set to miss Sunday’s match with injuries. McKennie’s injury is not severe, Berhalter said, and McKennie could be ready to face Costa Rica in Columbus, Ohio, on Wednesday.