The US exit to Panama was embarrassing, but the real story lies elsewhere | USA

The Gold Cup, the biennial the money spinner for Concacaf, inspires a very different atmosphere around the US men’s national team compared to the World Cup. Superiority, not inferiority, dominates the conversation.

After all the hand-wringing from the inadequacies on display during the Round of 16 against the Netherlands in Qatar, here is a tournament that will cause concern if the Americans don’t win it every time, given their status as perennial hosts and the low caliber of most of the their opponents.

And they didn’t this month, losing on penalties to Panama in the semi-finals on Wednesday. This is only the second time in the last 10 Gold Cups that the United States failed to reach the final, with Mexico facing Panama on Sunday at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles.

It was also just the second defeat for the US in 12 games since the World Cup, the other being a 2-1 friendly loss to Serbia in January when both sides were underpowered.

Interim US head coach BJ Callaghan blamed himself for what he described as a first-half tactical miscalculation that gave a solid and well-drilled Panama the early initiative while the players were tired after their quarter-final against Canada went to extra time and penalties just three days earlier.

Despite some large crowds, the Gold Cup for the United States is becoming a facsimile of a major tournament, a cover version of a real competition. As in 2021, the US essentially named a shadow team to give the Europe-based players – that is, the best – a break. Even the manager was a fill-in, with Gregg Berhalter not returning to regular duties until after the tournament.

For the United States, the Gold Cup is primarily useful as a test of squad depth against regional rivals and as an opportunity for work experience; 14 of the 23-man players had fewer than 10 international matches in the tournament. Only a couple of those on display in the last few weeks are likely to keep their places in the squad the next time Berhalter names a man at full strength. One – Matt Turner – emerged as a star at the 2021 Gold Cup (which the US won) and developed into first-choice goalkeeper in Qatar. So the occasional breakthrough is possible.

23-year-old New York City FC defensive midfielder James Sands made his case as a viable understudy for Tyler Adams, while Cade Cowell, the 19-year-old winger who plays for the San Jose Earthquakes, scored a composed goal against Trinidad & Tobago that collects a soft return pass, rounds the keeper and spoils a defender for his first international strike. Jalen Neal, the 19-year-old Los Angeles Galaxy center back, is also one to watch.

Jesús Ferreira, in need of some reputational rehabilitation after an unfortunate 45 minutes in his surprise start against the Netherlands last year, became the first player in USMNT history to score a hat trick in consecutive international games. The FC Dallas forward and a sweep of small Caribbean islands added to his tally of goals against St. Kitts & Nevis and Trinidad & Tobago with a fine volley against Panama, where his seven Gold Cup goals equaled Clint Dempsey’s USMNT tournament record set in 2015.

With tallies now standing at 15 goals and four assists in 23 appearances, the 22-year-old became the fastest player to reach double-digit goals in USMNT history. But until he can prove his effectiveness against elite nations, he’s likely still behind shiny new star Folarin Balogun and a resurgent Ricardo Pepi on the depth chart.

With MLS-based players the exception not the rule when Berhalter picks his strongest starting lineup, the USMNT’s center of gravity has shifted to Europe. As we look ahead to the all-important World Cup in 2026, the machinations of player agents and club managers as they resolve unsettled situations for many of Berhalter’s key men this summer are likely to prove more significant to the team’s prospects than anything that happened during the Gold Cup.

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As the defeated players trudged off the pitch in San Diego, Christian Pulisic was in Italy completing his move to Milan. After a season in which he started just eight Premier League games for Chelsea, scoring once, the fee for the American talisman was reportedly $22m. – around a third of what the Londoners paid Borussia Dortmund for him in 2019. Still only 24, his kinetic displays in Qatar and against Mexico in the Concacaf Nations League last month underline how important he is to the team, making it crucial, that he avoids another season of stagnation at club level.

That appears to be a risk for Turner, who featured in the Gold Cup precisely because of his lack of first-team action for Arsenal. Despite his reliability, at the age of 29, another campaign spent almost entirely on the bench would be inappropriate. Pepi has just joined Dutch league runners-up PSV Eindhoven, giving the 20-year-old a useful platform while Brenden Aaronson moves from the Championship to the Champions League after sealing a one-year loan from Leeds United to Union Berlin. The picture is more cloudy too Weston McKennie, Adams, Balogun, Sergiño Dest, Yunus Musah and gio reyna.

Aftershocks from the Reyna-ructions that delayed Berhalter’s reappointment are a story to watch when the USA and their coach return to action in September with otherwise subdued friendlies against Uzbekistan and Oman. Will the playmaker and the coach hold a press conference to announce a new beginning in their relationship after the epic break-ups during and after the World Cup?

With enticing friendlies in October against Germany and Ghana, and the return of the Nations League, this autumn promises to have more significance and intrigue than the summer did, especially around how Balogun performs. The Nations League serves as a qualifying tournament for the 2024 Copa America. Like the Gold Cup, it will also be hosted in the United States – promising a financial win for Conmebol and a useful dress rehearsal for the 2026 World Cup hosts. It’s a safe bet to assume that the American line-up – and buzz – will be somewhat different in a year’s time.

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