USMNT players fail to impress in Gold Cup loss to Panama

Kyle BonaguraESPN staff writerJul 13, 2023, 02:39 AM ET6 minute reading

Why the USMNT’s early exit is not a surprise

Sebastian Salazar reacts to the US men’s national team’s penalty shootout loss to Panama.

SAN DIEGO — Ever since he was named interim The US men’s national soccer coach, who replaces another interim coach, BJ Callaghan, has been consistent.

The team’s goal at the Gold Cup was to capture a fourth straight Concacaf trophy while providing opportunities for a roster that is predominantly composed of young players and fringe players.

It’s not exactly a free combination. But with the squad’s European stars needing an extended break after a long club season that filled the unusual winter World Cup, it was a logical way to try to salvage what has previously been an important competition.

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However, this tournament with this team was hardly that. That’s why when the U.S. crashed out in penalty kicks to Panama in the semifinals at Snapdragon Stadium on Wednesday, many American fans could have simply shrugged and moved on. Nothing that occurred during the five games at the Gold Cup will have much, if any, bearing on the program’s future success.

For Callaghan and the players involved, it is still difficult to fail to advance to Sunday’s final against Mexico in Los Angeles.

“We’re disappointed we weren’t able to achieve that,” said Callaghan, who was quick to point out the silverware. “We had moments of adversity, we saw the group react to it and I think there was a lot of learning that we will all take away as we continue our preparation for 2026.”

Just three days after playing 120 minutes and needing penalties to get past Canada in Cincinnati in the quarterfinals, the U.S. battled back through regulation time — this time under the hot Southern California sun — only for the game to remain scoreless. And again, the USA went down early in overtime as its defense was opened up, leaving goalkeeper Matt Turner on an island, unable to save the team.

It was an own goal that saved the USA against Canada. This time it came from a brilliant match strike from Jesus Ferreira – who equaled Clint Dempsey’s American record for most goals in a single Gold Cup with seven – that sent the game to penalties.

That’s where the magic broke.

Ferreira, the Americans’ first penalty kick, had his shot saved and Panama would prevail 6-5, with both teams taking seven shots. It was a sour finish for both Ferreira and Turner; another big moment from either of them could have sent the team through.

“Obviously, we fought so hard. We did everything in our power to get ready for this game and we hung in there,” Turner said. “We made some bad plays, we made some good plays, but at the end of the day it came down to a penalty shootout – and going through 120 [minutes] and punishing twice in four days is just emotional. It’s been a lot.”

But the tournament experience for this group of players—and perhaps more for Turner than anyone else—proved valuable.

“There’s a lot of guys here that have developed a lot through it and it’s only a good thing for the player pool to have experiences like this to instill hunger in the younger players, instill hunger in myself,” Turner added. “It was great to get to play with some new faces and some younger guys. I got that childlike joy of playing back, which was really nice.”

As good as the added experience is in theory, from a practical standpoint, no American players emphatically stated they are ready for a bigger role when the full pool is available.

The US men’s national team lost to Panama in the semifinals via penalty shootout at the Concacaf Gold Cup.PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

Consider those who had entered the tournament with plenty to prove:

  • Striker Brandon Vazquez scored three goals off the bench – two in key moments against Jamaica and Canada – but was ineffective in his lone start against Panama. With Folarin Balogun now in the mix and Ricardo Pepi on the rise, the depth chart doesn’t line up well for Vazquez, who is No. 5 on the roster at best and likely even lower.

  • Ferreira is in a similar place. He performed well, but it wasn’t the two hat-tricks that made the biggest impression; it was his positional versatility and effort. These attributes, in addition to the goals, make him a good depth player to keep.

  • Centerback Jalen Neal might have improved his stock more than anyone. The 19-year-old LA Galaxy player was unavailable for the semifinals due to injury, but he looked mostly comfortable in his minutes in the tournament. But again, he still has a ways to go before he’s considered a first-choice roster option.

  • Right-back Bryan Reynolds did enough to warrant consideration for a call-up by Gregg Berhalter in September, but with Sergino Dest and Joe Scalley ahead of him, it won’t be an easy road.

  • There are moments when Cade Cowell looks like a superstar in the making, but the end product isn’t there. It’s the same with San Jose in MLS. Until that changes, he will be far from the first-choice team.

  • Based on his inclusion on the Nations League roster, Alejandro Zendejas seemed like the player on this roster closest to a possible breakthrough. It didn’t happen. He was disappointing in four starts before sitting out the semifinals with an injury.

The next game in the USA will be against Uzbekistan in St. Louis on Sept. 9 in what will mark Berhalter’s return. A handful of the players who saw action at this Gold Cup are likely to be on the roster, but only Turner, a lock, and center back Miles Robinson look like candidates to start.

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