The United States national team lost to Panama on Saturday night. It was the first time that they have ever lost in the group stages of Gold Cup play. They lost the game because, for a majority of the game, Panama was the better team. Their attacking players made more of their opportunities, while their defense made less mistakes.
While the USMNT was good for the final half hour of the game, they were outplayed during the opening 60. They also missed quality chances, the most egregious miss coming from Chris Wondolowski, who skied a sitter. It was the kind of opportunity that he has become known for burying after the last 18 months, and his finishing is above all other qualities why he was selected to play for this team.
Panama, while respectable, is not that good of a team. Their best striker is a man by the name of Blas Perez. He is quite possibly the best striker in the second division of Mexican football, but with all due respect to Perez, he plays in the second division of Mexican football. Their best player overall is a man named Felipe Baloy, an imposing central defender who was one of the keys to Santos Laguna's two straight appearances in the Mexican Primera Liguilla finals. He's a great player who would start in the center of defense for the United States. He's also the only player on Panama who would start for the United States.
Back in the days when Perez and Baloy were becoming established professionals while players like Luis Henriquez, Roman Torres, Gabriel Gomez and Amilcar Hernandez were considered good emerging youngsters, some thought Panama was soon to become somewhat of a power in CONCACAF; a nation that had what it took to go toe to toe with the likes of Costa Rica. Those days are long gone. They never got there.
Panama is no longer a sleeping giant or an up and coming program, they are what they are. They're nowhere near qualifying for a World Cup, but they don't embarrass themselves against the big boys in CONCACAF. They're a gatekeeper of sorts. Panama has a population of roughly 3.4 million people, which is about the same population as the state of Connecticut. None of their club teams have ever reached the final of the CONCACAF Champions League. And yet, their national team outplayed the United States as they beat them in a competitive match, fair and square.
The United States national team, the United States Soccer Federation, and United States soccer fans have to accept that this team beat their team. It happened because the United States were inferior. The great sleeping giant of world football, a country with over 300 million people, numerous financial resources, and an ever-improving domestic league was outplayed in a meaningful game by a team with no world class players who comes from a country with 3.4 million people, a mediocre domestic league and an economy that is highly dependent on canal fees.
If the USMNT is serious about what they do and the US Soccer Federation is serious about improving, this is a problem. Assigning blame doesn't seem constructive, but it's something that almost has to be done, or at least attempted in this situation. It's okay to brush off things like this when they are infrequent or when they happen against truly quality sides, but this case fits neither category. Panama are an average team and this is the kind of thing that has happened to the USMNT frequently.
Against Costa Rica in World Cup qualifying, in both of the send-off friendlies before the World Cup, in three out of their four World Cup matches, in the post-World Cup Brazil friendly and in the pre-Gold Cup friendly against Spain, the beginning of each game was the same. In some of those cases, the United States recovered admirably and saved face by the end of the game, but in all of those games they were not just outplayed, but trashed in the early part of the game. Then, it happened again against Panama. That is a sample size of seven matches in a period of two years. Taking out the Costa Rica match and starting with the pre-World Cup friendlies, that's six matches in a year.
This is not a one-off bad result. Instead, this game is exactly what the United States has been doing for a long time on an extremely consistent basis. Tonight, they finally did it against a poor opponent. They finally started slowly and ended up with an undesirable result against a team that they are significantly more talented than. This is the only new development here, the United States starting slowly and playing poorly for a majority of a game is not.
So, where to assign blame? US Soccer, Major League Soccer, and anyone else who should be responsible for the development of young players is a start. As I wrote at the beginning of the Gold Cup, the United States has fallen behind Mexico in this regard, and by a considerable margin. The players in the current player pool are not particularly great, and the players that are great are aging. There are good veteran players and promising youngsters in the USMNT player pool, but how many players in the pool under the age of 25 are bonafide starting caliber? Michael Bradley...and that's the list. That list is one player long. This is a very big problem.
However, despite the fairly unremarkable quality of players available to Bob Bradley, at least compared to Mexico and other teams within the general vicinity of the United States in world rankings, he has to shoulder a good deal of the blame. The late changes in attitude against Turkey, England, Slovenia, Algeria, Ghana and Panama imply that this is not a terrible team, and that if they had gotten off to good starts, they could have beaten all of the above-listed opponents in convincing fashion.
When a team consistently starts games by playing below their average playing level over a long period of time, it's reasonable to blame the coach, and to a lesser extent, the senior players on the team. Most fans do not attend USMNT practices and none of them are in the locker room for pre-game speeches, so they generally have little to no knowledge of how Bob Bradley and captain Carlos Bocanegra get their team motivated and focused. However, when Bradley and Bocanegra's team fails to start games at full speed and full focus on an extremely consistent basis, it is reasonable for those fans to assume that they are substandard in this area of their jobs. The results don't lie.
It's obvious that the US Soccer Federation, Bob Bradley and the team's senior players all deserve some share of the blame for this result, but how do they move forward? By all accounts, US Soccer already has, and hopefully we will see the results of their structure and curriculum changes in the near future. The players aren't getting dropped because there's no one to replace them; they just need to step up. That leaves us with the only thing that can be changed in the short term: Bob Bradley.
Advocating that Bradley be fired mid-tournament is a bit silly, but this result should be an ultimatum game. With this result compounded on the previous two years of questionable results, he might have to do something absolutely spectacular to keep his job. If the USMNT wins the rest of their games in this tournament, eventually defeating Mexico in the final, all will be forgiven. The only way this would sound like a reasonable possibility would be if two of Mexico's front four weren't able to play anymore for whatever reason.
This result, an average player pool, and years of questionable results are not entirely the fault of Bradley. Hell, they're not even a majority the fault of Bradley. Unfortunately for him, fixing the player development system is a slow process and dropping the team's stars will get them nowhere. He's a small part of the problem, but more importantly, he's the only part of the problem that could reasonably be fixed within the next couple of weeks.
Defeat El Tri and all will be forgotten, but that seems like a task over the head of the United States at present. Los Catrachos y Los Ticos will be a tough enough task. Come June 26, it's likely that Bradley's phone will be ringing off the hook with calls from MLS teams, while Sunil Gulati will be spending his days convincing various out of work European managers that he has a fantastic opportunity for them.