Coming in with high expectations as the host nation for this special edition of the Copa America 2024, as it included both North and South American nations, the US Men’s National Team (USMNT) failed to make it out of the first round group. This failure to advance out of an accommodating group featuring Bolivia, Panama, and Uruguay should raise questions about the direction of this team and the program overall. Let’s look at what happened to the USMNT at the Copa America, and what it means for this group moving forward.  

First Game vs. Bolivia

The team got off to a solid enough start with a 2-0 win over Bolivia. We created a ton of chances and could have easily won this game by 4 or 5 goals. This game was a good start to the tournament and led us into a tougher matchup with Panama with an advantage, as they lost to Uruguay in their opening match 3-1. A victory would put us through to the next round automatically, without having to get a result against a very good Uruguay squad. 

The US has a much better team than Panama on paper, and going into the tournament the US was ranked 11th while Panama was ranked 43rd. On home soil this matchup should have been a routine victory for our side.

Difficulty with Panama

One Key Moment

Well, it was not routine at all. A moment of madness from Timothy Weah, in which he punched a Panamanian player in the head away from the action, led to his early dismissal in the 18th minute of the match. This put the USMNT a man down for most of the match, an obvious disadvantage.

The pivotal moment of the USMNT’s short Copa America campaign

Even though we boast a superior squad to Panama, playing that long a man down is difficult against most decent teams at this level. 

Tactical Failure Against Panama

But we still should have won this match. We even scored first, a beauty of a goal from Folarin Balogun. With a lead and a man down, the team should have been prepared for such a scenario (at least on the white board) as a normal part of going into a big tournament. As a former professional, these types of training sessions are the norm – you prepare on the training field for different situations so you know exactly what you need to do when adversity strikes. 

It didn’t seem like the team was on the same page. Getting a goal with a man down is a gift, but we squandered it. The setup and discipline of the team was all wrong, and we gave up the lead within a few minutes. If you look at their first goal (click at 4:29 in the video below), there are a few mistakes. The first domino is Tyler Adams running past Gio Reyna to press a player in the right midfield channel. Even though this seems like a hustle play, and you do need to pressure the ball when down a man, it takes Adams out of the center of the field – the most important part to defend when you are a man down. This was the wrong area to apply pressure from the wrong player. He then jogs back without the urgency you’d expect from our leader and defensive midfielder. 

Fast forward to 4:29 to see the series of mistakes for Panama’s first goal

Panama bypasses Adams’ single man pressing show and finds space right in front of our backline. A couple of passes later, and they get a decent shot from the top of our box after a missed tackle. This happens right in the space that Adams should have been patrolling. When down a man, it’s vital that your two central midfielders stay disciplined in the middle of the field to protect your center backs from getting outnumbered. Adams had no reason to press the ball that high and wide up the field. It seems like we either didn’t have this scenario planned out, or Adams didn’t do what he was supposed to (and a player of his pedigree and experience should know better). Panama capitalized accordingly.

You’d also expect Matt Turner to make these types of saves. When playing a man down, your goalkeeper has to come up big at least a couple of times. Since Turner doesn’t offer much playing with his feet in possession, he simply has to make the play here for us to hang on to the lead and stem Panama’s momentum. It did go through a couple of bodies and took a slight deflection, but Turner was nowhere near a low shot from outside the box at his near post. He looked well out of position.

Team shape

The shape of our team was such that it didn’t look like we had prepared for such a situation. The outside midfielders played very deep and close to the outside backs, creating spacing issues and inviting pressure. In general we were sitting too far back, allowing too much comfort in possession and not offering much threat on the counter attack. Basically, we made it very comfortable for Panama. 

The second half didn’t get much better. Berhalter made a tactical change, taking out Reyna and putting in Cameron Carter-Vikers, a center back, to give us a 5 man backline, with three midfielders in front of them. I assume the theory behind this change is that it would free up our midfielders to move higher up the field. It had the opposite effect – we actually allowed Panama even more space. The outside players of our central three midfielders were stuck supporting the wingbacks, and the extra center-back was not allowing our wingbacks to apply more pressure further up the field. As a result, Panama had an even easier time keeping possession against a setup that was so deep. 

It looked like we were playing for a draw from the outset of the second half. It’s incredibly difficult to keep any team at bay with this approach. Even though a draw would have been a good enough result, playing for one for so long is draining.

Eventually Panama broke through with a play from the left side of our defense and a simple low cross that was met uncontested at the near post. It looked like the spacing inside of our box was off, as Tim Ream wasn’t able to pressure or cut out the cross, and Carter-Vickers was well behind his man. You simply can’t give up space and chances like this when you’re hanging on. But the backline was understandably fatigued after having to defend nonstop for so long. 

Also of note, our backup goalkeeper Ethan Horvath had replaced Turner at this point. While the shot was from close range and had plenty of power, it was right at Horvath – you’d expect an elite goalkeeper to make a play on that. 

Overall, even though we were down a man, we have the talent and athleticism to take the game to Panama much more than we did. Sure, in this situation there are times you have to sit back and ride out pressure from the other team. But you also have to be able to hold the ball in the other team’s half for periods of time while offering a threat to score, and we didn’t do much of that.

This loss was the key to our elimination from the tournament. I blame the tactical setup as much as I blame Timothy Weah’s indiscipline. It set up a situation against Uruguay where we had to match or better Panama’s result from their game against Bolivia. Unfortunately Uruguay is one of the best and most physical teams in the world. 

Needing a Result against Uruguay

I won’t go into too much detail, but we gave ourselves a mountain to climb against Uruguay, one of the better teams in the world. They always play a physical style with a point to prove, and it was no different against us. 

We created a couple half chances but nothing clear cut. With Panama beating Bolivia, we needed a win against Uruguay. While we played hard and limited their chances, we did not create enough chances to win. Plain and simple. 

Under Berhalter, this has been the norm against elite teams. We have yet to pull off an upset against a superior team under his guidance. The US teams of the past, with less talent than our current squad, were able to pull off the odd upset in key games. Berhalter has not been able to get the team to perform better than the sum of its parts, even on home soil in a must-win game. This should be the main talking point and determinant of his future as the coach (more on that later).

Refereeing Controversy

The referee was terrible. From a bizarre continuation of play after pulling out a yellow card (which necessitates a stoppage in play), to several questionable calls, the main referee was obviously overmatched for such an important game. It was only his 7th international contest. This calls into question some of the planning around this tournament – surely the European Cup would not have such a novice referee taking charge of any match, let alone a pivotal game for the host nation. 

The Uruguayan goal was also clearly offside. Even after a VAR review, it was upheld. The angle of the review and where the lines were drawn certainly invites controversy (neither of these seem fullproof or conclusive), it looked like a clear offside call. For whatever reason, the Copa America decided not to implement the semi-automated offsides that the European Cup did, which leads to more subjective decision making with offside calls. Another failure of the organization of such a high profile tournament. 

Either way, this goal and low-quality of refereeing did not cause the US to lose. It was a poor performance and result against Panama, plus the lack of chances we created against Uruguay, which led to our deserved elimination. 

Future Impact

This Copa America was a great opportunity for the USMNT to create some hype before the World Cup in two years time. A big win against a favored opponent, or at least a couple spirited matches against high profile teams in a legit major tournament, would have been something for the fanbase to get behind. At least getting out of the group and playing an extra game would have been better than the disaster that we saw. 

Getting out of the group was the bare minimum expectation, and we did not meet it. We don’t have any competitive games until the World Cup in 2026 (we qualify automatically as hosts), so it will be hard for this group to rebuild their confidence in meaningful games ahead of this pivotal tournament. We faced adversity on a couple of occasions and were not able to overcome these hurdles. Even with arguably the most talented team we’ve ever had. 

Make no mistake, this upcoming World Cup is an opportunity to change our soccer culture and propel the status of soccer to a major sport in this country. But only if the USMNT can make a deep run. On the evidence of this dry run, we may not be able to take advantage of this golden, once in a generation chance. 

Berhalter’s Job in Jeopardy?

It should be. Actually, it shouldn’t even be a question.

Apparently a decision will be made in the middle of this week. It shouldn’t have taken that long. Keeping him in the job will reinforce a culture of mediocrity and low expectations. The women’s national team fired their coach after a subpar World Cup showing. Their program is much more successful, and the USMNT should follow suit. Not much more needs to be said.

The key question will then be who replaces him. The job should be an attractive one, and hopefully the people in charge can get the right person in quickly. 

What about the players?

Certainly they should not escape blame for this poor showing. Our stars did not bail us out. No one stepped up to make big plays when we needed it. Too many players seem comfortable in this squad and too many players have regressed or not taken their game to the next level. 

The key to a national team is its individual players. The national team coach can’t develop them – he doesn’t have enough time during the year to make these players that much better. It’s up to the individuals to get better with their club teams. While many players have had great seasons, which is contributing to the overall talent pool, we need certain individuals to take the next step in their club careers. 

Gio Reyna is the big one. He needs to find a club situation where his obvious talent can blossom. He can be a game changer, but without enough playing time he won’t be able to translate that to the national team. The right move really helped Pulisic, and you’d think Reyna could have the same level of impact on this team. 

Players like Musah, Weah, Balogun, and a few others have yet to make the step up to the next level from recent moves to big teams. These guys form the core of our team and need to take that next step for our team to be competitive. Other guys that are lower on the depth chart also need to push these players. Right now the core of our team isn’t improving as much as it should individually. 

And we need guys who take charge at the club level on a weekly basis. Right now, too many of our top players are role players at bigger clubs. We need guys who are comfortable with the responsibility of winning games. In the Copa America, Pulisic was the only one who was consistently looking to get on the ball and make an impact (even though he didn’t have a great tournament by his standards).


If anything, this tournament exposed the cracks in our squad and system. Better now than in two years time. Hopefully US Soccer can make the right personnel decisions, and our players can buckle down and take the next steps in their club careers, to give our team the best chance to make a deep run at the World Cup in 2026. Otherwise US Soccer will miss a once in a generation chance to take the next big leap.

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