USMNT players fail to impress in Gold Cup loss to Panama

Kyle Bonagura, ESPN Staff WriterJul 13, 2023, 02:39 AM ET

CloseCovers the Pac-12.Joined ESPN in 2014.Attended Washington State University.

SAN DIEGO — Ever since he was named the interim United States men’s national soccer team coach, replacing another interim coach, B.J. Callaghan has been consistent.

The team’s objective at the Gold Cup was to capture a fourth straight Concacaf trophy while providing opportunities to a roster made up predominantly of young and fringe players.

It’s not exactly a complimentary combination. But with the squad’s European-based stars needing an extended break after a long club season that sandwiched the unusual winter World Cup, it was a logical way to try to salvage what in the past has 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 penalties to Panama in the semifinal at Snapdragon Stadium on Wednesday, many U.S. fans could have simply shrugged and moved on. Nothing that took place over the five games at the Gold Cup will have much, if any, impact on the future success of the program.

For Callaghan and the players involved, though, failing to advance to Sunday’s final against Mexico in Los Angeles still stings.

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

Just three days after playing 120 minutes and needing penalties to advance past Canada in Cincinnati during the quarterfinals, the U.S. again slogged its way through regular time — this time under the hot Southern California sun — only for the game to remain goalless. And again the U.S. went down early in extra time when its defense was opened up, leaving goalkeeper Matt Turner on an island, unable to rescue the team.

It was an own goal that bailed the U.S. out against Canada. This time, it came from a brilliant game-tying strike from Jesus Ferreira — who tied Clint Dempsey’s U.S. record for the most goals in a single Gold Cup with seven — that sent the contest to penalties.

That’s where the magic ran out.

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

“Obviously, we fought so hard. We did everything we could in our power to get ourselves 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 penalties 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 throughout 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 childish joy of playing back, which was really nice.”

As good as the added experience is in theory, from a practical standpoint, there weren’t any U.S. players who emphatically made a statement that they are ready for a larger role when the full pool is available.

The United States men’s national team lost to Panama in the semifinals via a 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 coming 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 ascent, the depth chart doesn’t set up well for Vazquez, who is, at best, No. 5 on the list and likely even lower.

Ferreira is in a similar spot. He performed well, but it wasn’t the two hat tricks that made the biggest impression; it was his positional versatility and effort. Those qualities, in addition to the goals, make him a nice depth player to keep around.

Center back Jalen Neal might have improved his stock more than anyone. The 19-year-old LA Galaxy player was unavailable in the semifinal due to injury, but he looked mostly comfortable during his minutes in the tournament. But again, he still has a way to go before being considered an option with the first-choice roster.

Right back Bryan Reynolds did enough to warrant consideration to get called in by Gregg Berhalter in September, but with Sergino Dest and Joe Scalley ahead of him, it’s not an easy path.

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’ll 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. That didn’t happen. He was disappointing in four starts before sitting the semifinal with an injury.

The next U.S. game 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 will likely be on the roster, but only Turner, a lock, and center back Miles Robinson seem like candidates to start.


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