While there were many positive reviews for the USA's performance in its 0-0 tie with Wales on Thursday, U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter had a more realistic take on his team's first game in more than 10 months.
The USA created just two decent chances against Wales -- both from turnovers -- leaving lots of room to improve on the offensive end in Monday's match against Panama.
"We’re focused on competing to win the game and we want to score goals," he said on Sunday. "We want to end this experience with the group on a high note."
Check, check and check.
The USA did not just beat Panama, it crushed the Canaleros with a 6-2 victory.
Yes, Panama was a shadow of the team that qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 2018, but the USA was unrelenting with three goals in eight minutes the middle of the first and and three more, again in eight minutes, at the end of the game.
The USA conceded two bad goals to Panama and looked very shaky in the middle of the backline with Matt Miazga and Tim Ream, but that was overshadowed by play of the other eight starting field players, whose average age was 19.9. Berhalter called in 10 uncapped players for the two-game series and gave nine of them their U.S. debuts over the two games.
Five of the six goals against Panama were engineered by November debutants:
-- Yunus Musah made a driving run through the Panamanian defense and was taken down for the free kick that Gio Reyna converted for his first U.S. goal.
-- Nicholas Gioacchini scored the next two goals and missed a chance to complete a hat trick in his first international start when he missed a penalty kick in the second half.
-- Sebastian Soto and Richy Ledezma, former teammates in Real Salt Lake's youth academy in Arizona, came on late in the game as subs and combined for the fourth and sixth goals.
'Important step.' After the USA's failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia and a rebuilding effort that was slow to get off the ground when U.S. Soccer waited almost 14 months to hire Berhalter as the head coach following Bruce Arena's resignation, U.S. support sank.
"All we wanted to do from the beginning is get the fans on our side," Berhalter said after the Panama. "It was an important thing, important step for us. People are excited to watch."
A lot of work remains to done, and not a lot of time before the start of World Cup 2022 qualifying in September 2021.
Berhalter will only have his full team available twice before then -- two friendlies in March 2021 and the Concacaf Nations League semifinals and final in June 2021. There are two other major events next summer -- the Gold Cup (July 10-Aug. 1) and a possible participation in the Olympic Games (July 22-Aug. 7) -- but few if any of the USA's young stars in Europe will be available.
The USA is free to pick any players it wants for the Gold Cup, but it makes no sense to disrupt their offseason ahead of the 2021-22 European season. The Olympics are a wonderful platform for Americans, but clubs aren't required to release players for the men's soccer competition, which isn't an event on the FIFA international calendar.
Summer of soccer. The USA will have to assemble three teams for 2021: the "A" team for the March and June windows, the "B" team for the Gold Cup and the under-23 team for Olympic qualifying in March and the finals, if it qualifies. The problem -- a good one in the big picture -- is that the USA now has at many positions more than enough talent for the "A" team but must build out the other two teams.
That makes adding a December camp all the more important so Berhalter can work with MLS players at the end of their seasons. It might mean that the January camp becomes a strictly under-23 camp to prepare for Olympic qualifying in Guadalajara.
The success of the November camp, featuring the first international competition for a U.S. national team during the pandemic, is a testament to the groundwork laid by the national team program in recent years.
Seven players were called up from the 2019 U.S. U-20 World Cup team Tab Ramos took to Poland.
Sergino Dest, already a lock in the starting lineup, started both games. Konrad de la Fuente started against Wales, and Uly Llanez started against Panama after coming on as a sub in the Wales games. Besides Ledezma and Soto, Tim Weah and Chris Richards also came on late in the Panama game.
Weah has battled injuries and struggled for playing time since his $10 million transfer to Lille, but he had a key supporting role in the last two goals against Panama. With only John Brooks assured of starting at center back, Richards' progress this season at Bayern Munich will be closely watched.
Two-pronged approach. The national team has not only started to benefit from the fruits of the work of the MLS academies -- Llanez, Ledezma, Soto and Richards all moved to Europe at the age of 18 without ever playing in MLS -- but also sought out U.S. citizens who grew up elsewhere.
Dest was the first big get, choosing the USA over his native Netherlands two months after his first-team debut for Ajax. He had been part of the national youth team program for three years. Neither Musah nor Gioacchini had previously represented the USA, but the success of young players like Dest and Reyna and Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams has certainly piqued their interest in representing the USA.
Musah was born in New York to Ghanaian parents but was raised in Italy, entered Arsenal's academy program at the age of 10 and now, at the age of 17, starts for Spain's Valencia.
Gioacchini was born in Kansas City and has lived in Italy and France in addition to the United States, following his father, who was born and raised in Parma, in the heart of Italy’s food region, and specializes in the making of industrial pasta machinery, like his father did. (The company name: Brilliantly Designed Machines or BDM, Inc.)
Musah is further along, a starter for Valencia and a player whom the England national team is monitoring after captaining England's U-18s in unofficial competitions.
"All I've ever said about players in his category," said Berhalter, "is that all we want to do is create an environment for them, that they want to be in, that they trust is a good environment for the development. And it seemed like that was the case for Yunus."
Like Musah, Gioacchini is eligible to play for four countries. Berhalter had wanted to bring him into camp for a pair of games in March before the pandemic shut everything down.
"My job was just to give him confidence and tell him that he's good enough," he said, "and he showed it tonight."
Gioacchini, who plays in France's Ligue 2 for Caen, said he didn't think his first impression was a bad one. Scoring twice in your first international start will do that. But the impression the national team left on him was certainly a good one.
"I had a week that I'll never, ever, ever forget," Gioacchini said.
Photo (Yunus Musah): GEPA/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire