Against Panama, the USA coughed up the ball time and again in midfield and was put under continuous pressure until Panama scored. After that, all the "Olés" coming from the crowd at the Estadio Rommel Fernandez were from the fans cheering on the Canaleros.
"We didn't have control in midfield, and that really hurt us in that game," said U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter. "I'm going to look at the touches that our midfielders had individually, but it was nowhere near what we expect. The distances were too big, the connections were too spread out."
He said everything needed to be better.
"We were poor," he said. "We were really poor with our passing and some of our movement.”
Verticality? Against Jamaica, both goals were scored by Ricardo Pepi came after the USA played its wide players in behind the backline. When the USA looked to play the ball down the wings against Panama, either there was no opening or passes went astray, preventing the USA from ever being a threat. Winger Tim Weah, who was so dangerous against Jamaica, hardly saw the ball and exited as part of a triple substitution in the 68th minute.
The USA was so slow in its movement and so unsteady on the ball that the Panama midfielders and wingers had an easy time of containing the U.S. outside game.
"It just felt like one of those days where we couldn't really get into a rhythm," said U.S. captain Walker Zimmerman.
Youth? Berhalter has spoken at length about the youth of the team, but that wasn't the problem against Panama. The lineup he picked was the oldest he has started in the five World Cup qualifiers -- only four starters on Sunday were age-eligible for this year's Olympics, as compared to nine against Jamaica -- and produced a performance that was the most unfocused and uninspired of the qualifying campaign.
To be sure, Yunus Musah was a shadow of the player he was against Jamaica on Thursday. He was pulled at halftime, but the problem was as much the veterans around him in midfield, Kellyn Acosta and Sebastian Lletget.
George Bello, the other teenage starter, looked nervous on the left side, but Shaq Moore and DeAndre Yedlin at right back were even poorer.
Give credit to Berhalter for at least laying out the danger of celebrating after the Jamaica game.
“The trap is going to be us thinking we’re great and us thinking we’ve qualified for the World Cup,” Berhalter said on Thursday night. “If we do that, we’ll get our asses kicked in Panama.”
Depth? Can the USA win without Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna? The USA did against Honduras. (Pulisic helped set up the equalizer, then exited shortly thereafter with an ankle injury.) Can the USA win without Pulisic, Reyna, Weston McKennie (who went directly to Columbus to rehab his quad injury) and Sergino Dest (who came off in the 78th minute against Jamaica and did not play against Panama)? The answer on Sunday was evident.
Berhalter described McKennie's performance against Jamaica as "professional" -- exactly what the USA needed against Panama. Dest has been inconsistent for the USA, but his ability to dribble into the opponent's half and maintain possession was sorely lacking against Panama.
All throughout qualifying -- Pulisic has started just two games and Reyna one -- the USA has lacked the service that the pair offered in the Concacaf Nations League final against Mexico. Panama had an edge of only 7-6 on corner kicks, but what Eric Davis offered for Panama and Acosta did not provide for the USA on dead-ball situations turned out to be the difference in the game.
Rotation? Berhalter made six changes in the starting lineup from the first game to the second game and five from the second game to the third game in the last window. He rotated seven players against Panama, and it backfired. Even he admitted afterwards it was risky.
“We know we’re playing in extreme heat, extreme humidity, and we know we traveled four and a half hours, and we know we have another game on Wednesday, and we wanted to rotate players,” he said of the changes. “If it didn’t work, then it’s on me, and it’s my responsibility.”
The biggest question was why not start Tyler Adams, whose presence in central midfield has been a stabilizing force through the first two windows. Berhalter said Adams, who entered the game to start the second half, was injured and in and out of the lineup at RB Leipzig in the three weeks between the September and October windows.
"So now to ask a player who hasn't had any load or much load in the last three weeks to go play three 90s, I wasn't comfortable with it," he said. "And I'll take responsibility for that."
Fightback? In the Concacaf Nations League final, the USA came back twice to beat Mexico. In the Gold Cup, it won all three knockout games with late goals, and even in the Honduras game, it rallied with four unanswered goals.
On Sunday, it never could match up with the intensity Panama offered, not that how the Canaleros played was a surprise.
“We weren't great in duels," said Berhalter. "Panama, we talked about being a very physical team, very difficult team to break down and that's exactly what they were. And you need quick ball movement, we need guys getting on the ball, moving them around — we just didn't do that enough."
Probably the most concerning aspect of the Panama game was that after the USA fell behind, there was no fightback. Just a half hour of mostly aimless balls played into the Panamanian end with nothing to show for it. In that regard, the performance was similar to the game against Canada, the only other game in which the USA has conceded a goal in the second half.
The lack of reaction to a tough situation was something you had not expected out of the USA.