“They tried to overload the 6-yard box, put more numbers in closer to our goal, and tried to whip in a ball right on top of our goalie in the near zone," said U.S. captain Walker Zimmerman.
Zimmerman, who plays with Godoy at Nashville SC in MLS, said it was a zone the U.S. defense should control.
"It's something that we have to take pride in, how we defend set pieces," he added. "That should be a strength of this team, with our size, with our mentality. And that's a goal of ours, is to always be holding an advantage in the set-piece category, because we certainly have the personnel to do that – to defend and hold a zero and then certainly create more opportunities on the attack.”
Yes, the USA was beaten at its own game.
For years, it might have struggled to break down opponents in open play, but it could always count on dominating opponents on set pieces. As recently as the Concacaf Nations League and Gold Cup finals, the USA's prowess on set pieces was the difference in wins over Mexico.
In the Nations League final, both U.S. goals in regulation came on corner kicks served by Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna to Weston McKennie. On the first goal, McKennie's header hit the far post and rebounded to Reyna, who put it away from close range. On the second, McKennie's driven header bounced in front of Guillermo Ochoa and beat the Mexican keeper to his left. (Earlier in the second half, Ochoa denied McKennie on another header off a corner kick.)
Late in overtime of the Gold Cup final, the USA scored the game's only goal when Miles Robinson rose above the Mexico defense and headed Kellyn Acosta's curling free kick down and into the goal.
The problem is, the USA has done nothing on set pieces since then. All seven goals -- second behind only Mexico -- in the Octagonal have come from the run of play. The service on set pieces has been poor throughout the first five games of World Cup qualifying. The USA has taken 26 corner kicks and yet to score.
Part of the problem is that Pulisic and Reyna have been injured or unavailable for most of the Octagonal. No one else has consistently driven balls into the penalty area like Pulisic and Reyna did in Denver against Mexico and Davis did for Panama on Sunday.
Not that the USA lacked for opportunities against Panama. In the first 20 minutes alone, Acosta took four corner kicks and one free kick from a dangerous position on the side of penalty area.
In the 4th minute, Acosta found Zimmerman 10 yards out, but the Nashville SC defender was off balance and his shot headed over the bar was tipped away by Panama goalkeeper Luis Meija. The tone for Acosta's corner kicks was set on the second one when it popped high in the air to Zimmerman, who was standing about 15 yards from the goal and could do nothing with it.
And Acosta's free kick? It was blocked by the Panamanian defender standing in his way and never reached its target.