USMNT takeaways: Three changes Gregg Berhalter must make to avoid Panama upset repeat against Costa Rica


All the good vibes the United States men’s national team created over the summer and fall quickly turned sour on Sunday night with a shockingly poor 1-0 defeat at Panama in World Cup qualifying. The loss saw the U.S. fall from the rank of the unbeatens and raised serious questions about the team’s depth and what manager Gregg Berhalter should do without some of the team’s top stars. It’s a quick turnaround for the USMNT with a date against Costa Rica in Columbus on Wednesday.

The match against Panama saw the team record just five shots, including zero on goal. The five shots are tied for the fewest under Berhalter, and the 0.22 xG, is by far the worst under Berhalter, as Paul Carr points out.

Ahead of Wednesday and off of a terribly poor showing, here’s what Berhalter should do to with his team:

Start Ricardo Pepi (duh)

This goes without saying, and Berhalter knows he has to start Pepi against Costa Rica, too. He’s made a big impact in his first two starts with three total goals, and while he didn’t get the service needed against Panama, he did more within his first few minutes than the other attackers did the entire game. Not much more to say here, but Berhalter knows this. Pepi just has to start and in all likelihood he will.

Move Brenden Aaronson to midfield

This one is key. The midfield was so bad on Sunday, both defensively and when it came to creating opportunities. The problem is there wasn’t much of a creator there. Tyler Adams is not a creator. Kellyn Acosta is not a creator. Yunus Musah is not a creator. Brenden Aaronson, in this current squad, is that guy. There is no need to have him play out the wing, because he’s already shown that he can get the attack going.

Aaronson has been arguably the best players for this team across the last two months, and his goal against Canada continues to come to mind. That is where he applied the pressure at midfield, stole the ball, played it off quickly and then got into the box to finish off the play. Take a look:

Having him as an attacking midfielder with guys like Adams and Acosta behind him, will give him more freedom to use that energy to press, and you can bet he’ll come up with a couple good looks at goal as a result. It’s worth trying, because even if it doesn’t go all that well, it certainly can’t be as bad as Sunday.

Statistically, he’s been the most creative player for this team over the first five matches of World Cup qualifying. He leads the group with 1.29 expected assists (a measure of the likelihood of any given pass to end up assisting in a goal), on a per 90 basis only Gio Reyna has more than Aaronson’s 0.36, but he’s only played one total match.

With no Christian Pulisic, and no Reyna, it’s even more clear that Aaronson needs to get the keys to an attack that’s sputtered for the USMNT.

Give Chris Richards a chance

This one is baffling to me. He’s far and away the most talented defender on this team but can’t sniff a minute? There isn’t a lingering injury issue there. Perhaps Berhalter wants to gradually work him in and not betray the guys that have been there longer. Walker Zimmerman wasn’t even called up initially, yet he slides into the XI for both games?

This is World Cup qualification, and you have to go with your very best. Richards’ ability to play the ball with both feet, and calmly, will make this team less nervy out of the back. He can also contribute on set pieces going forward, and he has that physicality to deal with the likes of Bryan Ruiz and Joel Campbell. 

Not starting him, especially with no John Brooks, would be a big mistake against Los Ticos.

Berhalter doesn’t shy away from starting young, inexperienced players. So why can’t Richards get a good run?





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