USMNT face humiliating Copa America exit if they cannot beat early pacesetters Uruguay

by tammararodway

The finest generation of American talent was supposed to use the Copa America to prove they are ready for the World Cup. A group-stage exit was not the plan.

The United States went into the 2024 Copa America on home soil craving a chance to prove that this gifted generation of players should no longer be discussed in terms of their potential; that rather they should be considered among the big hitters of international football, a genuine force on the highest stage.

Well, that moment of reckoning has arrived, and sooner than they’d hoped: they need to beat Uruguay on Monday or else it all comes crumbling down – their Copa campaign, their individual and collective reputations, the foundations upon which their dreams for the 2026 World Cup have been built.

That’s because on Thursday the USMNT were beaten 2-1 by Panama in Atlanta. After kicking off the tournament with a 2-0 victory over Bolivia, Gregg Berhalter’s men were supposed to see off their CONCACAF rivals to set up a less stressful encounter with Marcelo Bielsa’s Uruguay. Had all gone to plan, both the States and Uruguay would already have booked their quarter-final berth. Monday’s meeting between the two teams at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City would have been a chance for the hosts to pit themselves against a traditional powerhouse of South American soccer. Top spot would be on the line, but the game would have been little more than a temperature check before the real risky business of the knockout rounds began.

Instead, the knockout stage effectively starts a game early for the USMNT. With Panama perfectly capable of beating Bolivia, arguably the weakest team at the Copa America, in their final group fixture, only a victory over Uruguay will ensure the States progress.

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It really shouldn’t have come to this. The USMNT thought they had the lead in just the fourth minute, but Weston McKennie’s strike was disallowed when VAR spotted that Tim Ream had been in an offside position when he stabbed a loose ball back for the Juventus midfielder.

VAR heaped more misery on the USMNT after 18 minutes, although Timothy Weah has only himself to blame for the petulance that could cost his side a continued place in the tournament. The winger was initially shown a yellow card for felling Roderick Miller off the ball. Weah’s punishment was upgraded to red, though, after replays captured him lashing out with an arm to the back of the Panama defender’s head.

The USMNT’s initial response to the adversity of going down to 10 men was as positive as it was rapid. A stunning 20-yard strike from Folarin Balogun put them in front just two minutes later. The maligned former Arsenal striker needed a strong showing at the Copa to justify his place at the point of attack with a World Cup partly staged in the US looming. He’s thus far answered questions over his quality with goals in each of the USMNT’s first two games.

But as the first half wore on, the States slipped back into a defensive shell. Berhalter switched to five at the back, which only served to invite relentless Panamanian pressure. An equaliser by Cesar Blackman arrived in the 26th minute and Jose Fajardo struck a winner seven minutes from time.

In his post-match comments, Berhalter chose to cite how the game was refereed to excuse his side’s under-performance. “We talked beforehand about the tendencies of this referee,” he said. “We knew what he’s capable of and, to be honest, I think we played right into his hands.

“We made that decision pretty easy. Tim got bumped, he got checked, and he reacted. He apologised to the group and I think he understands what a difficult position he put the group in. Nonetheless, it happened and as a result we lost this game. We’re gonna have to move on and figure out how to win.”

Berhalter is not unjustified in feeling aggrieved both at the hyper-physicality of Panama’s approach and the way it was officiated. Goalkeeper Matt Turner had to be substituted at half-time after picking up a leg injury after an overzealous challenge by Blackman for which the Panama player was not cautioned. And Turner’s replacement, Cardiff City keeper Ethan Horvath, should have been able to keep out the winning goal.

But dealing with aggressive defensive tactics from lower-ranked opponents and mitigating for the whims and inconsistencies of referees from different confederations is all part of the gig for an international coach. As is the tactical management of a game in which you find yourself a man down against inferior opposition. Berhalter, who went into the Copa America with widespread doubts over whether he is the right man to lead this talented USMNT crop into the next World Cup, failed on both counts against Panama. Against Uruguay – who thrashed Bolivia 5-1 later the same evening and have looked the best side so far at the Copa America – Berhalter and his team will be tested more sternly and in a greater variety of ways.

The players, on the other hand, at least made the right noises after the match.

“We have to beat Uruguay,” said Chris Richards. “I think if we want to go far in this tournament, we have to be teams like Uruguay anyway. Just another chance for us to show why we deserve to be in the next round.”

“It is a good feeling knowing you have to go into your game and win it,” added Tyler Adams, who played under Bielsa at Leeds. “There can’t be any other result. We know we have to get the job done: three points no matter what it is, and if we don’t get three points, we’re banking on other results – and you don’t want to be in that circumstance.”

There was always a lot at stake for the USMNT at the 2024 Copa America. It is their last chance to test themselves against top international sides in a competitive environment before the 2026 World Cup. With the centrepieces of this best-ever generation of American players – Christian Pulisic, McKennie, Adams, Weah, Antonee Robinson – in or approaching their mid-20s, and thus their theoretical peaks, it’s time to turn potential into production. That now starts with their showdown Uruguay on Monday. It might end there, too.

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