It was a day of debuts for the USMNT as they defeated Panama 3-0 to end January camp on a positive note. Gregg Berhalter led the United States for the first time as head coach, while five debutants earned their first senior international caps, the most in a single match since 1992.
One of those debutants, Chicago Fire academy product Djordje Mihailovic, bagged the game’s opening goal, giving the hosts tangible reward for an energetic and sharp showing. Walker Zimmerman grabbed the second goal, sealing the win, while substitute Christian Ramirez poked in the third at the death. Another debutant, Aaron Long, wore the captain’s armband over Michael Bradley, a surprising development when the lineups were announced.
The United States off the opening kickoff showed a fascinating tactical shape and clear purpose. Defender Nick Lima, listed as a right-back, often pushed forward into central midfield when the U.S. had possession of the ball. He would occupy the space next to Michael Bradley, with the other defenders forming a back three.
The hosts had the first look at goal, with debutant Jeremy Ebobisse – deployed on the left wing – crossing to Gyasi Zardes completely alone in the penalty area, but his wide-open header was sent over the bar.
Bradley was at the heart of every U.S. possession, and he nearly created another goalscoring chance on 20 minutes when Cristian Roldan had the ball down the middle and should have seen Corey Baird running clear on goal, but instead wasted the chance with a shot from 28 yards out. Five minutes later Baird had another chance, putting his layoff from Zardes just inches wide right. Nick Lima had a shot that also went a hair wide of the post a minute later from Zardes again laying off.
The U.S. continued to dominate and nearly found the opener on a corner in the 28th minute. Long had a touch at the near post and flicked it across the face of goal where a charging Walker Zimmerman put it over the bar. The attacks continued to prove dangerous but lacked the final ball, as Zardes again missed with a header in the 39th minute after Daniel Lovitz delivered a brilliant curling ball into the box.
Finally, the U.S. was able to celebrate after Panama failed to deal with a broken attack. In the 40th minute, the U.S. pushed forward after a turnover and Lima was the man on the ball through the middle. He threaded Zardes through the center, and while Zardes went down under pressure looking for a foul, the ball fell at the feet of Baird, and he cut across to Mihailovic who came charging in and blasted the ball into the back of the net with the help of a slight deflection.
It has to be said that Panama was horrific in the first half, but they picked things up after the break and worked a big chance in the 55th minute that required a reflex save from Zack Steffan, the first real action for the U.S. goalkeeper.
Mihailovic had another big chance on the stroke of the hour mark, charging again onto the ball at the top of the box, but his vicious shot was blocked. He came off soon after for Sebastian Lletget in Berhalter’s first substitution.
In the 70th minute, the U.S. was again put under pressure on a free-kick that saw two Panamanian attackers get behind the defense, but Ernesto Walker sent his glancing header just wide. With Panama beginning to find a bit of comfort, the United States bagged a second goal to put the game away, made by Lima with a wonderful bit of defense to offense. With Panama on the counter after the U.S. saw an attack fizzle out, Lima came thundering in with a thumping tackle, winning the ball off Edson Samms and then delivering a pinpoint cross to a host of bodies in the penalty area. Walker Zimmerman rose the highest and pummeled in a header for the strike.
With the game winding down, substitute Christian Ramirez came on for Zardes and poked home the exclamation point on great work from fellow substitute Jonathan Lewis down the left flank, bursting past his defender and cutting across to Ramirez all alone on the doorstep with the goalkeeper pulled out.
That was nearly the final kick of the game, with no stoppage time added. It was a solid win against a poor opponent for the United States, with few trouble spots to shake a finger at. Berhalter earned victory in his first coaching appearance for the USMNT, giving hope to fans as they move forward toward the Gold Cup, and eventually, the World Cup qualification cycle.