As Tyler Adams screamed out in pain after a vicious tackle just 18 minutes into the U.S. Under-20 national team's World Cup qualifier against Panama on Saturday, the inevitable red card that followed gave the Americans an advantage that should have paved the way for a victory.
Instead, the U.S. left Estadio Saprissa in San Jose, Costa Rica with no excuses for a loss that just might wind up being as costly as it was ugly.
It may have been a deflected shot that delivered Panama's game-winning goal in Saturday's 1-0 victory in the CONCACAF Championships, but it was Panama's defensive organization, speed, tenacity and confidence that earned the victory against a U.S. side that showed little and found few answers despite its man advantage.
Tab Ramos' pre-tournament concerns about his team's attack were justified as the Americans struggled to take control of a match they should have been able to manage given the early red card. The U.S. midfield was particularly ineffective. Losing Adams and his tenacity and quality was a blow, but the disappointing performances of Luca de la Torre and Sebastian Saucedo only served to compound the lack of U.S. attacking productivity.
Ramos tried to jumpstart his team's attack when he replaced the hobbled Adams with Emmanuel Sabbi, but Sabbi never really got going, and De La Torre struggled mightily as the attacking midfielder when the U.S. switched from a 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2. The Fulham midfielder committed several turnovers and never did settle into the match. As a result, the Americans lacked for scoring chances, with the first one coming early in the second half when Jeremy Ebobisse powered a header off the cross bar.
Jeremy Ebobisse nearly finds the back of the net, but the header deflects off the crossbar. U-20 #USMNT still trailing 0-1, '48 pic.twitter.com/kmr2g4YcoZ — U.S. Soccer YNT (@ussoccer_ynt) February 18, 2017
The second half was better for the Americans, but Panama did well to limit the U.S. chances and stay organized and dangerous on the counter. This was not a case of Panama bunkering in and the U.S. facing an opponent content to just defend. Panama picked its spots, created just as many chances as the Americans, and did so despite being a man down.
The U.S. had its chances later in the second half, but a promising Justen Glad shot from distance forced a full-stretch save from Panama's goalkeeper, and Ebobisse saw another juicy scoring chance unfulfilled as he sent a tame shot at goal from close range in the 87th minute.
Sebastian Saucedo almost connects with Jeremy Ebobisse in front of the net for an equalizer, but a save keeps the U-20 #USMNT down 0-1, '87 pic.twitter.com/wDnajma8l1 — U.S. Soccer YNT (@ussoccer_ynt) February 18, 2017
The Americans showed some life as desperation kicked in for the final 15 minutes of the match, but even then Panama looked just as likely to add a second goal as the U.S. was to find an equalizer.
There were very few bright spots for the U.S., with Glad's performance topping the list. Brooks Lennon buzzed around the field, Marlon Fossey had some promising moments at right back, and Erik Palmer-Brown looked solid playing out of position as a defensive midfielder, but that was about it for encouraging signs. Ebobisse failed to convert his chances, Sabbi was largely invisible, De La Torre may have played his way out of the starting lineup and Saucedo took more than a half to find the game.
Saturday's loss isn't the end of the world for this U.S. team, but it most likely sets the Americans on a tougher path to qualifying for the Under-20 World Cup. They face a must-win against Haiti on Tuesday before what should be a win against St. Kitts and Nevis on Friday. A pair of wins most likely means being placed in a three-team group with Mexico and Costa Rica, with the top two teams in that group heading to the World Cup.
That isn't an impossible road, but it's not one the Americans will survive playing as poorly as they did on Saturday. Ramos will have to seriously think about making changes to the attack, while also likely having to cope with the absence of Adams, who was seen on crutches at halftime of the match. Benching De La Torre and replacing an injured Adams would create two openings for the likes of Eryk Williamson, Jonathan Lewis and Coy Craft to step into. Sabbi didn't show enough to merit a start, while Ebobisse should remain the lead striker even with the chances he missed on Saturday.
The U.S. defense is good enough to help get this group through the next pair of matches, but if the attack doesn't wake up, and if Ramos can't find the right combination to help the midfield create chances, then we could be in for another disappointing showing at a youth national team tournament. Something American fans have grown far too accustomed to over the past five years.