USMNT facing early Copa América exit after devastating loss to Panama

ATLANTA — Nothing ever comes easy for the U.S. men's national team. After an early red card hurled the American squad into a self-dug hole in Thursday night’s Copa América match, Panama began a relentless attack that culminated in a go-ahead goal with less than 10 minutes remaining to snare a frenzied, chaotic 2-1 victory at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

The loss means the USMNT now faces an uphill fight to even reach the knockout round, and once again its a challenge of its own making.

“An extremely disappointing result, but the effort was there,” manager Gregg Berhalter said after the game, “and if we put in the same type of effort [next match], in terms of the work effort and the togetherness, we’ll have a shot to beat Uruguay. I know it’s going to be difficult, but we’re going to do our best.”

Chaos seems to follow this team around, and the first half was a spectacle all its own. In the space of about 20 minutes in the first half, fans here saw:

  • A brilliant Weston McKennie goal off a deflection … that VAR promptly disallowed.

  • A brutal midair collision where Panama’s César Blackman ran through American keeper Matt Turner, sending Turner spiraling to the turf and landing hard on his shoulder. Blackman was let off with a stern talking-to, and no more.

  • A red card for USMNT’s Tim Weah, who popped Panama’s Roderick Miller in the back of the head away from the ball. That left the United States short-handed, but just minutes later …

  • A magnificent long-distance goal from Folarin Balogun to put the down-a-man United States up 1-0. It was a moment of extreme joy, but it wouldn’t last.

  • An equalizer that Blackman — who had previously pummeled Turner — snuck in with a left-edge strike to equalize the match:

That was enough to get the crowd fully engaged, and hometown boos resonated for the rest of the half as the U.S. team hit the Mercedes-Benz turf and gesticulated, often in vain, for justice. This was soccer at its most CONCACAF-esque: chaotic — a whiplash of emotion and exhilaration and devastation and desperation, at a pace that was unsustainable.

Sure enough, as the second half began, Berhalter established a more defensive-minded, stately pace that conserved energy and preserved a draw.

There were still moments where the USMNT danced along the razor’s edge, like when Cameron Carter-Vickers dove at Jose Fajardo inside the box. Initially ruled a penalty, the call was waved off when replay showed that Fajardo dove after the ball left his foot. Still, it was an unnecessarily risky — and, once again, a potentially catastrophic — move.

Finally, in the 84th minute, Fajardo found the net, hammering home a devastating go-ahead goal from close range:

Minutes later, a late red card to Panama’s Adalberto Carrasquilla for a slide tackle on Christian Pulisic evened the sides at 10 apiece …

… but by then it was far too late for the Americans to mount a comeback.

The red card which put the U.S. down a man for virtually the entire game cast a shadow over the entire night. “We talked beforehand about the tendencies of this referee,” Berhalter said. “We knew what he's capable of, and to be honest, I think we played right into his hands and we made that [red card] decision pretty easy. Tim got bumped, he got checked and he reacted. He apologized to the group and I think he understands what a difficult position he put the group in.”

Weah himself apologized after the game in a statement posted to social media:

"Today, I let my team and my country down," he wrote. "A moment of frustration led to an irreversible consequence, and for that, I am deeply sorry to my teammates, coaches, family and our fans."

"I don't think it helps if we just keep talking about the red card and we keep sort of ragging on him," Gio Reyna said after the game. "He's really important to this group as a player and as a person. Yeah, he made a mistake, but we'll be supporting him through the whole thing. And we'll be back, and he's going to help us for the next 10-plus years."

"Now the only thing we can do is turn it around," Antonee Robinson said. "Someone who's not been playing is going to have to step up and be ready to fill his shoes and help us get a win in a really big match."

The USMNT made its way through the mixed zone, past reporters and in the direction of its team bus, before Panama's players left their locker room. Most American players declined to speak, rushing past the media or staring at their phones as they walked. But in a moment of grim symbolism, just as Reyna and a few others were speaking, Panama's players entered the mixed zone carrying a speaker that pounded out a deafening beat. They edged past Reyna and others with wide smiles.

The loss is a devastating one for the United States, given that it was a substantial favorite heading into the match. The USMNT now faces group favorite Uruguay on Monday, and the task ahead is both substantial and fearsome.

It’s a small highlight indeed, but the USMNT did enjoy a fully engaged crowd in Atlanta, even if the numbers fell well short of a sellout. Many of the 59,145 announced attendees had to fight through traffic caused by the presidential debate occurring just a couple miles north of the stadium. But once inside the building, they were loud and resonant, cheering both American goals — the allowed and the waved-off — with roof-rattling cheers, and pounding the Panamanian side — and referee Iván Barton, too — with boos that echoed around the stadium.

The USMNT wasn’t expected to survive long in the knockout stage. But to fail to even reach that stage would be a massive failure, and the Americans have one final chance on Monday to avoid that devastating fate.

“Since we accept any challenge, we have to go,” Pulisic said. “We have to represent our country with our national pride, and we have to win this.” And then he walked, alone, toward the team bus, shaking his head as if in disbelief at what they'd just let slip away.