All eyes were on Gregg Berhalter last night as the United States brushed aside Panama 3-0 in the first international friendly of 2019 at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. It was Berhalter’s first match in charge of the Men’s National Team since his appointment on December 4. Berhalter is tasked with changing the culture of a program trying to find direction following the debacle of missing out on World Cup 2018 in Russia.
A first half goal from standout debutant Djordje Mihailovic gave the U.S. a deserved lead after 40 minutes and late goals from Walker Zimmerman (80th minute) and substitute Christian Ramirez (89th minute) completed the victory.
Manchester City signee Zack Steffan and New York City FC net minder Sean Johnson combined for the comfortable shutout.
It was a night for many new faces with seven players in all handed their senior team debut. Daniel Lovitz, Nick Lima, Jeremy Ebobisse and Corey Baird and Mihailovic all got their first starts for Berhalter while Ramirez and Jonathan Lewis came off the bench in the second half. Mihailovic and Ramirez became the 52nd and 53rd players to score on their U.S. senior debut.
This was a showcase of new philosophy for the Yanks as they controlled possession and created many chances. Panama defended well on a few occasions while a couple of half chances were left begging. This was a comprehensive performance from a group full of energy and hunger.
Another sign of fresh ideas was New York Red Bulls Defender Aaron Long being handed the captains armband despite the inclusion of longtime captain Michael Bradley in the starting lineup. Both had very strong matches. Long kept the back line well organized while Bradley helped dictate play from his deep midfield position.
Berhalter has confirmed Bradley will play a vital role in this transitional period and leading into World Cup 2022 qualifying; and that’s OK… for now. With all the youth waiting in the wings, it is hard to see the 31 year old veteran in the starting 11 come 2021.
There are many critics of Berhalter, but one thing is clear: he is here to win. He is here to win now, and win in the future. And I think he will.
His style fits the new American game. Emphasis on passing between the lines and breaking pressure while keeping possession. Many times last night the U.S. could be described as “patiently aggressive.” They worked their tails off, constantly probed the defense, and made the backline of Panama uncomfortable for 90 minutes.
The freedom each player had within their roles was clear as players were able to turn and run into space all night long. It is clear this group, and this staff, came into this camp looking to prove they belong.
In all, this is only a January game that is meaningless to most. And while I agree we can not dive too deeply into it, we finally have a perspective of how Berhalter will approach international matches.
However easy the first test may have been, the important thing is the team passed. His formula can work, and with the right players, will work.
Let’s see how the group respond to a stiffer test on Saturday against Costa Rica in San Jose, California. One thing is for certain: the future of this program under Gregg Berhalter is very bright.