PANAMA CITY – Walker Zimmerman marveled at the crowd in Estadio Rommel Fernández, almost all dressed in the Panamanian team color of red, a mass that throbbed in unison and buzzed like a hornet's nest after the hosts took the lead.
“It was a great environment. You always want to play in environments like that, where there’s intensity, there’s energy amongst the crowd,” the American defender said. “No different than what we experienced in Salvador and Honduras.”
The United States’ 1-0 loss to Panama in a World Cup qualifier on Sunday night again highlighted the Americans’ disadvantage on the road in Central America, where it doesn’t take much to get them out of sorts: heat, humidity, subpar surfaces, antiquated stadiums and dressing and showering back at the hotel as if in high school. The flight alone is fatiguing: Panama City is farther south than Caracas and Barranquilla.
Three nights after looking so good during a 2-0 win over Jamaica on home soil, the U.S. failed to generate a single shot on target. The Americans' five shots tied their low under coach Gregg Berhalter and their 0.22 expected goals were less than half of the previous nadir.
To qualify for a World Cup, a team generally has to win home games and perhaps pick up sporadic points on the road.
Two aspects of the United States’ failure to reach the 2018 World Cup cross paths Wednesday night in Columbus, Ohio, where the Americans play Costa Rica at new Lower.com Field, Major League Soccer’s first second-generation soccer-specific stadium.
The Americans had gone 32 consecutive home games without a loss in World Cup qualifying, winning 30 of them, before a 2-0 defeat against Mexico at Columbus' old Mapfre Stadium in November 2016. Ten months later, the Americans lost 2-0 to Costa Rica at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey, a defeat that proved costly when they wilted 2-1 at Trinidad and Tobago the following month and finished one point shy of getting to Russia.
Before the last cycle, the U.S. had not been beaten in a home qualifier since a 3-2 loss to Honduras at Washington’s RFK Stadium in September 2001. Then-coach Bruce Arena was critical of the U.S. Soccer Federation’s decision to play the game at a venue where opposing fans outnumbered the U.S.
“Only in America, I guess, we’re fighting for a home-field advantage,″ Arena said.
Since then the USSF has made an effort to find pro-American environments, helped by the construction of MLS venues, though occasionally slipping up in instances such as the 2017 loss in New Jersey.
Crowds of 43,028 at Nashville’s Nissan Stadium and 20,500 at new Q2 Stadium in Austin, Texas, overwhelmingly backed the U.S. at this cycle’s first two qualifiers, led by the American Outlaws, a supporters group that has grown in numbers and even travels to road games in limited numbers.
Clad in red, white and blue, American fans clapped rhythmically, But they didn’t intimidate opponents the way Central American fans unnerve the U.S.
Part of the U.S. problems can be attributed to Berhalter’s decision to change seven starters. The U.S. lineup, already missing Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna due to injuries, was without Weston McKennie (injured), Antonee Robinson (British COVID-19 restrictions), Brenden Aaronson and Tyler Adams (rest because of the short turnaround).
“Now it obviously doesn’t look like the best choice, but I think we have to wait until Thursday,” Berhalter said, wanting to evaluate the three-game week as a whole. “If we would have played the same players from the last game — first of all, two of them weren’t even here, so that was going to be impossible — but if we would have played the same players in this game, I’m not sure we would position ourselves in the best way to win again on Wednesday. Again, the conditions that we’re dealing with here, with the travel, with the weather, made it complicated. And we had to make I guess a somewhat risky decision. And the good thing is, we’re still in second place.”
Mexico leads with 11 points after five of 14 matches and the U.S. has eight, ahead of Panama on goal difference. Canada follows with seven, Costa Rica six, El Salvador five, Honduras three and Jamaica two. Five remaining home matches is an opportunity for 15 points, likely enough for one of the three guaranteed berths.
“We have to be ready to to win our home games,” Zimmerman said.
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