USA’s exit to Panama was embarrassing but the real story lies elsewhere | USA

The Gold Cup, the biennial money-spinner for Concacaf, inspires a very different mood around the US men’s national team compared with the World Cup. Superiority, not inferiority, dominates the conversation.

After all the hand-wringing from the inadequacies on display during the round-of-16 loss to the Netherlands in Qatar, here’s a tournament that prompts fretting if the Americans don’t win it every time, given their status as perennial hosts and the low caliber of most of their opponents.

And this month they didn’t, losing on penalties to Panama in the semi-finals on Wednesday. This marks only the second time in the 10 most recent Gold Cups that the US failed to reach the final, with Mexico facing Panama on Sunday at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles.

It was also only the second defeat for the US in 12 games since the World Cup, the other a 2-1 friendly loss to Serbia in January in which both sides were under-strength.

Interim US head coach BJ Callaghan blamed himself for what he described as a tactical miscalculation in the first half that gave a solid and well-drilled Panama the early initiative, while the players were weary after their quarter-final against Canada went to extra-time and penalties only three days earlier.

Despite some big crowds, for the US the Gold Cup is becoming a facsimile of a major tournament, a cover version of a genuine competition. As in 2021, the US essentially named a shadow squad in order to give the Europe-based players – that’s to say, the best ones – a break. Even the manager was a fill-in, with Gregg Berhalter not returning to permanent duties until after the tournament.

For the US the Gold Cup is primarily useful as a test of squad depth against regional rivals and as a work experience opportunity; 14 of the 23-man roster had fewer than 10 caps going into the tournament. Only a couple of those on display in the past few weeks are likely to retain their squad spots the next time Berhalter names a full-strength side. One – Matt Turner – emerged as a star in the 2021 Gold Cup (which the US won) and progressed to become the first-choice goalkeeper in Qatar. So the occasional breakthrough is possible.

The 23-year-old New York City FC defensive midfielder James Sands made his case as a viable understudy to Tyler Adams, while Cade Cowell, the 19-year-old winger who plays for the San Jose Earthquakes, scored a composed goal against Trinidad & Tobago, collecting a soft backpass, rounding the goalkeeper and bamboozling a defender for his first international strike. Jalen Neal, the 19-year-old Los Angeles Galaxy center back, is also one to watch.

Jesús Ferreira, in need of some reputation rehab after a hapless 45 minutes in his unexpected start against the Netherlands last year, became the first player in USMNT history to score hat-tricks in successive international matches. The FC Dallas forward and scourge of small Caribbean islands added to his haul of goals against St Kitts & Nevis and Trinidad & Tobago with a fine volley against Panama, his seven Gold Cup goals tying Clint Dempsey’s USMNT tournament record set in 2015.

With a tally now standing at 15 goals and four assists in 23 appearances, the 22-year-old became the quickest player to reach double-digit goals in USMNT history. But until he can prove his effectiveness against elite nations, he’s probably still behind the shiny new starlet Folarin Balogun and a resurgent Ricardo Pepi on the depth chart.

With MLS-based players the exception not the rule when Berhalter selects his strongest starting line-up, the USMNT’s center of gravity has shifted to Europe. Looking ahead to the all-important 2026 World Cup, the machinations of player agents and club managers as they resolve unsettled situations for many of Berhalter’s key men this summer is likely to prove more consequential to the team’s prospects than anything that happened during the Gold Cup.

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As the defeated players were trudging off the field in San Diego, Christian Pulisic was in Italy completing his move to Milan. After a season in which he started only eight Premier League games for Chelsea, scoring once, the fee for the American talisman was reportedly $22m – about a third of the sum the Londoners paid Borussia Dortmund for him in 2019. Still only 24, his kinetic displays in Qatar and against Mexico in the Concacaf Nations League last month underline how important he is to the team, making it vital that he avoid another season of stagnation at club level.

That appears to be a risk for Turner, who appeared in the Gold Cup precisely because of his lack of first-team action for Arsenal. Despite his reliability, at the age of 29 a second campaign spent almost entirely on the bench would be unhelpful. Pepi has just joined Dutch league runners-up PSV Eindhoven, giving the 20-year-old a useful platform, while Brenden Aaronson goes from the Championship to the Champions League after sealing a year’s loan from Leeds United to Union Berlin. The picture is cloudier for Weston McKennie, Adams, Balogun, Sergiño Dest, Yunus Musah and Gio Reyna.

Aftershocks from the Reyna ructions that delayed Berhalter’s reappointment are a storyline to watch when the US and their coach return to action in September with otherwise low-key friendlies against Uzbekistan and Oman. Will the playmaker and the coach hold a press conference to announce a new beginning in their relationship after the epic ruptures during and after the World Cup?

With enticing friendlies to come in October against Germany and Ghana, and the return of the Nations League, this autumn promises to hold more significance and intrigue than the summer did, especially surrounding how Balogun performs. The Nations League is serving as a qualification tournament for the 2024 Copa America. Like the Gold Cup, it’ll also be held in the US – promising a financial windfall for Conmebol and a useful dress rehearsal for the 2026 World Cup co-hosts. It’s a safe bet to assume that the US line-up – and the buzz – will be rather different in a year’s time.