Thursday, July 25, 2024

Special relationship: England comparisons loom large for Copa America hosts USA

SoccerNews in General Soccer News 28 Jun 2024

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The United States’ home Copa America campaign was not supposed to come down to this.

Monday’s Group C finale against Marcelo Bielsa’s Uruguay was expected to be a straightforward battle for top spot, with Panama and Bolivia, ranked 43rd and 84th in the world respectively, deemed unlikely to offer much of a threat.

However, a stunning capitulation saw Gregg Berhalter’s side beaten 2-1 by Panama on Thursday, the hosts ceding control after Timothy Weah’s early red card.

That result has had a seismic impact on their hopes of progressing, potentially leaving them requiring a win against one of the continent’s finest next week.

The story of the USA’s campaign to date has been one of unfulfilled potential, a lack of decisiveness in attack and a struggle to change things on the fly. It is a tale that might sound familiar to England supporters, who are watching the Three Lions rather limp through to the Euro 2024 knockouts.

Quarter-final hopes in the balance

Before a ball was kicked at this year’s tournament, the Opta supercomputer gave the USA a 64.5% chance of reaching the last eight.

After Thursday’s result, they are assigned a 51% probability of advancing, as anything less than a victory over Uruguay – who will not rest on their laurels as they bid to clinch top spot – will leave them needing a favour from Bolivia in their match with Panama.

Though the USA could still top the group with a win, third (49%) is now viewed as their most likely final position, which would represent a monumental failure at a tournament viewed as a dress rehearsal for a home World Cup in 2026.

But where has it all gone wrong?

USA follow England’s lead

The USA were clearly superior in their opening 2-0 win over Bolivia, firing off 20 shots worth 2.51 expected goals (xG) and recording 35 touches in the area to their opponents’ one.

While Weah’s early red card – the result of a petulant push to the back of Panama player Amir Murillo’s head – put them in a difficult position in Thursday’s second match, that incident did not necessarily have to precipitate such a dire collapse.

Indeed, four minutes after Weah’s exit, their frustration turned to elation as Folarin Balogun fired a brilliant left-footed finish in off the woodwork from the edge of the area.

But much like England in their first two games at Euro 2024, the USA ceded control after assuming the lead, which was wiped out within four minutes by Cesar Blackman.

Home fans would surely have expected Panama to enjoy more of the ball while a man up, but the sheer extent to which they dominated was alarming.

Panama finished the match with a 74% possession share, the highest figure any CONCACAF team has managed in a Copa America match on record (since 2011), and the eighth-highest overall.

From the 19th minute onwards, the USA completed just three passes into the Panama penalty area, recording a dismal 59.4% passing accuracy throughout the match – comfortably the worst figure at the tournament so far.

Though they won plaudits for their dynamic approach at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, Berhalter’s side can look uncomfortable when tasked with exercising control, and that was certainly the case on Thursday.

They managed only six shots in total, as Panama set a new national record for the lowest amount of attempts faced in a Copa America match. Their previous low was 12 shots, against Bolivia and Argentina in 2016.

Two of the four defeats that the United States have suffered as hosts in major tournaments have come against Panama.

The coach’s changes – particularly the decision to sacrifice Giovanni Reyna for an additional defender in Cameron Carter-Vickers – did nothing to stem the tide.

By the time he changed tack by bringing on Josh Sargent for Tim Ream in the 86th minute, it was too late, with Jose Fajardo’s close-range finish proving decisive.

Pepi’s profligacy and Balogun’s talents wasted

While the USA spent long periods sitting off Panama when down a man, they still had one huge chance to restore their advantage at 1-1, but substitute Ricardo Pepi saw his header kept out by Orlando Mosquera.

Pepi has only played 43 minutes off the bench at this year’s Copa, yet his cumulative xG figure of 2.27 is the highest of any player at the tournament.

The five players directly below the goalless Pepi in the xG charts – Kendry Paez, Lautaro Martinez, Darwin Nunez, Solomon Rondon and Facundo Pellistri – have all netted at least once.

While the PSV striker could be forgiven for his wastefulness in the Bolivia match, when USA had already seized control before his second-half introduction, his form is starting to become a major worry.

The fact Pepi was introduced in place of goalscorer Balogun in Atlanta has brought further scrutiny upon Berhalter.

The Monaco forward is one of just four men to net more than once at this year’s Copa America, and only the second USA player to score in successive Copa matches, after Clint Dempsey netted in three straight at the 2016 tournament.

Both of Balogun’s goals have been pinpoint finishes from the left side of the penalty area, coming despite his xG total for the tournament standing at just 0.34. For context, that is a lower figure than that recorded by Harry Kane through England’s first two matches at Euro 2024 (0.48), and the Three Lions’ struggles in the chance-creation department have been well documented.

Convincing Balogun to switch allegiance from England in 2023 was considered a major coup for the USA, with his decision coming at the end of a season in which he plundered 22 goals while on loan at Reims from Arsenal.

At present, however, they are wasting their star striker, who has registered just eight touches in the penalty area at this tournament, having averaged 7.97 per 90 minutes in Ligue 1 last term.

Berhalter will hope Uruguay’s expansive approach gives Balogun space to attack on matchday three, but without any level of control or the ability to play through the thirds, the striker will always be peripheral.

Similar failings have not yet cost England at Euro 2024, a set of lacklustre opponents and the 24-team format ensuring a group-stage exit was never really on the cards.

With one of South America’s form teams next up and no second chances for third-place finishers, the same may not be true for the USA.

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