The USMNT are in danger of blowing their big moment at the Copa America

The U.S. men’s national team entered this summer’s Copa America with enormous expectations.

Two years ahead of a World Cup on home soil, this group of players, most of whom play in Europe’s best leagues, has been heralded as a team capable of bigger things than any U.S. men’s squad before it. There was a belief they were capable of making a run that could capture the country. This Copa was seen not just as a dress rehearsal, but also a chance to prove they were ready to be real contenders for the sport’s biggest trophy in 2026.

After a shocking 2-1 loss to Panama on Thursday night in Atlanta, the U.S. will instead go into the group finale trying simply not to be eliminated.

It is a snap back to reality for the discourse around this U.S. team and a dismal night ended with multiple players being subjected to racist abuse on social media. In a statement, U.S. Soccer said it was “deeply disturbed” by the comments. The federation also contacted Conmebol and will be offering mental health services to any players and staff who desire it.

It was a bleak postscript to an evening that should have marked another step in this team’s progression. The U.S. has won trophies in CONCACAF but is lacking a signature win against a top opponent. The hope was that moment would come in the knockout stage, perhaps against Brazil or Colombia. Now, they face a do-or-die game earlier than expected against Marcelo Bielsa’s impressive Uruguay.


What the USMNT needs to qualify for Copa America quarterfinals

For U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter, the pressure is rising. At the post-match press conference, Berhalter was asked whether his job was on the line against Uruguay. “That’s not for me to determine,” he said.

The question was a reflection not just of the massive disappointment of the result against Panama, but of how much was on the line for this team in the tournament. A knockout game was a minimum expectation. Now, it’s far from guaranteed. A win would likely secure a spot in the knockouts, though goal differential would factor in. Any other results depend on what happens in the Panama-Bolivia game.

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Pressure is rising on USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter (Hector Vivas/Getty Images)

Either way, it leaves the U.S. — as Christian Pulisic put it afterwards — needing to “go and play the best game of our lives”. Failing to get past the group stage should, and likely would, lead to evaluation not just of Berhalter’s job, but also of the program as a whole.

“Pressure is part of what we sign up for,” Berhalter said. “That’s part of this job; representing the national team is a tremendous honor and you know there’s a lot of expectations that come along with it. Today, it was an extremely disappointing result, but the effort was there. If we put in the same type of effort in this game, we’ll have a shot to beat Uruguay.”

To do that, however, they will need to keep all their players on the field. They played for more than 70 minutes here with 10 men after winger Tim Weah was sent off for shoving Panama defender Roderick Miller in the back of the head. It was out of character for Weah, one of the team’s most consistent performers, and was all the stranger as it was prompted by an innocuous-looking tangle in midfield.

“We had a collision,” Miller told The Athletic in the mixed zone after the match. “I think he used a little excess force. He raised his hand to me. I feel like he was wrong to do it. It didn’t merit it at the time.”

Players said Weah apologized to the team in the locker room after the game and while tournament rules dictated he was not allowed to take part in postgame media activities, he later posted a message on his Instagram.

“Today, I let my team and my country down,” Weah 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.”

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Tim Weah is sent off for tussling with Roderick Miller (Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)

Weah’s teammates rallied to his support. “Timmy knows the mistake he made,” Pulisic said. “That’s it. He’s gonna learn from it. It sucks, it hurts and it’s just, at minimum, a lapse of judgment. It’s just one simple second.”

It was, however, the game’s turning point. The U.S. did take the lead shortly after through Folarin Balogun but allowed an equalizer just four minutes later and, from then on, retreated towards their own goal, completing just 26 passes in the first half after Balogun’s 22nd-minute strike.

Berhalter switched to five at the back for the second half but to no avail, with Jose Fajardo snatching a winner for Panama in the 83rd minute, shooting high past Ethan Horvath, who had replaced Matt Turner at half-time (Turner suffered a leg injury and will be evaluated over the next 48 hours to determine his availability for the Uruguay game).

“Looking at it, they didn’t create any chances, very few chances,” Berhalter said. “They had a shot from distance, (but) I can’t remember another clear-cut chance they had. For us, it was really about picking and choosing the moments to counter-attack but being difficult to break down. For the most part, besides the goal, we did that. Again, one lapse, we got punished for it, but I think we were solid enough to get away with a point.”

While the red card undoubtedly changed the game, Pulisic noted it didn’t take the sting out of the result. The U.S. lost at home to Panama, a CONCACAF opponent against which they were heavily favored. They had chances to see out a result, to steal a point, but didn’t.

“I was honestly quite proud of how we responded,” Pulisic said. “But the result just kind of takes it all away. It’s disappointing.”

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Jose Fajardo celebrates his winner (Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)

Last week, multiple U.S. players sat down with reporters ahead of the start of the tournament. Nearly all of them faced questions about expectations around the group and the belief that they were capable of making a run. There was some discussion about managing the tournament game by game, but also an acknowledgment that the country was watching and that fans’ belief was as high as ever before.

Results in this tournament were about justifying that belief. Growing it, even. It was about proving they could do something different than any group before them and trying to capture the country’s attention.

“The guys want it so bad, we all do,” Pulisic said last Friday. “We want the same as the fans want, to show ourselves to be one of the best teams in the world. And we want to compete with the best. We want to go out and win this tournament — there’s no question of that.”

Thursday’s loss to Panama showed the U.S. has so much more to do to get to those lofty goals. The chance to advance and make a run in this tournament isn’t over yet, but the path is now much harder.

The U.S. knows that Monday will be a massive moment to either live up to the hype — or fall short.

(Top photo: Hector Vivas/Getty Images)

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