Panama's World Cup woes remind U.S. fans of their team's failure
KALININGRAD, Russia -- For the United States, Panama's 6-1 thrashing at the hands of England rubs salt in a still gaping wound.
While Saudi Arabia was the early front-runner for the unofficial title of "Worst Team in the World Cup" when it was thrashed 5-0 in the opening game by host Russia, Panama has taken over that moniker.
Sure, the Canaleros might be happy just to have made it this far, and Felipe Baloy will go down in history as the country's first goal scorer at a World Cup. Meanwhile, Panama's fans cheered to the very end of Sunday's thrashing, and the sight of the players going over to acknowledge their support was a nice moment.
But with a goal differential of -8 ahead of a final game vs. Tunisia, Panama looks more overmatched with each passing minute. The England game was over early, with the Three Lions racing to a 5-0 halftime lead, which led to 45 minutes of garbage time that gave U.S. supporters time to consider the inevitable question: How did Panama qualify ahead of us?
The simple answer? Because it deserved to. Panama did not do anything nefarious to grab the third and final automatic qualifying spot in CONCACAF, although it did catch some massive breaks. The same is true for a Honduras side that finished fourth and qualified for a playoff spot, where it fell to Australia.
Whether you want to fault Jurgen Klinsmann, Bruce Arena, the U.S. Soccer Federation the players or all of the above, the U.S. simply did not get the job done and only has itself to blame. All it needed was one more point -- one! -- and it would have finished third. The level of ineptitude it took not to qualify is off the charts, and there are no excuses.
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Moreover, there is also no guarantee that the U.S. would have acquitted itself well in this tournament. Arena has stated that he would have worked some younger players into a hypothetical World Cup roster, but it's debatable whether that would have made much of a difference.
The U.S. was badly outplayed by Belgium in the round of 16 four years ago, when only a superhuman effort from goalkeeper Tim Howard took the game to extra time. With the team at a decidedly low ebb, there is little reason to expect that fortunes would have changed.
Panama's struggles certainly are not a good look for CONCACAF, especially with Costa Rica also eliminated after just two matches. The nightmare scenario of none of its teams reaching the knockout rounds is still possible given that even with two wins, Mexico is not guaranteed to advance.
Confederation performance is somewhat cyclical; four years ago, three CONCACAF teams advanced and Costa Rica reached the quarterfinals. Back in 2010, the U.S. and Mexico got out of the group phase and the same was true in 2002. Now it looks like a repeat of 2006 is in the offing, with Mexico carrying the flag on its own.
As for which U.S. players will see this World Cup as an incentive to make amends, the motivation meter is already pegged in the red zone. In talking to players like Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams, they are well aware of what has taken place and have all the motivation they need.
And if there are any thoughts that CONCACAF is holding the U.S. back, the qualifying debacle shows that it is in no position to turn up its nose. Let's see how the new crop of players does in the 2019 Gold Cup, as well as the CONCACAF Nations League -- both set to offer vital chances to gain competitive experience, especially on the road -- before entertaining the thought that what the federation offers is too easy.
In the meantime, all the U.S. can do is watch what is taking place in Russia and keep stewing in its failure.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.