The USMNT’s Panama meltdown has yielded a near ultimatum: win or blow it up

It was dizzying and damaging, disenchanting and self-destructive. For U.S. men’s national team players, Thursday’s 2-1 loss to Panama was potentially haunting. On paper, it was embarrassing; in practice, draining and dispiriting, perhaps even devastating.

Yet, in a twisted way, it has yielded exactly what U.S. Soccer needs.

It has yielded exactly what many rational USMNT fans want.

On Monday in Kansas City, they will likely get a decisive verdict on head coach Gregg Berhalter, one way or the other.

They will, most probably, get either a signature win over Uruguay or a colossal, inexcusable failure. They will either get evidence that Berhalter’s USMNT can rise to meet a massive moment, or proof that he should lose his job.

They — the fans and U.S. Soccer — will get clarity that they weren’t sure Copa América would deliver. Entering the tournament, six quick group-stage points seemed likely. The Uruguay game, in that scenario, wouldn’t have really mattered, because Colombia or Brazil would await in the quarterfinals either way. And would losing to Colombia or Brazil really be a fireable offense?

But now, a Panama win over Bolivia on Monday could take that inconclusive scenario off the table.

If Panama wins, the USMNT almost surely must win to avoid elimination.

And if they don’t, well, a group-stage flameout would be as conclusive as can be.

A win, on the other hand, would be exactly what Berhalter needs to prove that he’s capable of lifting this team, and worthy of guiding it into the 2026 World Cup.

ATLANTA, GEORGIA - JUNE 27: Gregg Berhalter, Head Coach of United States looks dejected after the CONMEBOL Copa America USA 2024 Group C match between Panama and United States at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on June 27, 2024 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images)
Will Gregg Berhalter's USMNT rise to the occasion Monday vs. Uruguay? His job likely depends on it. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images)

Uruguay, a flyweight powerhouse that punches with heavyweights, is the very type of opponent that Berhalter’s USMNT has never beaten. It is ranked sixth in the world. It is absolutely flying under revered Argentine manager Marcelo Bielsa. It has elite players at all three levels of the field. It dispatched Bolivia and Panama by a combined score of 8-1. It will only need a draw on Monday to top the Group C.

It is the type of opponent that Berhalter’s USMNT has previously held in check. There was the 1-1 draw with Brazil earlier this month. There was the 0-0 stalemate with England at the World Cup. Those, for weeks and years, have been held up as evidence that this USMNT can compete with the world’s best, even if it doesn’t always do so.

But can it beat the world’s best?

The answer, entering Year 6 of the Berhalter era, remains unclear. And there was a chance it could have stayed unclear through 2024 and beyond. In fact, the U.S. could have limped to a Copa América final via drudgery and penalty shootouts. It could have advanced — from its group, and in the knockout rounds — without actually proving anything. If Panama doesn’t beat Bolivia, it still can.

But after Thursday’s meltdown, it has no choice but to belly up to Uruguay, and go for three points.

And after two humiliating losses in four matches this month — first to Colombia, 5-1, and now to Panama — Berhalter has no more leeway, no more available excuses.

Thursday, for the most part, was not his fault. It was Tim Weah’s. It was misfortune’s. It was other players’. It did not necessarily warm his seat any more so than the Colombian shellacking did. His status as the coach of this talented team should depend on what it has seemingly always depended on: performances and outcomes at the 2024 Copa América.

It’s just that now, the outcomes seem somewhat binary.

Thursday’s loss yielded something of a Monday ultimatum.

For the USMNT, it could be “win or go home.”

For U.S. Soccer, it could be “win or blow it up.”