GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Gregg Berhalter ushered in a new era for the U.S. men’s national team with an attacking style and a new captain.
A lopsided win was a great way to get started, even in a match involving mostly second- and third-stringers.
Berhalter became the third U.S. coach in the modern era to start with a win, Djordje Mihailovic and Christian Ramirez scored in their national team debuts and the Americans beat Panama 3-0 Sunday night in an exhibition.
“It’s nice to put in the work after an extended period of time and get a reward for that,” Berhalter said . “The guys should be proud of themselves. They really worked hard.”
Walker Zimmerman also scored for the U.S., which used a roster of players all from Major League Soccer and drew just 9,040, its smallest for a home game since October 2016.
Berhalter made a surprise pick as captain, choosing 26-year-old defender Aaron Long in his third international appearance rather than 31-year-old midfielder Michael Bradley in his 143rd.
“Leadership comes naturally to me,” Long said. “I am one of the older guys in camp and stepped up that way. I just try to go about my business the same way, change nothing.”
Berhalter made the decision during training camp.
“We see his leadership qualities. Every exercise we do he’s competitive, he’s driving guys, he’s pushing guys, and we like that. We like his demeanor,” he said. “I don’t think it was a knock against anyone else that they weren’t captain, I think I would look at it more as a positive that Aaron was captain because of what he’s been doing these last couple of weeks.”
Having been removed as captain once as a player without explanation, Berhalter made sure to speak with Bradley.
“I was very clear with him, I said, listen, you would look at the roster and you’d be the logical choice for captain, but we’re not going with you, we’re going with Aaron, and here’s why we’re going with Aaron,” Berhalter said. “I told him that he’ll still be a leader when he’s on the field by his performance. The armband is maybe just authority, but you can lead through your actions, and I think Michael certainly has done that tonight.”
Seven U.S. players made debuts, including five starters — the most since in the starting lineup since Sept. 3, 1992, at Canada.
Mihailovic and fellow midfielders Corey Baird and Jeremy Ebobisse made their first appearances along with right back Nick Lima and left back Daniel Lovitz. Midfielder Jonathan Lewis made his debut in the 66th minute and Ramirez entered at striker in the 84th. The only players with more than six previous international appearances were Bradley and 27-year-old forward Gyasi Zardes.
Mihailovic put the U.S. ahead in the 40th minute from just inside the penalty area off a cross from Baird.
Zimmerman scored his second goal in five appearances in the 80th minute, knocking in a header from about 7 yards after Nick Lima intercepted a pass after Panama started a counter following a U.S. corner kick.
Ramirez tapped in a cross from Lewis in the 89th.
“There’s a group of guys that have to take more responsibility and be encouraged and engaged to put more on their shoulders,” Bradley said. “(They need) to think about more than just themselves and their performance.”
Goalkeeper Zack Steffen wasn’t tested much in the first half but got out his left hand to block Edson Samms’ close-range shot 10 minutes into the second half. Sean Johnson replaced Steffen in the 74th.
Thirty players have made U.S. debuts in 13 matches since the October 2017 loss at Trinidad and Tobago ended the Americans’ streak of seven straight World Cup appearances, just six fewer debuts than in 62 matches during the entire 2014-17 World Cup cycle.
Bruce Arena quit as coach after the defeat in Trinidad and was replaced on an interim basis by Dave Sarachan, his top assistant. Berhalter, a former American defender, was hired last month as U.S. coach from MLS’s Columbus Crew. He joined Bora Milutinovic in 1991 and Bob Bradley in 2007 as the only Americans to win their debuts since the U.S. returned to soccer’s world stage in the late 1980s.
The 45-year-old Berhalter was a member of the 2002 and ’06 World Cup teams and became the first American to coach the national team after playing for it at the World Cup.
Panama was coming off a last-place finish in its first World Cup appearance and gave nine players debuts, including six starters: goalkeeper Eddie Roberts, defenders Edgar Gondola and Guillermo Benitez, and midfielders Ernesto Walker, Ernesto Sinclair and Luis Canate. Three more debuts came at the start of the second half: defender Ivan Anderson, and midfielders Carlos Harvey and Edson Samms.
Defender Fidel Escobar and forward Abdiel Arroyo were the only veterans from the World Cup roster.
Berhalter promised a pressing style and the Americans lived up to it. His team plays again with the all-MLS roster against Costa Rica next Saturday in San Jose, California, again involving only players from Major League Soccer. He won’t have his full player pool until March exhibitions, and the first competitive matches under Berhalter will be at the CONCACAF Gold Cup in June.
“It was a good baseline, gives us something to work with,” Berhalter said.
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