CONCACAF U-20 Championship: Panama takes control in Group A with victory over USA

This trip to Jamaica has turned into a nightmare for the United States under-20 national team in the wake of a 1-0 defeat to Panama on Sunday.

Carlos Small exacerbated the damage inflicted by the 1-1 draw against Guatemala on Friday by handing Panama all three points in Kingston with his winner after 78 minutes. Small kept his composure and punished the Americans for their indifferent display to send his side top of the group with six points in two games.

U.S. under-20 coach Tab Ramos and his players expected to occupy that perch, but their late stumbles against Guatemala and Panama have ultimately left them with plenty of questions to answer.

This display offered little encouragement on the whole. The bright spells petered out with a lack of ingenuity and precision in the final third. The midfield struggled to dictate terms against an organized and vibrant Panamanian side. And the defense ultimately succumbed in the waning stages to leave the Americans with plenty of work to do over the final three matches in order to keep their FIFA Under-20 World Cup dreams intact.

Perhaps the match might have proceeded more comfortably for the Americans if they had taken their chances in the early stages. The opening period offered plenty of encouragement for Ramos’ side, but the group once again failed to translate promising sequences into end product.

Once again, the best threats came from set pieces. Matt Miazga forced Luis Pereira to head off his own line inside the opening 10 minutes after climbing highest to meet Emerson Hyndman’s corner kick. Hyndman prompted a fine block from Jaime De Gracia Cortes before Junior Flores swept his effort from distance over the bar.

The early promise fizzled out as the first half progressed and the Panamanians started to settle.

Their work in the wide areas presented some issues, while a piece of direct play created perhaps the best chance of the opening stanza nine minutes before the interval. Zack Steffen watched for most of the opening half, but he kept his composure well to kick away Ismael Diaz’s effort.

It provided a warning sign for the tumult to come after the interval as the game stretched and the Panamanians looked the more likely to break through.

Aside from a brief spell on the hour, the Americans found themselves starved of ideas and threatened by Panama’s pace moving from back to threat. They paid the ultimate price in the final quarter of an hour to place their hopes of a direct World Cup berth under considerable threat.

The telling combination exposed the dearth of proper pressure on the ball and the lack of awareness to cope with a simple clip over the line in the final third. Panama cobbled together an incisive sequence to allow Edson Samms to loop over the line from the edge of the penalty area. Small drifted into the vacant space on the right side of the penalty area and tucked the winner inside the near post.

Small’s finish prompted wild celebrations on the Panamanian bench and placed the Americans’ failures in the first two matches stark relief. Panama now sits firmly atop Group A with two victories in two attempts, while the U.S. must regroup quickly after mustering just one point in the opening two games.

Those failures leave the Americans in a precarious position heading into a straightforward date with Aruba on Wednesday (5:30p.m. ET, FOX Sports 2). The margin for error is well and truly gone now with a place in the one-off playoff stage now a firm possibility after the early missteps.