The U.S. men’s national team doesn’t have the best of luck playing in its new home of Atlanta.

For the second time in as many important matches, the U.S. was beaten, this time 2-1 by Panama in the Copa America on Thursday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The loss puts the U.S. in a precarious position to advance out of its group. The last time the U.S. played here it was beaten by Jamaica 2-1 in the semifinals of the Gold Cup at the Georgia Dome in 2016.

Thursday’s match that, if remembered, will be so for two moments of hotheadedness that led to red cards, one for each team but the one to the U.S. was more impactful, random officiating that resulted in a loss of control in the match, and a complete lack of the fluidity and skill one expects from national teams.

Even when it had 11 men before Tim Weah’s decision to punch a Panamanian player in the back of the head, the U.S. could barely string passes together to create attacks. After the red card, it spent most of the match trying unsuccessfully to blunt Panama.

“It’s a shame because there was more in this game,” U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter said. “Suddenly this snap decision by Timmy, now that leaves us short-handed and then you have the whole thing that’s moving with the referee throughout the game so it led to some strange, strange circumstances for sure.”

The U.S. Soccer Federation is building its new $200 million national training center in nearby Fayetteville. Thursday’s performance may not have been what it hoped for in front of its new neighbors. Now, to secure advancement out of the group, the U.S. either needs to defeat what will be a heavily favored Uruguay on Monday in Kansas City, or it needs to earn a point and hope that Panama doesn’t beat Bolivia in the other group match.

“Either way, we know we’re going to have to put in a really good performance,” Berhalter said. “It doesn’t do us any good to sort of speculate what we’re gonna need, or how’s it gonna turn out or what happens tonight in the game. We’ll go out there and try to have a great performance against Uruguay and get the result we need in front of a great crowd in Kansas City.”

Panama, like the U.S. a member of CONCACAF, has been a tough opponent for the U.S. in recent matches. It beat the U.S. in the finals of last year’s Gold Cup. Thursday was no different in front of an announced attendance of 59,145.

Berhalter used again the starting 11 from the opening win against Bolivia. Folarin Balogun started at striker with Weah, Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna, Weston McKinnie and Tyler Adams in the midfield, Tim Ream and Chris Richards the centerbacks, Joe Scally and Antonee Robinson the fullbacks, and Matt Turner in goal.

The first half was full of rough play, long delays and unhappiness with referee Ivan Barton.

The U.S. thought it had a 1-0 lead in the fifth minute on a goal by McKennie. Pulisic whipped in a free kick from the right that Richards headed toward the goal. Panama’s Orlando Mosquera saved the ball. Ream reached the deflection and poked it back up field, where McKennie sliced it into the goal. A review that lasted several minutes determined that Ream was offside, negating the goal.

Turner and Cesar Blackman collided hip-to-hip because both were going for a cross in the 12th minute. It was cross that came in from the left side. Turner was watching the ball and Blackman was looking over his left shoulder as the ball curled in. Turner may not have been able to see Blackman. Blackman could see Turner. Trainers examined Turner for several minutes. He stayed in the game.

Berhalter said he didn’t want to be drawn into talking about the referee, but later in the interview he said, “It was a nice challenge by the attacker that didn’t get a caution, which is really surprising. Think about that: he knocks Matt out of the game and nothing. But again, that is what it is.”

Weah was shown a red card in the 18th minute after another review showed him punching Panama’s Roderick Miller in the back of the head. Weah appeared to twice try to punch him. He missed the first time and tagged him the second time. Weah began walking off the field before Barton had the red card out of his pocket. Berhalter said that Weah was bumped into by Miller and that he apologized to the team.

“Timmy knows the mistake he made,” Pulisic said. “He’s going to learn from it. It sucks. It’s not the way you want to put your team in that position. It hurts. It’s a lapse of judgment. It’s just one simple second, you respond to something. And so it’s disappointing.”

No matter, though, because Balogun gave the U.S. a 1-0 lead with a rifled shot off the right post from the left side of the 18-yard box in the 22nd minute. Balogun and Robinson played a one-two pass for him to get the space to shoot.

Credit: Daniela Ramirez

The scene at Copa America in Atlanta at Merceds-Benz Stadium on Thursday, June 27, 2024.

Panama tied the game in the 26th minute with a goal from Blackman, whose first shot was blocked. He responded by hitting a left-footed shot into the lower right corner to make it 1-1.

Balogun hit the same post again, inches from where his shot hit on his goal, in the 45th minute, but this time the angle of the shot caused the ball to bounce back into play.

Centerback Cameron Carter-Vickers, midfielder Johnny Cardoso and goalkeeper Ethan Horvath subbed on for Turner, Adams and Reyna to start the second half as the U.S. switched to a 5-3-1 to try to preserve at least a point from the match. Berhalter said they didn’t have a status update on Turner yet for Monday’s match.

Barton judged that Carter-Vickers fouled Jose Fajardo in the 18-yard box in the 63rd minute and signaled for a penalty kick. A minute later, after watching a replay, Barton overruled himself and ruled there was no foul and therefore no penalty.

Ricardo Pepi subbed on for Balogun in the 72nd minute. His header at the backpost in the 82st minute was saved by Mosquera in what was the United States’ best chance to score the winning goal in the second half.

Panama made the U.S. pay a minute later when Jose Fajardo scored from a few yards out in the 83rd minute. Panama won several duels in the sequence until Fajardo’s shot from close range went through Horvath’s hands.

“We didn’t deal with the first ball very well, we didn’t deal with second ball very well and then too much space between our centerbacks and off the cross.” Berhalter said. “Besides that, we’re talking about very, very little production from Panama and really a tremendous effort by the guys.”

Panama’s Coco Carrasquilla was shown a red card in the 88th minute after deliberately hacking down Pulisic from behind. Two more Panama players received yellow cards for cynical tackles in the final minutes as the U.S. pushed for a tying goal.

“I was honestly quite proud of how we responded and how we fought and defended,” Pulisic said. “Balo with an amazing goal. It’s just the result just kind of takes it all away. So it’s disappointing.”