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U.S. soccer coach Gregg Berhalter and young team enjoy winning debuts

United States midfielder Paul Arriola (14) beats Panama defender Francisco Palacios to the ball duri
United States midfielder Paul Arriola (14) beats Panama defender Francisco Palacios to the ball during the second half of a men’s international friendly soccer match on Sunday in Glendale, Ariz.
(Ross D. Franklin / Associated Press)

The night before he played his first game with the U.S. national team, a nervous Nick Lima got a call from Chris Wondolowski, his teammate with the San Jose Earthquakes and a World Cup veteran.

“He said when you hear that national anthem, think of all the things — the hard work, the training — that got you here,” Lima recalled. “But then just go out and do you when the game happens.

“That’s what I’ve been trying to do: be myself. I’m not going to make it being someone I’m not.”

It was advice Lima took to heart Sunday, leading a young U.S. national team to a 3-0 win over Panama in what was a night of firsts before a cozy crowd of 9,040 at cavernous State Farm Stadium.

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Lima, who assisted on the second goal, was one of five starters who played their first game for the national team Sunday, tying a record for the most in U.S. Soccer’s modern era. Two more debutantes — including LAFC’s Christian Ramirez, who scored the game’s final goal — came off the bench. And on the sidelines Gregg Berhalter, in his first game as the national team’s coach, became the third man in nearly 34 years to win his debut with the U.S.

Gregg Berhalter
United States coach Gregg Berhalter shouts instructions to his players during the first half of a men’s international friendly soccer match against Panama on Sunday in Glendale, Ariz.
(Ross D. Franklin / Associated Press)

But it was the versatile Lima who shouldered the heaviest load in implementing Berhalter’s aggressive, attacking-game play, supporting the defense at right back when Panama had the ball, then joining the midfielders in the attack when the Americans won it back.

“It was a good baseline. Some of the movements we were working with are very complicated,” Berhalter said of his team’s performance.

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That was especially true of Lima.

“He competed on every play,” the coach said. “It showed that he has a good understanding of the game.”

There was a lot to like in Berhalter’s debut, especially in the first half. The passing was good, the movement off the ball better and the buildup through the midfield succeeded at opening space. However the finishing lacked patience and precision with former Galaxy forward Gyasi Zardes wasting a number of chances.

The U.S. was especially dominant in the first half, building a huge lead in time of possession and getting off more than twice as many shots as Panama. But the Americans didn’t find the back of the net until Djordje Mihailovic finished a quick counter with a right-footed shot from the center of the box.

The buildup to the goal started at midfield and featured five passes, the last of which was a low feed from Corey Baird on the right wing that found Mihailovic charging into the penalty area surrounded by nothing but space.

“Before the match there was a lot of emotion going through my mind. But as soon as I stepped on the field, all that went away,” said Mihailovic, who was also making his international debut.

Things got a little raggedy in the second half before LAFC defender Walker Zimmerman doubled the margin in the 80th minute, heading in a long cross from Lima, who made the goal happen by first halting a Panama breakaway with a perfectly timed tackle on Edson Samms, then scrambling to his feet to send a pass bending toward Zimmerman in a crowd in the center of the 18-yard box.

“What a ball from him,” said Zimmerman who, before the game, echoed Wondolowski’s advice to his first-time teammates.

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“It was ‘hey, believe in yourself because all of us believe in you,’” he said. “Don’t try to do anything special because you’re here for how you performed all year.”

Ramirez closed the scoring eight minutes later, tapping in a feed from Jonathan Lewis.

The challenge now, Lima said, is to come up with an encore performance next weekend in San Jose that proves Sunday’s win wasn’t just beginner’s luck.

“It’s one step in the right direction,” he said. “We’re going to go back and there’s going to be many things we critique. But many things we’re going to look at and say ‘that was good. And we want to keep doing it.’”

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kevin.baxter@latimes.com | Twitter: @kbaxter11


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