GLENDALE, Ariz. -- For the past two-and-a-half weeks, manager Gregg Berhalter has been building a foundation with the U.S. men's national team. It's a process that is 100 percent necessary, though it doesn't always make for compelling viewing. It's a process that at times consists of missed passes and blown assignments.
Yet on Sunday, the U.S. managed to not only begin the Berhalter era on a winning note, defeating Panama, 3-0, but it also had some bright moments. There were strong performances over much of the field, but of note were a trio of players making their international debuts. Djordje Mihailovic looked bright in a free attacking role, and scoring the first of the evening. Corey Baird delivered the assist on Mihailovic's goal, and was a consistent threat on the right wing. Defender Nick Lima was sharp throughout on both sides of the ball.
The role of Lima was the most interesting. His defensive duties were that of a standard right back. But when the U.S. transitioned into attack he played as an auxiliary midfielder, moving up and tucking inside to provide support to Michael Bradley. Lima's position allowed him to pounce on loose balls, and keep plenty of plays alive. It also allowed him to play-make a bit. It was Lima's pass that found Zardes in the 40th minute, and while the forward appeared to be bowled over by a Panama defender, the ball fell to Baird whose perfectly timed pass allowed Mihailovic to fire home with the help of a deflection. Lima then topped off his night with a stellar sequence, winning the ball to stifle a possible Panamanian counter, and then delivering a stellar cross for Walker Zimmerman to head home for the home side's second goal.
When asked to describe his role, Lima laughed and said, "Different," given how his responsibilities were much broader than those of a typical right back.
"There were times when I felt really comfortable with it," he said. "But there were also times where I'm sliding across, getting into the middle, getting deep. We're looking to switch point of attack and get out the other way, find our [No.] 10s, find our wingers. It's different, it takes a lot of learning, getting used to. Clearly I'm not used to it. It's still new, but it's a learning process. I think for going out in our first test in a real game, we found some things we definitely need to work on, and things that can work and we can build on going forward."
Lima was one of five players making their international debuts, and he admitted that there was the usual amount of nerves beforehand. But a phone call with San Jose Earthquakes teammate Chris Wondolowski helped him focus.
"[Wondolowski] said, 'When you hear that national anthem for the first time, think of all the hard work, the trainings, everything that got you here, then soak it in, and just do you,'" Lima said. "Hearing that from a guy whose done it at the highest level, multiple times, it gave me a sense of calm. And I think that's what I've been trying to here, just be myself. I'm not going to make it being someone I'm not. If I want to be here, I'll play the best as being Nick Lima."
Lima was by no means alone in acquitting himself well on his debut. Mihailovic, who is just 15 months removed from a torn ACL in his right knee, has dazzled the coaching staff in training camp, and excelled in a formation in which both he and Cristian Roldan -- who also sharp on the night -- acted as dual attacking midfielders.
"I think it was a [testament] to all my hard work," said Mihailovic about this goal. "And I think Gregg and [GM Earnie Stewart's] belief in me helped get to where I am now."
It's worth noting that the U.S. was up against a Panama side that was even more inexperienced than the home side. The combined number of caps on the Canaleros' roster amounted to just 81. Only two players from the roster that competed in last summer's World Cup played on Sunday, that being defender Fidel Escobar and forward Abdiel Arroyo.
But the U.S. had to start somewhere, and it delivered the kind of performance one might have expected from a Berhalter-coached group. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the U.S. dominated possession to the tune of 64.8 percent to 35.2 percent. The midfield, with Bradley looking composed in a holding role, was in control for the vast majority of the match. The home side created most of the chances, though it needed a superb save from Zack Steffen in the 56th minute to preserve the U.S. lead. Along the way, the U.S. threw out some tactical wrinkles -- Lima's role in particular that reveal Berhalter is putting his stamp on things in a way that is different from his time in Columbus.
In the big picture, what does the result mean? The reality is not much. Lima isn't going to supplant, say, a DeAndre Yedlin when the full squad gets together. Nor is Mihailovic going to take Christian Pulisic's place anytime soon. But building a foundation isn't just about tactics, or the culture around the team. It's about establishing some depth, and creating a level of understanding in Berhalter's methods.
When those players might emerge -- or be needed -- to take on bigger roles is difficult to predict. Some will never get there. All the more reason to provide opportunities now. And for some of those on the field, Sunday's match was the first of what will could be many more steps forward.