The United States were desperate for a good performance to rebound from an awful month of September qualifiers. They had the benefit of a fairly easy schedule in their last two matches, with Panama and the least daunting road trip at Trindad and Tobago.
The USMNT needed a confidence boost. In the 43rd minute, Jozy Altidore had enough confidence to convert a panenka penalty to give the Americans a 3-0 lead before halftime.
Yes, the night went well. And this tattoo exists.
Christian Pulisic has a big ol' American flag and eagle tattoo pic.twitter.com/7U23veX9GT— SB Nation (@SBNation) October 7, 2017
Christian Pulisic started the scoring which happened early and often as the USA climbed back into third place and in an automatic qualifying spot in CONCACAF’s World Cup Qualifying.
Pulisic got the USA on the board in the 8th minute off a feed from Jozy Altidore as he rounded Panama keeper Jaime Penedo and finished from a tight angle. Ten minutes later, Pulisic returned the favor, setting up Altidore on the back post thanks to some woeful marking as Jozy doubled the lead. Bobby Wood drew a penalty that Altidore converted before halftime and Wood capped it off himself with a wonderful turn and finish midway through the second half.
It was a less than inspiring display from Panama, who started the day one point up on the USMNT and have never qualified for a World Cup. With the struggles Panama has had against the US in qualifying and Gold Cup finals, it was surprising to see them put in a rather listless performance.
So were Panama that bad or were the USMNT just that good on the night? The truth, as always, lies somewhere in between.
The US Centerbacks Weren’t Spectacular
I like Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler, but I also liked them better four years ago when they were younger and didn’t really do much wrong in the 2013 calendar year. They won a Gold Cup and got a 0-0 draw in Azteca so it was a pretty impressive resume they piled up. And they were not bad tonight, but part of that is because Panama weren’t really trying.
It is a tremendous luxury to have DeAndre Yedlin locking down the right side of the field, because he was tremendous tonight and slid over on more than one occasion to shut down Panama attacks. If the USMNT is going to be a contender in the World Cup knockout stages, let alone the group, you can’t have your right back coming over to clean up a mess where the left centerback is.
Let it also be known that Besler got sucker punched and Gonzalez dumped over the advertising boards and not a card was in sight on either play. Omar and Matt are troopers, not to mention damn fine players, and should both be on the World Cup roster. The question really is are either of them starting next summer? We’ll find out, but despite the shutout, I’m not sure a game like this changes the fact that the US is still unsettled at centerback going into next year.
The Counter Attack and Route One
The USMNT is so good on the counter attack because there’s so many players who are just really good on the ball. Pulisic, Wood, Jozy, Arriola, Nagbe - the list is enormous and even if you didn’t like the USA’s starting formation (or the lack of cover in the middle with Michael Bradley), you can ignore those shortfalls because this team can get out and run.
Pulisic’s goal was just classic Route One stuff, Tim Howard boots a long goal kick, a couple of flick-ons from Wood and Jozy and Pulisic is off to the races and it’s 1-0. And if we’re being honest, the 4-0 scoreline doesn’t show the number of chances where the US probably should’ve scored.
Bobby Wood had a handful before adding the final tally, Jozy Altidore got stonewalled by Penedo in a 1v1 situation, all because the US were able to get into the attacking half/final third with speed. On the USA’s second goal, Jozy Altidore gets behind at least four defenders and Pulisic threads a cross through the area right to him. On the penalty kick, Bobby Wood dribbles through three players and then gets pulled down. That shouldn’t happen with that many defenders in the box, but speed kills and it created enough chaos throughout the night to create numerous chances for the US to score.
This type of play will serve the US well in the World Cup, where against good teams the US won’t have as much possession and the Americans will have to use that speed to set up chances or set piece opportunities.
The supporting cast is also pretty good...
All the talk will be about Pulisic, Jozy, Wood and Pulisic and there should be a lot more talk about the little things. Like DeAndre Yedlin being awesome at right back, and Paul Arriola doing all the little things, and Darlington Nagbe being a workhorse in possession and Dax McCarty on his qualifying debut literally standing on the ball in the Panama half like a boss cause he can.
(Side note, follow Jason Foster and his GIFs/stats on Twitter.)
The US will benefit from a true star like Pulisic, but as a team they will always have to be better than the sum of their parts. Getting Yedlin back was beyond noticeable, it was a true difference in the match. While the US midfield was far from perfect, again we can debate the initial formation/tactics defensively, offensively it worked.
Yes, the US got out possessed and out passed but Panama didn’t really do anything with the ball. The US out shot Panama 15-9 and 8-2 in shots on target and were in control of the match the second Pulisic ran free ahead of the first goal.
The USMNT needed this performance because we know they are this good in CONCACAF. But this qualifying cycle, under both Jurgen Klinsmann and Bruce Arena, they haven’t always proved they’re this good.
Qualifying in CONCACAF will never be easy - the travel, the venues, the heat, the referees...the unnecessary fouling of your best player... - you’re always playing a top team in the region and there are no easy games. Not even Trinidad and Tobago.
But the USA controls their own destiny now, and if they play like they did today, it’s not unreasonable to expect a similar score line down at T&T next week.