U.S. gains valuable point at Panama as World Cup qualifying intensifies
PANAMA CITY -- The U.S. men's national team battled to a 1-1 draw with Panama in a World Cup qualifier on Tuesday night. Clint Dempsey put the U.S. on top in the 39th minute, only to see Panama midfielder Gabriel Gomez equalize four minutes later. Each team had chances to break through in the second half, but the match ended in a stalemate that helps both sides in their quests to reach Russia 2018.
1. U.S. gains valuable away point
U.S. manager Bruce Arena stressed all week that Tuesday's encounter would look nothing like last Friday's 6-0 demolition of Honduras, a game that was full of free-flowing, attacking soccer. He proved prescient indeed.
For much of the first half, the U.S. struggled to do much of anything with the ball, especially once it ventured into the attacking third. As a consequence, the visitors were put under considerable pressure by the home side. But as the half wore on, the Americans began to carve out some chances and took the lead in the 39th minute, thanks to a bit of brilliance from the Boy Wonder, Christian Pulisic.
The Borussia Dortmund midfielder stole the ball from Felipe Baloy and escaped Roman Torres with some nifty footwork before feeding Dempsey for a first-time finish. Alas, the lead didn't last long: The U.S. failed to deal with a set piece four minutes later, as Tim Ream couldn't clear, allowing Gomez to fire home from close range.
The second half saw initial improvement from the U.S., with one volley in particular from Pulisic deflected wide. But the home side was soon putting the pressure on again, and Tim Howard had to come up with a huge save in the 59th minute to deny Luis Tejada's close-range effort.
Overall, the result was less than optimal, given that the U.S. found itself in the lead at one point. But the night wasn't just about the point the Americans gained; it was about the two that Panama failed to capture at home. The Americans are still in fourth place in the Hexagonal standings, one point behind the Canaleros. Compared to where the U.S. started these two games, that will count as progress ahead of the next pair of matches in June against Trinidad & Tobago and Mexico.
That said, the Hex is delicately poised.
2. Makeshift U.S. defense holds its own
Arena had said he would make "four to five" changes for the match, but he ended up making only three, all of them induced by injuries. Jermaine Jones came in for the injured Sebastian Lletget, and Ream filled in for John Brooks, who returned home after picking up a sinus infection. According to ESPN FC colleague Doug McIntyre, Geoff Cameron picked up a quad strain, which required Canalero nemesis Graham Zusi to deputize.
Looked at another way, Jorge Villafaña, Ream and Zusi had a total of two World Cup qualifying appearances between them as defenders. Yet overall, the back line performed well, helped in no small part by a superb performance from Omar Gonzalez.
Were they perfect? No, as each defender was beaten at one time or another. But the U.S. defense did an exceptional job covering for one another and delivering timely blocks and interventions. Howard was called upon only occasionally but delivered a sharp save from Alberto Quintero in the 33rd minute.
The only time the U.S. was genuinely beaten was on the aforementioned set piece. The sequence proved unfortunate for Ream, who was otherwise outstanding on the night. The play added to Ream's personal nightmare highlight reel against Panama, as he also endured a poor performance against the team in the 2011 Gold Cup.
The U.S. defense needed to be sharp. The defensive spacing in the U.S. midfield was such that there were often large gaps in front of the back four, which allowed Panama forwards Gabriel Torres and Tejada to drop off and receive the ball with room to run. Zusi also held up well. Other than one sequence on which he was cleanly beaten by Quintero, the Sporting Kansas City all-rounded held up nicely in his one-on-one duels.
There was luck to be had as well, as Michael Bradley appeared to get away with a handball in the box midway through the second half. But all told, Arena will be pleased with how his patched-together defense held up under considerable pressure.
3. Pulisic shows perseverance on a muggy night in Panama
The U.S. goal was a bit of personal revenge for Pulisic, who (along with Darlington Nagbe) spent much of the first half getting repeatedly fouled by Panamanian defenders, whether they were called by the referee or not. But to his credit, the young midfielder adapted to his surroundings, with his persistence and tenacity on full display in the buildup to the U.S. goal.
Pulisic flat-out refused to give up on a play, and the way he practically twisted Torres into the ground with a series of cutbacks will give the Seattle Sounders defender nightmares.
These kind of experiences are all part of the 18-year-old's continuing education. Not every game will be on a pristine surface such as the one in Dortmund, and it was clear from the times Pulisic lost the ball on the dribble that the surface at the Estadio Rommel Fernandez was uneven to say the least. That said, he found a way to be a difference-maker on a very difficult night.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.