Pulisic makes his case for a central role as U.S. crushes Panama 4-0
ORLANDO, Fla. -- The U.S. men's national team got its World Cup qualifying campaign back on track with a 4-0 victory over Panama on Friday night. The Americans did most of their damage in the first half as Christian Pulisic and Jozy Altidore scored inside the first 20 minutes, and Altidore converted a penalty in the 43rd minute. Bobby Wood closed out the scoring with a 63rd-minute tally.
Here are three thoughts from the match:
1. U.S. transition play instrumental in crushing Panama
There was tension in the U.S. camp heading into this match. Altidore admitted as much. But tension isn't always a bad thing. It can create a reservoir of focus, determination and resolve. That proved to be the case.
The U.S. clearly learned its lesson from its last home match, a 2-0 loss to Costa Rica in World Cup qualifying. In that game, the U.S. -- for all of its possession -- rarely threatened the Ticos' back line. Panama was expected to do much the same, but the U.S. was determined not to fall into the trap of constantly having to break down a set defense. The plan was simple: break as quickly as possible with every opportunity, and if Panama did get set, play quickly through clever touches and off-the-ball running.
Panama had no answer for this approach, as the Americans connected twice in the first 20 minutes. A long ball in the eighth minute from U.S. keeper Tim Howard was flicked on by Wood to Altidore, whose quick pass was touched into space by Pulisic. In alone on goal, Pulisic rounded Panama keeper Jaime Penedo and slotted the ball in from a tight angle to put the U.S. up 1-0.
The explosion of joy both on the field and in the stands was understandable. The U.S. spent much of the past two games trailing, and going a goal up in this match meant it could now dictate the game tactically, with Panama forced to come out of its shell a bit.
It wasn't long before the U.S. was up 2-0. A clever ball over the top by Darlington Nagbe put Pulisic in the clear. He beat Michael Murillo and made a low centering feed that found Altidore for an easy tap-in. Altidore helped himself on the play as Felipe Baloy bit hard on the U.S. forward's near-post feint, allowing Altidore to move toward the back post and convert.
Panama threatened a few times, with Alberto Quintero going on one mazy run that was thwarted only when his shot was blocked by DeAndre Yedlin. But the U.S. capped its dominant half when Panama substitute Armando Cooper hauled down Wood in the box, and Altidore converted the ensuing penalty kick with a "Panenka" that sailed just under the bar as Penedo dove hard to his left.
The U.S. was largely untroubled in the second half as it continued to threaten on the counter, even after Pulisic was subbed out in the 57th minute. Wood fired home a shot on the turn in the 63rd minute to complete the rout.
2. Pulisic states his case for a central role
One of the big talking points surrounding the U.S. side has been where to deploy Pulisic. Coach Bruce Arena has tended to position the 19-year-old in a central role at home, and in a wider position on the road. On this night, Pulisic certainly drove home his point in terms of how effective he can be in the middle. He was free to drift wherever he liked, and he played well off Wood and Altidore. Pulisic, an attacker for Borussia Dortmund, linked up especially well with Altidore.
But this was also a night when Pulisic's teammates stepped up in a big way. A case can also be made that Pulisic benefited from the speed in the U.S. lineup. Paul Arriola was constantly providing an outlet in transition moments, giving the Panama defense no easy answers as to who to defend. The Americans' off-the-ball movement was also much sharper, as Altidore didn't hesitate to go wide to drag defenders with him. Of course, Pulisic was dynamic too, darting into spaces to spark the U.S. attack.
The U.S. needs a win against Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday to all but guarantee third place in the Hexagonal -- and a spot in the World Cup -- and the case for keeping Pulisic in the middle is strong indeed.
3. U.S. can exhale, but job is only half-done
While Pulisic's central role seems cemented, some other areas of the Americans' game still need some sharpening. The weakness created by Pulisic playing in the middle is that it leaves Michael Bradley with an immense amount of defensive work to do in the center of midfield. On this night, Arriola and Nagbe did their bit to tuck and provide some help.
But there were also some moments when Panama was able to break pressure, including one instance in the 30th minute when several defensive dominoes fell, allowing Gabriel Torres a clear look at goal, but Howard was able to parry the shot. Center-backs Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez had to engage in some emergency defending at times, and each had some difficult moments, but it seemed that when one was beaten, another defender was there to scramble the ball away. The return -- and speed -- of Yedlin also put the U.S. in a better position to recover.
Arena seems to understand the defensive limits of the diamond midfield and the amount of punishment that Pulisic should have to take. He was the recipient of some heavy hits again, both on and off the ball. So with the game in hand, Arena substituted Dax McCarty for Pulisic to give the boy wonder a rest and to add some defensive stability.
Arena can look to hone those issues in the coming days. But this was precisely the kind of performance the U.S. needed, enabling the side to exhale a bit after enduring a month of doubt and anxiety about its World Cup qualification bid. The U.S. now sits in third place, two points ahead of Panama and three points ahead of Honduras, pending the Honduras-Costa Rica match on Saturday.
The U.S. job is only half-done, however. The team hasn't won consecutive games in this round, yet will need to if it is to hang on to third place -- which still wouldn't be guaranteed if Honduras overturns a minus-12 goal differential to the U.S. Trinidad and Tobago is in last place, but that can be a tricky proposition. Unlike the U.S., Trinidad and Tobago will have nothing to lose and no pressure Tuesday. But based on Friday's performance, it appears the U.S. has regained its form just in time.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.