Emergence of Nagbe offers needed help and cover for Pulisic and U.S.
COMMERCE CITY, Colorado -- There's no stopping Christian Pulisic. And now it looks as though he's getting some help.
As he has been for much of 2017, Pulisic was front and center Thursday night, scoring twice in the U.S. men's national team's 2-0 victory over Trinidad & Tobago; of the Americans' past eight goals, Pulisic has scored four, assisted on another three, and earned a free kick that was converted for a goal.
Pulisic was his usual stoic self afterward, though his tone of voice perked up as he assessed his steep ascent with the national team.
"It's not just scoring goals," the 18-year-old said. "Just being out there it's like a dream of mine to wear the USA crest, and just to be playing with the players I am for the country is amazing. The fact that these goals keep coming, it's a little bonus. I still can't believe every time I get to go out on the field. I'm just thankful."
But on this night, Pulisic wasn't alone. Darlington Nagbe turned in a stellar two-way performance and was involved in the buildup to Pulisic's 52nd-minute opener. DeAndre Yedlin fired in the cross that Pulisic stabbed home. Jozy Altidore combined with Pulisic to help him score his second, and the U.S. went on to claim its second World Cup qualifying victory in three attempts.
Often in the past, Nagbe has been rightly accused of not being selfish enough. Against the Soca Warriors, he was more aggressive.
"I don't think it's a big change," Nagbe said of being more assertive. "But I think it's just more of a personality kind of thing. I'm always looking to help the player next to me. There are definitely moments when I need to be more selfish. I'm aware of that."
It is a triumph, the importance of which can't be underestimated. Had the U.S. failed to win, the anxiety that surrounded the team after the first two games of qualifying -- both losses -- would have resurfaced. Instead, the U.S. can go into Sunday's match against archrival Mexico secure in the belief that things are back on the right track and, as Altidore put it, "play with our minds clear and just go after it."
And with the victory, the question of who will provide the creativity and goals is closer to being answered. Pulisic has been part of that solution for a while now, but the emergence of Nagbe could provide a crucial piece as well. He certainly prevented T&T from fixating on Pulisic -- though he was once again the recipient of a few heavy challenges -- and helped make the U.S. attack more varied.
"I thought when we made the game for them in the second half, you saw it was better," Altidore said of Pulisic and Nagbe. "Look, they have quality, and we've got to get them on the field and put them in spots to succeed because the game was 10 times easier when we made them the focal points of the attack. We got the rewards from it."
There were other contributions from young players, though these were of the bit part variety. Kellyn Acosta came in and shored up the midfield, and Bobby Wood has provided some good energy and nearly scored a third U.S. goal, only for his effort to hit the post.
"These are kids with a good future, and we're hopeful that if we can keep moving around and qualify for the next World Cup, we can put a competitive team on the field for Russia," manager Bruce Arena said.
But as some points of the U.S. offense rose, others faded. Clint Dempsey, on the cusp of equaling Landon Donovan's U.S. record of 57 goals, endured a quiet night. In fact, his most notable incident came when he was substituted in the 61st minute for Acosta. He tried to avoid shaking the hand of Arena, and the two exchanged words as Dempsey took his seat on the bench.
The move was the right one, and wasn't entirely about Dempsey's subpar performance. For all the deserved praise of Pulisic, and as valuable as the victory was, the game highlighted the defensive fragility in the center of the park when Arena opts for a diamond midfield.
Simply put, it leaves too much work for Michael Bradley to do defensively. For the entirety of the first half, T&T midfielder Khaleem Hyland was practically given free rein to do as he pleased. For all the criticism of the back line in the 33rd-minute sequence that ended with Kenwyne Jones smashing his header off the bar, it's worth noting that it was Hyland's pass that set him up, and that Bradley was nowhere near close enough to him.
In the second half, the U.S. did better in terms of filling in those midfield gaps. Altidore had already begun to help out by applying some pressure on Hyland. Nagbe, Pulisic and Fabian Johnson all took turns getting a bit closer to the T&T midfielder. Still, after the U.S. went up, it made perfect sense for Arena to shore up that part of the field. Someone had to be sacrificed, and he chose Dempsey.
The fact remains that against a better team -- like Mexico -- if the U.S. leaves those kinds of gaps in midfield it will get punished, which is why it's likely the U.S. will play with a 4-2-3-1 formation against El Tri. Acosta will be needed to provide more of a shield in front of the back line alongside Bradley. And as Arena noted in his news conference, it allows Pulisic to get closer to goal. Altidore's hold-up play is needed more than ever in such an alignment, so Dempsey could be the odd man out again.
Historically, the U.S. hasn't enjoyed much success playing with a single striker. Said forward has often been left on an island. But with the emergence of Pulisic and Nagbe, perhaps now the outcome will be different.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.