Bruce Arena lauds United States squad after Panama 'slugfest'
PANAMA CITY, Panama -- United States manager Bruce Arena credited his side with earning "a good point on the road" in a 1-1 draw with Panama on Tuesday night.
The U.S took the lead through Clint Dempsey in the 39th minute after exceptional work on the right flank by Christian Pulisic. But Panama equalized just four minutes later with Gabriel Gomez firing home from a goalmouth scramble after the U.S. failed to deal with a long throw-in.
Tim Howard came up big in the second half to deny Luis Tejada from close range, and both sides walked away with a point from a physical encounter.
"From what I remember from CONCACAF in qualifying, it hasn't changed a whole lot in 12 years," said Arena, who last managed a road qualifier on Oct. 8, 2005, when the U.S. lost 3-0 to Costa Rica.
"It was just a battle. The referee tonight wasn't going to call too many fouls. It was a slugfest for 90 minutes.
"I thought in the second half we did a little bit better. But it was just a rough game. Panama was determined to make it physical, be hard, and to their credit, they threw us off our game a bit.
"The environmental conditions -- the heat, the humidity, the surface of the field -- combined with the physicality made it a real rough game."
The result leaves the U.S. in fourth place in the Hexagonal, a point behind the Canaleros. Given that the U.S. was in last place prior to last Friday's victory over Honduras, as well as the number of injuries afflicting the team, the move up the table is something Arena is pleased to see. Yet the Americans are also just a point ahead of Honduras and Trinidad and Tobago.
"We're obviously in better shape with four points in two games," he said. "So we made progress obviously."
"I've been very encouraged by what I've seen over the last 10 days. Our veteran leadership, with Michael Bradley, Tim Howard, Jozy [Altidore], Clint [Dempsey] -- and I'm sure I'm leaving someone else out -- is exceptional."
Arena did express disappointment at the manner of the goal the Americans conceded, which he called, "a little sloppy."
He felt that had the U.S. been able to get to half-time 1-0 up, it might have been able to grab all three points. But overall, a patchwork backline led by Omar Gonzalez, held up well.
The U.S. manager also praised the play of Pulisic, who was the target of some physical play from Panama, even though he officially was only fouled twice.
"I think it was a good lesson for Christian tonight," he said. "I think Panama thought there was a bullseye on his back, and they went after him from minute one all the way through.
"He has to learn that if the referee isn't going to protect him, he's got to deal with it. And I think he did well. He created our goal and in the second half he was part of some plays that may have created the second goal.
"But a good lesson for him. That's something you can't explain to him. They've got to be in it. So it was an invaluable experience not only for Christian but some of our other players as well."
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.