It was rough, it was ugly, the Americans coughed up a lead, but in the end Tuesday’s 1-1 away draw against Panama meant that the U.S. MNT picked up four points from the first two World Cup Qualifiers of the Bruce Arena 2.0 era to revive its World Cup Qualifying campaign.
Win at home and draw on the road. It is a qualification formula as old as soccer itself and one that Arena had in mind prior to this two-game set. Four points had been the goal before the U.S. crushed Honduras 6-0 last Friday night in San Jose and four points remained the goal even after Honduras.
The injury bug that bedeviled the Americans in recent weeks cost Arena the services of three starters for this match, forcing the coach to turn to his sixth(?) choice right fullback in Graham Zusi to deputize for Geoff Cameron.
Tim Ream replaced John Brooks in the 70th minute versus Honduras and the Fulham man got the start when sinus trouble ruled Brooks out against Panama. Tuesday afternoon the unfortunate news broke that Sebastian Lletget will miss up to four months due to foot surgery having left Friday’s match and Arena turned to Jermaine Jones, back from a yellow card suspension, to fill that void.
To all the personnel changes Arena added a formation switch, opting for a more conservative flat 4-4-2 that pushed Christian Pulisic out wide, as opposed to the diamond that featured the 18-year-old in an advanced central role last time out.
It was all the same to Panama, who were happy to rough up the rising star wherever he situated himself on the subpar Estadio Rommel Fernandez pitch. The referee was of the “let them play variety,” and Pulisic and fellow wing midfielder Darlington Nagbe payed the price for the referee’s laissez-faire attitude.
Despite Panama’s overzealous defending the two wingers were bright spots for the U.S. with Pulisic facilitating the visitors breakthrough in the 39th minute, setting up Dempsey after picking center back Felipe Badoy’s pocket.
Pulisic then toyed with Badoy’s partner Roman Torres before he found his new running mate Dempsey, and the veteran made no mistake to score his 58th international goal, just one behind Landon Donovan for the top spot in the U.S. MNT record books.
With three points on offer, the U.S. conceded when a long throw-in bounced off of Ream and a flat-footed American defense was beaten to the loose ball by Panama’s Gabriel Gomez, who rifled his chance past a helpless Tim Howard to equalize in the 44th minute.
Howard would be tested again, certainly more so than his opposite number Jaime Penedo, with the Hero of Salvador da Bahia proving well up to the task.
The home team was pressing for the go-ahead goal as the time wound down but in the end, it was an evenly matched, if unevenly played game and neither team can feel too hard done by having escaped with a share of the spoils.
With three World Cup places on the line and the lifeline of a playoff spot versus an Asia Conference side to play for tonight’s result keeps the U.S. in fourth place in the Hex after four games, one point behind Panama and level on points with fifth place Honduras after four of the 10 World Cup qualifying matches.
A 1-0 win in Trinidad and Tobago keeps Mexico atop the Hexagonal with 10 points while Costa Rica retained the second position despite a 1-1 tie at Honduras.
World Cup Qualifiers resume in June with the U.S. hosting sixth place Trinidad and Tobago on June 8th before heading to Mexico to take on Mexico at the Azteca.
June 8, 2017 TBD MNT vs Trinidad & Tobago Home
June 11, 2017 TBD MNT vs Mexico Away
Tuesday’s CONCACAF Hexagonal Results:
Mar 28, 2017 Panama 1, USA 1:Estadio Rommel Fernandez, Panama City
Mar 28, 2017 Honduras 1, Costa Rica 1: Estadio Francisco Morazan, San Pedro Sula
Mar 28, 2017 Trinidad & Tobago 0, Mexico 1: Hasely Crawford Stadium, Port of Spain
PTS W L D GF GA GD
Mexico 10 3 0 1 5 1 +4
Costa Rica 7 2 1 1 7 3 +4
Panama 5 1 1 2 2 2 0
USA 4 1 2 1 8 7 +1
Honduras 4 1 2 1 4 9 -5
Trinidad & Tobago 3 1 2 0 2 6 -4