With their backs against the wall, the USMNT responded with a passionate display in a dominant 4-0 victory over Panama to jump the Canaleros and move into third place in the Hex standings with one game left to play in the final round of the World Cup Qualifiers.
Third place is the final automatic berth and if the Americans can do the business on Tuesday against Trinidad and Tobago, the last place team in the Hex, then Bruce Arena’s men will avoid a two-leg playoff versus Australia or Syria.
On a night of virtually all positives, in front of a crowd that cheered their every move, Christian Pulisic stood out. Arena put the 19-year-old front and center of the U.S. attack and the dividends soon paid off with an eighth-minute goal.
Pulisic ran onto a flicked pass from Jozy Altidore, rounded Jaime Penedo and the rout was on. The roles were reversed 11 minutes later when “Wonderboy” put the ball a platter for Altidore to tap in and when Altidore converted an audacious Panenka penalty the U.S. retired to the halftime locker room luxuriating in a deserved three-goal lead.
Pulisic’s runs had the Panama defense in ruins from the opening whistle and his teammates should have finished a few more of chances the Dortmund star provided.
Still, Arena’s front three of Pulisic, Altidore, and Bobby Wood impressed with Wood earning the pk as the normally stingy Panama defense was ripped to shreds. Arena gambled with a lineup that left captain Michael Bradley somewhat isolated as a lone central defender and the Americans did appear vulnerable at the back on several occasions.
Bradley and Pulisic were joined in midfield by Darlington Nagbe and Paul Arriola, increasing the speed of the U.S. side that had been rather plodding at times in recent matches.
That defense featured Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler flanked by DeAndre Yedlin and Jorge Villafaña in front of Tim Howard, who capably handled what little action came his way. That Gonzalez was selected over Geoff Cameron was the one big surprise in the team and the towering center back did not impress on the night. Besler was the better of the pair while Villafana put in a solid shift.
Yedlin was a different story, the Newcastle United fullback has clearly benefitted from the rigors of the playing for Sunderland, and now Newcastle in the Premier League and the Championship and has added strong defensive positioning skills to his blinding speed to become the complete package at the fullback position.
That Arena’s gamble was a success was aided by Panama’s tactics, with coach Hernán Darío Gómez choosing an odd time to abandon the defense-first philosophy that had served the Canaleros so well in the past.
The plan backfired with the Americans exploiting space left by the surprisingly aggressive Panamanians and so irked the Panama contingent in Orlando that Gomez found himself in a postgame shouting match with a Panamanian “journalist.”
A win over Trinidad and Tobago would secure that third CONCACAF berth in Russia 2018 for the Americans, leaving Panama and Honduras to fight it out for the fourth-place playoff spot.
A look at the CONCACAF standings shows that the Yanks could advance in a number of ways. Panama travels to Costa Rica, who are all but booked for Russia while Honduras host mighty Mexico, already qualified.
Fifth & Final Round (Hexagonal)
PTS W L D GF GA GD
Mexico – x 21 6 0 3 14 4 +10
Costa Rica 15 4 1 3 12 5 +7
United States 12 3 3 3 16 11 +5
Panama 10 2 3 4 7 9 -2
Honduras 9 2 3 3 9 16 -7
Trinidad & T 3 1 8 0 5 18 -13
Scoring Summary: 1 2 F
USA 3 1 4
PAN 0 0 0
USA – Christian Pulisic (Jozy Altidore) 8th minute
USA – Jozy Altidore (Christian Pulisic) 19
USA – Jozy Altidore (penalty) 43
USA – Bobby Wood (Paul Arriola) 63
USA: 1-Tim Howard; 2-DeAndre Yedlin, 3-Omar Gonzalez, 5-Matt Besler, 15-Jorge Villafaña; 4-Michael Bradley (capt.); 21-Paul Arriola, 10-Christian Pulisic (13-Dax McCarty, 57), 6-Darlington Nagbe (11-Alejandro Bedoya, 79); 9-Bobby Wood, 17-Jozy Altidore (8-Clint Dempsey, 71)
Subs not used: 12-Brad Guzan, 22-Nick Rimando, 7-DaMarcus Beasley, 14-Tim Ream, 16-Benny Feilhaber, 18-Chris Wondolowski, 19-Graham Zusi, 20-Geoff Cameron, 23-Kellyn Acosta
Head coach: Bruce Arena
PAN: 1-Jaime Penedo; 2-Michael Murillo, 23-Felipe Baloy (4-Fidel Escobar, 46), 5-Román Torres, 6-Gabriel Gòmez; 19-Alberto Quintero, 8-Édgar Bárcenas (11-Armando Cooper, 26), 20-Aníbal Godoy, 17-Luis Ovalle; 9-Gabriel Torres, 7-Blas Pérez (22-Abdiel Arroyo, 60)
Subs not used: 12-José Calderón, 15-Érick Davis, 13-Adolfo Machado, 3-Juan Carlos Vargas, 10-Ricardo Buitrago, 16-José González, 21-Roberto Nurse, 18-Luis Tejada
Head coach: Hernán Darío Gómez
Stats Summary: USA / PAN
Shots: 15 / 9
Shots on Goal: 8 / 2
Saves: 2 / 4
Corner Kicks: 4 / 4
Fouls: 16 / 11
Offside: 1 / 3
PAN – Felipe Baloy (caution) 34th minute
PAN – Armando Cooper (caution) 42
PAN – Michael Murillo (caution) 48