Neil W. Blackmon
The United States Men’s National Team won the game it had to win Friday night, defeating Panama 4-0 in a front of a rollicking and ear-piercing loud sellout crowd of 25,303 at Orlando City Stadium. Now, if they win one more, they’ll be headed to Russia next summer.
The Americans seized the initiative nearly immediately after the opening kick, creating a great chance in the fifth minute on a lovely exchange between Paul Arriola and Darlington Nagbe that fell to the feet of Bobby Wood. Wood took a touch, turned and fired a left-footed shot just wide of Jamie Penedo’s net, but the tone for the evening was set.
A nervy moment in minute seven saw Omar Gonzalez turned by Gabriel Torres, but the Panamanian man’s chipped shot was too high. On the ensuing goal kick, the US punished Panama for squandering their chance.
Bobby Wood won a 50/50 on a deep Howard goal kick and flicked his header to Jozy Altidore, who played a cheeky back-heel to a seam-busting Christian Pulisic. Pulisic took a touch, turned a defender and the goalkeeper and slotted home, sending a crowd that arrived in full-throat an hour before kickoff into rapture.
The Americans would add another in the 19th minute.
Following two tremendous Matt Besler tackles on Panama forward Blas Perez, the US won the ball back and Darlington Nagbe played a perfectly-weighted ball to Pulisic, who beat his defender down the left and cut out a slicing ball toward a central Jozy Altidore, who tapped home.
Altidore, who fought off a cramp in pregame warmups, has made a habit of scoring goals for the United States in his home state of Florida, and was active all night, occupying Panama’s central defenders and peeling behind Bobby Wood to help the US move the ball quickly in Panama’s final third. As confident as Altidore has been playing in Toronto, it was hardly surprising that when Bobby Wood drew a penalty on a late push by Armando Cooper, Altidore stepped up to take the penalty and calmly put in a Panenka past a completely fooled Jaime Penedo. The penalty marked Altidore’s 18th World Cup qualifying goal- tying Clint Dempsey for the most in US history.
The three-goal first half onslaught for the US erased any pregame doubts about a result, and has the US in position to now seal passage to Russia with a victory Tuesday in Trinidad and Tobago.
The US would add another, a well-earned tally for the relentless Bobby Wood, in the 62nd minute to pad the lead to 4-0 in the second half.
While the US won’t know exactly how large a lead they have in the standings until after tomorrow’s Honduras-Costa Rica match, they will be no sit no worse than third entering the final set of games.
Here are TYAC’s five quick thoughts on a comprehensive US victory.
This was a tactical masterclass from the US coaching staff.
Bob Bradley came into camp this week and, according to Bruce Arena, “wasn’t assigned a specific role.” It sure looked like Bob had a ton to do with the game plan, which set the US up perfectly to pick Panama apart on the break.
The US put Pulisic up high and central in a diamond, tucked Nagbe inside as a shuttler to give the US help in possession, and flooded the midfield with numbers.
By forcing Panama to respect the center of the field, the Americans forced Panama to play reactively, and slowed the shape and tempo of their opportunities to win the ball and get out in transition.
Panama had hoped to create quick chances on the break by playing a high line and pushing the line of confrontation far up the field- a reprisal, to some extent, of their effective tactics against a very static and deep-lying US side in the Gold Cup.
It didn’t work.
Instead, it was the US pressuring, attacking, and winning the ball as Panama played uncomfortably through the middle. When the US won the ball, they attacked with breakneck speed from multiple runners through the lines- devastatingly effective football. Both the second goal and the penalty drawn by Bobby Wood on Altidore’s Panenka came from this tactical choice- and Panama- who had conceded only five goals in the first eight matches of the Hex, were hopelessly stretched and nearly matched that figure in Orlando.
The debate about whether Pulisic should play wide or central should be over.
Moving forward, if the US think they should play Christian Pulisic anywhere other than centrally, they should write down the reasons why they are playing him out wide, then throw that list of reasons away and play him centrally.
Borussia Dortmund use him wide because in their fluid system they can, given the dynamic talent around him. A lethal, direct counterattacker, his speed and skill cutting inside on the ball is valuable in that position given what options they have elsewhere. But Pulisic is, as ESPN’s Michael Cox wrote earlier this year, capable of being a creative number ten, a playmaker who can play central and roam wide, as he did with aplomb Friday night.
Unlike Dortmund, the US were far too stagnant and static with Pulisic wide in September, and they lack the dynamic contemporaries in midfield who can peel away help defenders from Pulisic when he does cut inside and create. Even if Pulisic might be naturally a bit more comfortable on the wing, the Americans can’t afford to make that choice—they need him inside, where he can receive the ball in more immediately threatening positions. He also influences and improves the two forwards ahead of him- Bobby Wood and Jozy Altidore- by being able to occupy and draw out help defenders when he’s lying underneath. That’s how good attacking soccer works- by creating and attacking space, and Pulisic flourishes in that role.
Pulisic’s ceiling is so high because he’s capable of finding great central positions and creating between the lines inside, with physical defenders on his tail. His is a brighter, more visionary ceiling than Coutinho, who is the player he reminds me most of at this young stage of his career, and from a production standpoint, the US can’t risk rendering him less influential by deploying him out wide.
The US benefitted immensely from the return of DeAndre Yedlin, who has improved markedly under Rafa Benitez at Newcastle.
One significant problem the US had in the prior two qualifiers was the absence of DeAndre Yedlin at the right fullback spot. Graham Zusi is a consummate pro and invaluable in a locker room, but he’s not an international right back. His presence on the field hurt the US in all phases- defensively, because of Zusi’s lack of positional awareness at the position- and offensively, by too frequently creating situations where US wings on Zusi’s side were pushed back deep in their own half, helping Zusi, instead of linking upfield and generating attack.
“It was very good to have DeAndre back,” Arena admitted. “They had Barcenas, who is a very dangerous player, and Panama took him out of the game. So that’s good. On the other side, (Quintero) is a quality player, and DeAndre did a good job playing against quality players. He’s a good player and he’s continued to grow and it’s great to have him back in.”
American fans may want to send Rafa Benitez a holiday card, as the manager has been a supremely positive influence on the 24-year-old fullback.
“Rafa has helped, from a focus standpoint and just playing better defense,” Yedlin told TYAC this week.
“He’s made me more positionally aware, for sure. I also think you have to give credit to just playing time. The experience of repetition, all the minutes and games last year, playing in the Championship. That helps you grow. I was also 21 years old, so I’m getting better. It’s a mix of everything. But I think defensively the biggest thing is game experience against high-level players has helped me grow up.”
For a country that has spent the better part of a decade trying to replace Steve Cherundolo, Yedlin’s vast improvements are perhaps- finally-a long-term solution.
It’s also hard to imagine Paul Arriola isn’t a starter moving forward, regardless of opponent.
It isn’t just that Arriola runs and runs and runs. It’s all the other ways he impacts winning while running.
In the first half alone, he was 7-8 passing, made a critical pass on a beautiful early chance for Bobby Wood, intercepted two passes, made one counterattacking squelching tackle, and suffered a foul in the final third setting up a free kick that also resulted in a US chance. He’s a busy bee, a mosquito of a player that is difficult and grating to play against. Sure, the finished product isn’t always there. He doesn’t have the look of a guy who will ever be a clinical finisher, and his service is still a work in progress. But his motor never stops running, he takes on defenders one-on—one, draws fouls and has electric speed. It’s an asset and he needs to stay on the field when fit.
Bruce Arena hinted at agreement tonight.
“We were able to pressure up the field and get out on the break, and (Arriola) was a big part of that,” Arena said of the 22-year-old DC United midfielder.
“Paul’s speed, ability to press, get out on the break, and his ability to play at that pace for ninety minutes is so useful,” Arena said. “As he gets older, and gets cleaner on the ball, he’s going to reward himself with a goal and assist every now and then. But his work rate is outstanding, flexibility is outstanding and on a night like tonight in these conditions and in this setting, to have a player that can take care of business is a weapon.”
Orlando provided one of the best home field advantages I’ve seen in the sport.
The US manager was among those who expressed disappointment in US support in New Jersey last month, where the US lost 2-0 to Costa Rica. He didn’t back down from those criticisms Friday.
“When we play a home game in a World Cup qualifier, we should have a great advantage. Occasionally it happens that we don’t have that,” Arena said, echoing his remarks last month.
But he acknowledged great satisfaction with the crowd in Orlando.
“Having home field advantage is huge. Every time we create a setting that supports our team in a tremendous manner like tonight, it helps us,” the manager said. “It was a great crowd. Our opponent still had pretty good support as well, but I was pleased with the fans here in Orlando. They did a terrific job…I would come back to Orlando.”
Here, it bears repeating that when you play high-quality soccer and score goals, crowds tend to react positively. And when you are behind, they tend to get discouraged.
But Orlando’s sell-out crowd did more than just react positively to the success of the US on the field. They did more than that.
They came early and were loud early. They sang the anthem loud, were respectful on goal kicks, cheered during lulls in possession, and sing-songed their way happily through the less-eventful second half.
Nestled deep in college football country, Orlando’s fans channeled the passion of the Saturdays down South zealots, creating an atmosphere loud enough to rival plenty of southern football stadiums.
On a sticky, sweltering October evening, they made Orlando’s beautiful new soccer facility a wall of sound and primal fury- the type of home field advantage a team feeds off of, and one that built and swelled and roared louder as the game moved forward.
The US doesn’t need to find “another Columbus.” Columbus is great at being that. But the US does need to come back to Orlando. This city was ready. And so were the Yanks.
Neil W. Blackmon is co-founder of The Yanks Are Coming. Follow him on Twitter @nwblackmon.