PANAMA CITY — At the end of 10 critical days together, culminating with a 1-1 draw against Panama late Tuesday, the U.S. national soccer team is much closer to restoring normalcy and a little closer to qualifying for the 2018 World Cup.
The Americans began their time together with a new coach and without any points in the CONCACAF standings. They proceeded to take four of a possible six from two matches to escape last place and make gains on each of the other five teams, except Mexico, which is well on its way to punching an early ticket to Russia.
“I think we’re back on track,” said U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati, who attended the match at Rommel Fernandez Stadium. “But it’s going to go down to the wire for a lot of teams.”
Gulati and everyone else associated with the program would prefer the balance of the campaign (six matches apiece) proceeds with less stress, not more. However, the early tumble last fall under Jurgen Klinsmann left the U.S. team needing to make up ground this month. With all six sides in the thick of the race after four matches each — four points separate second from sixth place — the race for the three automatic berths and the fourth-place slot (intercontinental playoff) will not become clear until the fall.
The next U.S. qualifiers come in June: home against last-place Trinidad and Tobago, whom the Americans should defeat, and away against unbeaten Mexico, whom the Americans should not defeat.
Now, at least, the U.S. squad is on firmer ground.
“We made progress,” Coach Bruce Arena said. “Every game is going to be critical. Every team is in there. Mexico has a jump on everyone. It’s going to be a battle for the second, third and fourth spots.”
The Americans are among seven teams globally to compete in every World Cup since 1990. To get there this time, they will have to continue winning at home — on Friday, they routed 2014 World Cup entry Honduras, 6-0 — and pick up a few points on the road.
They began the road effort Tuesday. Christian Pulisic’s perseverance, sleight of foot and speed of thought led to Clint Dempsey’s one-timer from six yards in the 39th minute — his 56th international goal, one short of Landon Donovan’s U.S. career record.
Pulisic, the 18-year-old wonder, exacted revenge for Panama’s fierce challenges and hard fouls. As Pulisic’s profile rises, teams are going to increasingly target him in order to disrupt the U.S. attack.
He said he expects opponents to use physical tactics against him.
“The style I play,” he said, “it’s pretty normal for me to get kicked around a few times.”
Pulisic became increasingly frustrated with the treatment Tuesday. At one point, he absorbed two heavy tackles within a few minutes. Later, with Panama barking at him because he didn’t stop play for an injury, teammates rushed to his defense, sparking a brief scuffle.
No doubt, the Panamanians had made note of Pulisic’s influence — and not to mention his goal and two assists — in a spellbinding performance against Honduras on Friday.
“Sometimes it’s not always about soccer in these games,” said Pulisic, who plays for Bundesliga titan Borussia Dortmund. “You’ve got to really stay focused and keep the same intensity. It’s all about finding that balance.”
Goalkeeper Tim Howard offered this observation:
“When you play against top defenders in Europe, they recognize the talent and defend properly. In CONCACAF, they don’t defend properly. They just come steaming through. It’s crazy, but it’s effective on certain nights when the referee isn’t on your side. He was resilient. For a little fella, he mixes it up.”
Said Arena: “He plays in a big league with a big club team in big competition. Probably in club play your players are a little more protected than they are in World Cup qualifying. It’s all part of the learning curve. Next time around it will be better for him.”
Meantime, Arena tossed together a backline that had never played as a unit. While Omar Gonzalez and Jorge Villafaña reprised their starting roles, Tim Ream replaced John Brooks (illness) and Graham Zusi filled in for Geoff Cameron (injury).
“We defended a lot today, no question about it,” Zusi said. “Our line was pretty good, for the most part. Their goal was three or four little mistakes that could’ve been avoided.”
Four minutes after Dempsey’s goal, the Americans failed to clear a long throw-in. Gabriel Gomez pounced on a loose ball for a powerful finish from short distance.
Conceding a goal so close to halftime didn’t sit well with Arena.
“I’m disappointed in our concentration level at the end of the first half,” he said. “Maybe we get out of there without conceding a goal and walk out of here with three points.”
In all, though, Arena was pleased with contributions from a number of reserves filling in for injured players. Kellyn Acosta, 21, and Paul Arriola, 22, entered in the second half Tuesday.
Probable starters Fabian Johnson, DeAndre Yedlin and Bobby Wood, as well as starting candidate Jordan Morris, missed both matches and Cameron played against Honduras only.
“I’ve been very encouraged,” Arena said, “by what I’ve seen over the last 10 days.”
The U.S. squad will reassemble in late May, probably in Salt Lake City, for training and a friendly before the two qualifiers at altitude.
- Mexico 3-0-1, 10 points, +4 goal differential
- Costa Rica 2-1-1, 7 points, +4
- Panama 1-1-2, 5 points, 0
- United States 1-2-1, 4 points, +1
- Honduras 1-2-1, 4 points, -5
- Trinidad and Tobago 1-3-0, 3 points, -4
Trinidad and Tobago at United States
Honduras at Mexico
Panama at Costa Rica
United States at Mexico
Honduras at Panama
Trinidad and Tobago at Costa Rica
Note: Mexico must play earlier because of impending participation in FIFA Confederations Cup in Russia, June 17-July 2.