Perhaps Bruce Arena’s wry smile in his interviews after the US’ 4-0 thrashing of Panama were a clue that he and his team were more relaxed than the media and certainly the fans about the occasion.
There was certainly tension and angst amidst the raucous atmosphere in Orlando, but frayed nerves were soothed quickly with the US’ attacking prowess. And when the Stars and Stripes’ biggest stars needed to shine brightest, they did just that.
It’s hard not to focus on Christian Pulisic when talking about this team, and also how to stop them. That’s what Costa Rica and, to a lesser extent, Honduras did back in September. But with Panama’s wide open attacking formation, they didn’t have a prayer to stop a motivated Pulisic, who seem determined to not only back up his own hype, but to prove a few doubters wrong and say that what happened back in September was the exception, not the rule.
Playing as the tip of a 4-4-2 diamond, he was instrumental in orchestrating a blistering US counter-attack against Panama’s wide open formation, scoring the first goal and assisting Jozy Altidore on the second. He will always be the center of attention no matter where he plays, but out wide, it may be easier for fullbacks and wide players to mark him out of the game. He can’t quite create like how he did tonight if he’s stranded on the flanks.
And for the recipient of one of Pulisic’s delicious crosses, Jozy Altidore also had himself another monster game in his home state of Florida. Two goals, including a penalty where he converted a panenka and dominant physical hold up play all defined a seminal performance for Altidore, who worked brilliant with and off of Pulisic and Bobby Wood. Altidore has certainly received criticism for his play at times in critical games for this team, but there was no doubt about his play tonight. And if Altidore can play like that should the US make it to Russia, their attack will have a dimension it certainly didn’t have in Brazil, and flickered from then until now.
But for Bruce Arena, whose calm and almost dismissive demeanor through thick and thin was proven right tonight, which means no one can wipe that wry smile off his face. There were questions as to what formation the US would play; three at the back, a flat 4-4-2 with questions about who would pair with Michael Bradley, or something else. The something else turned out to be the aforementioned 4-4-2 diamond with Pulisic afforded the freedom to roam and pick out spaces wherever he could find them as the No. 10, aided and abetted by great speed on the flanks from Paul Arriola and Darlington Nagbe. It was the most fluid the team looked since March in the 6-0 win over Honduras, and they fed off their manager’s confidence, as well as the confidence of their star 19-year-old.
Panama didn’t help themselves much with their formation. Going out to try and win the game in a bold 4-4-2, their midfield of Gabriel Gomez and Anibal Godoy was badly exposed to the US counterattack, which cut through them over and over again. If not for some Jaime Penedo heroics, though he should have done better on Pulisic’s goal, the US could have easily won by six or seven. For a team that everyone expected to come out and defend for their lives, they went to the other end of the spectrum, and set themselves up for failure.
On a night when a few things going wrong could have meant disaster for the US, absolutely everything went right. Bruce Arena put all of his players in position to succeed, save a few defensive lapses here and there, and the stars who needed to shine the most did and did emphatically. A US team playing like that in Russia could easily make noise.
Even if the US had lost tonight, they wouldn’t have been eliminated from contention. Likewise with this win, they are not through yet. Tropical Storm Nate pushed the Costa Rica/Honduras game back a day, meaning the whole picture for Tuesday night in Couva against Trinidad & Tobago is not yet set. But the US knows that one more win will see them secure passage to Russia, and after the rockiest of rocky roads along the way, relief may be the order of the day.
And when they were needed the most, the US’ standout talents, including one just 19, played at their best when called upon.
For that, their manager’s wry smile was earned and deserved.