It was must-win all the way in Orlando, and thankfully, the United States men’s national team emphatically did the job. With dropped points meaning potential catastrophe, the USMNT ripped Panama apart on Friday night, dominating to the tune of 4-0 on the backs of breathtaking performances from Christian Pulisic, Jozy Altidore, and Bobby Wood.
One game remains in the CONCACAF Hexagonal, away to Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday. A win will automatically put the US through to Russia, and a draw will almost certainly do it barring some Honduras upsets and a seven goal win from Panama against Costa Rica. They are in a good place, so we can all breathe easy for the first time since September.
Here are some takeaways from their impressive victory:
1. Christian Pulisic is a No. 10
Just eight minutes in, Pulisic beautifully rounded the keeper to put the US up 1-0 and send the hyped Orlando crowd into a frenzy. 10 minutes later it was 2-0, with Pulisic roasting New York Red Bulls’ defender Michael Murillo and squaring a perfect ball to Jozy Altidore, whose smart run fooled aging center back Felipe Baloy. The wonderkid had taken over.
The 60 Minutes star and Borussia Dortmund standout did this from the center of a bold US attack. Debate has raged for weeks about where his best position is — in the middle, where he previously had excelled internationally, or on the wing, where he starts for Germany’s second-best club — so arguably the biggest takeaway from this game is the affirmation that our country’s best player is indeed most effective as a central creator, at least in red, white and blue.
He would go off in the 57th-minute after Panama shamelessly kicked the crap out of him in the second half, but he was a man on a mission for all of those minutes. This kid’s pretty good, one could say.
2. Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood should always start together
Pulisic was not the only US player who went out and dominated. Altidore had two goals and an assist, including a cheeky panenka, and was flawless in hold-up play, continually dominating Baloy to the point where the 36-year-old was subbed at halftime. Bobby Wood drew the penalty and netted the fourth goal, playing really well off of Altidore and using intelligent runs in the channels to open space for others and get himself in behind.
This game should confirm that 1) Clint Dempsey is a super-sub and 2) any first-choice USMNT XI should include the trio of Pulisic, Jozy, and Wood. Friday’s aggressive 4-1-3-2 is probably not feasible against better-quality opponents (i.e. World Cup teams), so we need to start accepting the fact that a 3-5-2 is the US’s best formation.
3. Bruce Arena got it right
I was not completely pleased when the lineup was released. I thought it would leave the US too open in the middle and too vulnerable to counter-attacks, and I’m still not sure I think “international starter” when I see Paul Arriola.
I was wrong.
Arena put out a straight 4-1-3-2, not a 4-4-2 diamond or a narrow 4-3-1-2. That set the front five, especially Pulisic, free, and put a ton of onus on Michael Bradley (h/t Matt Doyle):
Bradley is No. 4, and that’s his average positioning according to Opta. We can never begin to appreciate how important he is for this team. He was great on Friday, and it was this formation that allowed the US to be so good and aggressive from the get-go, so credit to Arena.
But we also have to know that Bradley can not be in multiple places at the same time, and that’s why this formation is not something that will work against better teams. It was too easy to exploit the right and left half-spaces even against Panama, because the wingers don’t tuck in nearly enough to make it a functional diamond. It is necessary to play a true No. 8 next to Bradley.
The only way to put Pulisic, Altidore, and Wood on the field together while also starting one of Alejandro Bedoya, Dax McCarty, or Kellyn Acosta is transitioning to a 3-5-2. A five-at-the-back was successful at the Azteca in June and they looked good playing something similar towards the end against Honduras, so this should not be a completely foreign concept.
In the short term, Arena deserves props for putting together a lineup that let the US’s best players do what they do best, and for proving a lot of us wrong. But when this team has to face a top-tier European team in Russian next year, it’s not a look Arena should replicate.
4. DeAndre Yedlin is very important
The US have had to play most of the Hexagonal without starting right back DeAndre Yedlin. He returned on Friday (somehow on yellow card warning, because of some weird CONCACAF rules) and proved just how much this team improves with him in the lineup.
Graham Zusi had been fairly serviceable as a backup, but Yedlin’s ability to get forward and add width while also using that athleticism to defend 1v1 and cover space vertically and horizontally is invaluable, and not something Zusi can do. Rafa Benitez, the former Real Madrid manager who coaches him at Newcastle, has done a phenomenal job turning a raw speedster into one of the US’s best players. Let’s hope he stays healthy and ready for more big games next summer.