Friday night’s performance was a special one. It was a do-or-die match, one which would all but determine whether or not the U.S. Men’s National Team had a chance at Russia.
From the opening whistle, there was absolutely no doubt when it came to how the match was going to end. It was going to end in a USMNT win, and it was going to end up as one of the biggest and most important results in team history.
Seemingly everything went right for the USMNT. The tactical decisions were spot on, while Panama’s weren’t. The players stepped up from the first few touches, leading to a lopsided 4-0 win.
There was a lot to take in on Friday and a lot to take away. Here’s a look at some of the big lessons and moments from the USMNT win:
What more is there to say? In a match where the USMNT needed a big performance, the team’s youngest star did something special.
It wasn’t just the stats. Christian Pulisic’s goal and assist were both incredible efforts, moments that showed his skill. The stats were great, but it was the effort, the confidence and the leadership on display that truly shined through.
From the first touch of the game, there was no doubt Pulisic was here to play. He was going to be unstoppable, no matter how much Panama hacked him.
That was leadership, and that was probably Pulisic’s best performance in a USMNT shirt in Hexagonal that has seemed full of those types of efforts.
IGNITING THE USMNT ATTACK
Pulisic will earn the plaudits on Friday, but it would be unfair to call the rest of his teammates a supporting cast. Jozy Altidore, Bobby Wood and Paul Arriola starred in their own right, leading the way in a game that got out of hand quickly.
Altidore provided the goals with Pulisic and Wood doing the work leading up to them. Pulisic’s assist on the first was sublime, but was so was Altidore’s run. And let’s not move past that Panenka penalty, which was an incredible decision in a big moment that all but ended that match.
Then there was Wood, who earned that penalty before firing a goal of his own to add to Panama’s misery. Wood’s work-rate was something special, and he could have had several more goals on a different night.
Overall, the work-rate of Wood and Arriola helped Pulisic and Altidore thrive. It was a team effort and a team win that saw several hands carry the load in the attack.
Panama has built a reputation on strong defending and physicality. On Friday, they came out in a formation that took away their strengths.
Rather than playing with one striker and relying on a stout defense that allowed just five Hexagonal goals heading into Friday’s match, Panama emerged with two forwards. The 4-4-2 formation left no one in the pocket to watch Christian Pulisic, and he made them pay.
Pulisic was repeatedly able to drive at the slow-footed backline, causing problems all through the first half. Without the midfield numbers to watch him, Pulisic created havoc, allowing Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood to run around into open spaces and create havoc of their own.
On the road, Panama’s naivety cost them. Instead of relying on what got them there, Los Canaleros tried to be something they weren’t: an open, attacking team. In the end, that decision could be what keeps them out of a World Cup.
YEDLIN PROVIDES MAJOR BOOST
DeAndre Yedlin has gotten immeasurably better since moving to England. On Friday, he proved it once again by showing just how vital he is to the USMNT.
Yedlin was back in the starting lineup on Friday after missing September qualifiers, and the difference was night and day. His pace was vital in stopping several Panama counters. He made several big tackles and one a few headers in the box. Overall, he was rock solid and he added a different dimension to the USMNT defense.
No disrespect to Graham Zusi, but Yedlin is on another level. He’s an absolute no-brainer for the starting lineup going forward, and that’s a good option to have for the U.S. going forward.
CREDIT FOR ARENA
All through the week, Bruce Arena showed confidence. He didn’t speak about what ifs or doomsday scenarios. He said he expected the U.S. to win and take care of business.
They did just that, and he deserves credit for everything that went into Friday’s win.
Arena choice to go with the veteran defense of Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez, leaving typical starter Geoff Cameron on the bench. By and large, it worked. There were nervy moments, sure, but the defense kept a zero, which is all you can ever really ask for.
He opted for an attacking formation that pushed Christian Pulisic centrally. It worked, especially with Panama’s tactical decision on their own end. The tactics worked, the subs worked, everything worked. The players will get credit, but Arena deserves some as well.
After months of questioning and frustration, the U.S. came out like a team with a World Cup spot on the line. Give Arena credit for setting them up to do so throughout a chaotic month.