A variety of things went wrong for the U.S. Men’s National Team in September. Without John Brooks, the pool of centerbacks struggled from top to bottom. The fullbacks were regularly beaten for pace. The midfield was sloppy throughout and was regularly pushed into uncomfortable positions.
But the attacking struggles were perhaps the most concerning of all. After being shutout against Costa Rica, the U.S. needed a late Bobby Wood finish against Honduras to salvage what might have been a World Cup-saving point. That type of attacking output will not be good enough on Friday against Panama, and that means it will not be good enough to get the USMNT to Russia.
Knowing that, the U.S. is focused on getting the attack right when the team faces Panama on Friday in Orlando. The pieces are there. Jozy Altidore, Bobby Wood and Clint Dempsey have all scored plenty of goals at this level. Christian Pulisic has had solid games with Borussia Dortmund in recent weeks. Players like Darlington Nagbe, Michael Bradley and Paul Arriola have the ability to get involved and make a difference. Now, it is about doing it and rediscovering the attacking flow that had the U.S. unbeaten under Bruce Ans until the loss to Los Ticos.
“Against Costa Rica and Honduras, there are little mistakes that we give up,” Arriola added, “and some teams don’t forgive you for those mistakes, like Costa Rica did, and you end up chasing the game. This game, we’re going to have to go and be ahead in the beginning, take control of the game and not let them get back comfortable.”
The key, Arriola says, is to get numbers involved. The U.S. is set to face off with an experienced Panama defense, one which stifled the U.S. in qualifying earlier this year and at this past summer’s Gold Cup. Anchored by familiar faces like Roman Torres and Felipe Baloy, Panama has veteran leadership and talent at the back.
What they don’t have, though, is much speed, and the U.S. can exploit that by drawing defenders out of position. They can do that by getting numbers forward, dragging defenders around the field and putting Panama on their heels. If players can create space, it opens up room for Wood, Dempsey, Altidore or Pulisic to find pockets and create with a bit more freedom.
“I think coming out of the gates strong. That’s something that’s going to be important for us and we touched on that a little bit,” Arriola said. “We have to really throw numbers at those guys and get an early goal. If we can get an early goal, they can’t bunker for long, and they’ll have to go out and expose themselves in the back and that’s when we can open the game up even more.”
Bradley, meanwhile, thinks the attacking struggles are a bit overblown. Costa Rica is going to challenge any team in the world due to their system, especially when they get an early goal. Honduras, meanwhile, was a true CONCACAF road match. Bradley has been on a lot of U.S. teams, and he says he doesn’t remember any of them going to Central America and playing crazy, free-flowing soccer.
The good news for the USMNT is that Friday’s match is at home against a team that is strong, but not as formidable against Costa Rica. Los Ticos were able to stifle the USMNT attack by consistently doubling and frustrating Christian Pulsic, and getting the Borussia Dortmund attacker into good positions could be one of the keys to the game.
“He creates a lot. It’s not just on Christian,” Arriola said. “You look at all of our attackers and the type of player that Darlington is and the type of player that Michael is as a holding mid. You look at Jozy or Clint or Bobby or anyone up top.
“The most important thing is that we’re all together as a team and, whatever we do, we’re convinced our teammates will have our back in whatever we do. That’s the most important thing.”
If the U.S. can find a way to click, the team will be one step closer to a World Cup. A win on Friday makes the road a lot easier. A draw or loss? Well, that makes it a bit more complicated.
To win, you have to score goals, and to score goals, you have to create chances, and Bradley is expecting those chances to be via a complete team effort in a do-or-die match.
“It’s a big game. To win a big game, we’re going to need a lot of guys to have real good nights,” Bradley said. “These are the types of things that we talk about, that we’re focusing on, and if we can do that, then we’ll put ourselves in a good spot.”