Since the moment the second Costa Rican goal hit the back of the net at Red Bull Arena, the U.S. Men’s National Team has known the stakes. Doubt became a major factor on that night. There was doubt surrounding the team’s World Cup qualifying pursuit and, even worse, there was doubt about the direction of a program that on the brink of a catastrophic end to the cycle.
That doubt was erased just moments into Friday’s match in Orlando, a 4-0 battering of Panama that put the U.S. back on track for World Cup qualifying. It took a matter of minutes to all but undo all of the frustration and criticism of the prior month, but the process of putting those moments together was one weeks in the making.
“In all my years with the national team I don’t think I’ve ever been this prepared,” said Jozy Altidore, who scored two of the USMNT’s four goals in the win. “The coaching staff from Sunday, since the guys landed, were showing video, pulling guys aside, making sure we were prepared for this game. They made us understand how important the game was. Kudos to Bruce and his team for preparing everybody. At the end of the day the players have to go out and do it, but I thought we were very well prepared today.”
Michael Bradley echoed Altidore’s statements. According to the USMNT captain, Friday was a night where the U.S. needed a complete team effort. It wasn’t a match that would be one by just one spectacular performance. Rather, the U.S. would need to attack Panama from all angles, create mismatches and limit individual mistakes.
They did just that. Altidore fired two goals while providing valuable play when he did drop a bit depeer. Bobby Wood had a goal of his own and drew a penalty kick. Christian Pulisic was likely best of all, providing a goal and an assist before Panama’s physicality forced Bruce Arena to take him out and save him for Tuesday’s match.
Defensively, the U.S. was stout while Bradley marshaled the midfield. It wasn’t perfect, though. At times, Bradley was left a bit too isolated, and Arena admitted it was a risk the U.S. felt was worth taking. They wanted to overload Panama early and often and, on Friday night, they did just that.
“It was exactly what I expected,” Bradley said, “and I thought on a night where so much was on the line, maybe everything, we played in a way from the get-go that gave no doubt as to who was going to win the game. I thought, across the board, we had guys ready for a big game come through in a huge way. We feel good about that. We feel very good about that.”
Those good feelings go a long way, but not as far as the result does. The win puts the USMNT back in the driver’s seat for Russia and back into third place. With the four-goal victory, a draw would be good enough to get to Russia unless Panama somehow finds away to score seven more goals than Mexico after scoring seven goals in the first nine games of the Hexagonal.
Knowing that, Trinidad & Tobago is no pushover. The Soca Warriors, for all of their faults, gave Mexico a scare on Friday night. They may very well give the U.S. a scare on Tuesday, but the U.S. is very well aware that T&T is the final test on the road to Russia.
“We had a great year despite what some of you people think,” Arena said. “We’ve come a long way. We’re well positioned to, hopefully, qualify for Russia. The game in Trinidad is not going to be an easy one. We have to have our team ready to go. I just watched a few minutes of Trinidad and hey look like they’re fully focused on playing there. I think a point would assure us of third. It’s not going to be easy, it’s going to be challenging.
“We have to understand that the job isn’t quite done yet,” Bradley added. “We have to enjoy this, use it for confidence and spirit and then, come Tuesday, we have to make sure we’re ready to finish the job.