World Cup Qualifying preview: Panama v USMNT

For all the talk of Bruce Arena’s hire being a backward step for US Soccer, Friday’s victory over Honduras was basically the dream of the Jurgen Klinsmann era: six goals scored, none conceded, led by a rapacious, precocious young playmaker and a rampant striker. It doesn’t get much better. In fact, it might have been the finest ever performance by the US men in international play. It was the US’s largest scoring margin in a World Cup Qualifying match of this late a stage, and scoreline aside, the US looked composed, confident, invigorated, and energetic—adjectives not often associated with this team over the last several years. Everyone knew their job and the gameplan, and it resulted in a massive win.

It feels good to win, of course, but now the US is faced with replicating that performance away from home, as they travel to Panama Tuesday night.

What just happened?

The US’s performance was as unexpected as it was dominant. Arena’s first games with the team, back in January, hardly inspired confidence that the US was capable of a performance like this. Sure, those friendlies didn’t have any Europe-based players, like Christian Pulisic or Fabian Johnson or Bobby Wood, but two out of those three didn’t make this game, either. So, what changed?

Well, this is going to sound reductive, but Pulisic is the man. He inspired this team to be the best version of itself. Before Friday, he’d had just a few limited opportunities to play centrally for the US, and while he showed potential there, it was definitely a concern that no true No. 10s were named on the roster. But now we see why Arena made that call: Pulisic is our best playmaker, and it’s not close. With excellent close control, a winger’s ability to dribble past defenders, and the vision to unlock defenses like they aren’t there, it’s clearly time to take off the training wheels. Pulisic’s time in Dortmund has allowed him to truly blossom and become a menace to opposing defenses. He is confident because he knows how good he is without being a jerk about it. He’s not perfect: he started the game sloppy in his passing, and his transition defense needs some real work, but man . . . he gives the team more than he takes away, with a better ration of that than just about anybody.

Playing behind two experienced and talented strikers, and with Michael Bradley having a world-class game at defensive midfield, you could sense the whole US squad picking up its game in order to be on Pulisic’s level. Clint Dempsey played a lethal match with his finishing, Jozy Altidore’s passing was superb all night long, and Sebastian Lletget looked like he could have had more goals had his night not been cut short. Darlington Nagbe hardly did anything on the night, but only because he didn’t need to.


Paul Arriola has been called into camp, while Jordan Morris, John Brooks, and Lletget have all been released back to their club teams to deal with injuries (Brooks has a sinus infection). The loss of Brooks is perhaps the most worrisome, but with Matt Besler and others available, the US should be fine. Alejandro Bedoya will likely start in Lletget’s place, and his superior defensive instincts might be a better fit for this game, anyway.

Los Canalleros are up-and-comers, having twice reached the Gold Cup final in the not-so-distant past (losing both times to the US), and defeating the US on penalty kicks in the third place match of the most recent tournament. In qualifying for the 2014 World Cup, it was only Graham Zusi’s goal that prevented Panama from finishing the Hex in fourth place, instead saving Mexico’s qualifying blushes.

The US, however, has an excellent record against Panama and should come into this match with confidence, considering the performance against Honduras.


The truth is, though, that expectations must be tempered. This is an away match, and Panama might punish the US for its defensive spacing in transition in a way that Honduras did not. It is equally likely that the US will not set out to take the game to Panama as aggressively. But the US can get a win. Arena has talent at his disposal and is clearly setting it up to reach its potential. The US wins, 2–1.


  1. A good part of the USMNT success on Friday night was due to Honduras’ failure. Their attempts at trapping up high left a significant gap in midfield which the US exposed by playing direct.
    I doubt we’ll see the same tactics by the opponent Tuesday night.
    I am as happy as anyone else is with the win – believe me I subscribe to the “winning ugly is better than losing pretty” theory. The goal is to get a win/3 points, whether through direct play or possession.

    • Phil in Wilmington says:

      Lleget blew up the Honduras Plan A after 5 minutes, as the common expectation was that in a 5-4-1 they would sit back, absorb and counter. Honduras’s failure was two fold: 1. they had no real Plan B once they were chasing other than hopeful crosses that our CB’s easily handled and 2. they had no real answer for the US response to Honduras putting 9 men behind the ball and clogging the box, which was, “okay, we’ll just run and pass it right though you, even when you tackle us.”

      The understanding between Altidore, Dempsey and Pulisic was unreal. I hope Bedoya will take Lleget’s place, but I could just as easily see it being Jones, which actually scares me a bit, as I could see his penchant for roaming all over could disrupt what they’ve got going more than it could help.

      • pragmatist says:

        Jones will ratchet up the physicality, as well. I’d rather go with Bedoya and keep the emotions as low as possible. I think a level-headed game suits us best against Panama on the road. No need for Jones to turn it into a street fight and get us out of the rhythm from the Honduras game.

  2. pragmatist says:

    Not dismissing Pulisic at all, and fully appreciating what he did, we can’t overlook the difference Clint makes in that lineup. He has tenacity and skill that is unmatched in our player pool. That first goal was absolute vintage Dempsey: receive a pass with defenders mugging you, stay on your feet and rip a shot in the corner. (The pass from Pulisic was sublime, but I’m focusing on Dempsey for this post.)
    It feels like we won big, despite a poor defensive showing and a mediocre night from the midfielders (CP excluded, obviously). If everyone regresses to the mean in this game, I think we’re better off all around. That means the defense and midfield will both pick up their games…and Altidore will be able to finish some of his chances.
    I’m going with a 3-1 finish. Let’s get some hope back into this squad.

    • “He has tenacity and skill that is unmatched in our player pool.”

      So much this. So true. I said the same about his shot putting away that Pulisic pass in the news roundup — the pass was something, the way Dempsey put away the shot was several levels even more magnificent.

    • Pulisic was saying after the game that he loves playing with Clint, and I think we saw that on the field. The top trio of Altidore, Dempsey and Pulisic had some of the strongest lines on the passing chart. I’d like to see us keep them together in some form for the Panama game.

      • el Pachyderm says:

        I am curious whether 2 will be cleared to play medically…for a full game. I know they are keeping a pretty close eye on him. Either way– nice to see him kicking ass again.

  3. I’m interested to see what PSP faithful are anticipating for a starting XI for tomorrow. I’m torn but I assume Arena wants to use Jones otherwise he would have left him off due to suspension. The back 4 is where I am stuck. I don’t like Zusi but GC didn’t look too hot out wide. I think TR is the like for like for JB… I’m excited and unsure.

    • pragmatist says:

      I’d like to see Cameron Carter-Vickers be further in his development so he could lock down that CB spot now.
      But since that dream isn’t happening this week…it will likely be a Cameron/Gonzalez pairing. I’d also like to see Bedoya instead of Jones. And I’m terrified of Zusi in an experimental role on the road in a crucial game.
      Hopefully the defense isn’t terrible tested and it’s irrelevant.

      • Same.
        Agreed. Here is my thing: I do not like Zusi at right back and I don’t think the tape will be kind to Omar/Cameron on the right side. This is why i slid GC inside. Which left a hole at right back, If Zusi is there, I’d much prefer Bedoya in front of him instead of Jones- read stabity, discipline, consistency on the defensive wing. But why was jones brought into camp for 1 game if he wasn’t expected to start that game?

      • pragmatist says:

        He probably was expected to start, but things change. If Arena liked the fluidity that Bedoya provided with the rest of the midfield, as well as his defensive cover/positioning/workrate, he could audible to Bedoya.
        Plus, there’s always the simple theory, “If it ain’t broke…”

      • I guess it’s hard going from NEW STARTING XI every match to Bruce…

      • pragmatist says:

        Yeah, JK would have called in 12 new guys, just because he felt like it.
        Hopefully Bruce sticks with the KISS and stays with what worked. Don’t overthink it.

  4. Section 114 (Former) says:

    After that one game, I think we have our Russia team pretty much locked down with only five spots at the margin to battle for (and most of those with heavy favorites).

    GK: Howard, Guzan, TBD

    DEF: Besler, Brooks, Cameron, F. Johnson, Ream, Yedlin and one TBD

    MF: Bedoya, Bradley, J. Jones, Klestjian, Nagbe, Pulisic, and two TBD

    FW: Altidore, Dempsey, Morris, Wood,

    So who are the last five?

    At GK, it could be any of the young guys, but I’d suspect Horvath.

    At D, the likely candidates are Birnbaum, Green, & Gonzalez or someone new to the program

    At midfield, there are a few more options for guys never to make the pitch barring injury/suspension, but they include Lletget, Hyndman, Nguyen, Zelalem, & someone new to the program

    The fifth striker (also unlikely to see the pitch) would be Boyd, Johannson, or Zardes. I don’t see someone coming out of nowhere.

    • pragmatist says:

      I think it will be some time before Zelalem finds himself back in the squad. Eventually, but no time soon.
      Lleget and Hyndman are good bets moving forward.
      And what I wouldn’t give to have Yedlin available Tuesday…

  5. The big problem and liability is Jones in the lineup.If he pushes Pulisic out wide to the right, the team will suffer. Having Jones close to Bradley is poison, asking for trouble.Jones distribution is so poor, it can easily disrupt the flow. The big Mastodons on the right side of the defense with Jones in the middle means Pulisic , if he gets the ball, gets it were he can do little with it.

    • I couldn’t agree more. I love what Jones brings to certain games, but often times he clutters things up, especially next to Bradley. If Jones plays, we can’t keep the current formation, and Either Pulisic or Dempsey has to play wide, or sit, neither of which make sense.
      On Zuzi, I understand there are several injuries, but it just baffles me that a converted winger is the current best RB option in the entire country. I’d rather see Cameron and Ream/Besler than Zuzi.

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