SEATTLE — Three thoughts on the U.S.'s 2-0 victory against Panama in a World Cup qualifier here on Tuesday:
• The U.S. is really rolling now. The Americans catapulted into sole possession of first place in the World Cup qualifying hexagonal with one of their best qualifying performances under coach Jurgen Klinsmann. Breaking down the tough (borderline dirty) Panamanians is never easy, but the U.S. goals were a thing of beauty that showed some of the progress this team has made. First, came a total team goal on the break as Michael Bradley, Fabian Johnson and Jozy Altidore connected on a strike that showed the understanding developing as the players spend more time together. Then came a glorious pass from Geoff Cameron, who was stylish and confident in the midfield, to Eddie Johnson, whose timing and execution on his run and finish were world-class on goal No. 2 in front of his home fans in Seattle. Now, the U.S. finds itself in first place on 10 points from five games, only two of them at home, with Costa Rica and disappointing Mexico two points behind. (And if you could believe it, the U.S. has a game in hand on the Mexicans.) Remember when the U.S. lost its first hex game at Honduras in February and the sky appeared to be falling? I don't either.
• Jozy Altidore is becoming the ruthless finisher U.S. fans have always wanted. With his third goal in three games, Altidore is quickly making everyone forget that he went almost two full years without scoring a goal during the run of play in a U.S. jersey. Altidore, who's still just 23, scored 31 goals in all competitions last season for AZ Alkmaar and his maturation as a player and person has carried over from club level to the national team. He's far more active these days in a U.S. jersey than he was last fall, when Klinsmann briefly dropped him from the team, and his runs are smart and with a purpose. Talk about maturity: Altidore could have gone into a prolonged sulk after Mexican referee Roberto García failed to call a deserved penalty when Román Torres knocked down Altidore in the 34th minute. Instead, Altidore responded in the best way possible: By committing to a weak-side run on the U.S. break two minutes later and finishing Fabian Johnson's exquisite cross for a great team goal.
• The Seattle atmosphere was tremendous. The field, not so much. This was the 86th U.S. men's national team game I have attended in person and I have never seen a qualifying crowd so forceful and vocal in its support of the American players. It was impossible not to get chills during some of the second-half chants and when the American Outlaws unveiled a giant U.S. Soccer 100th Anniversary tifo before the game. There's a reason U.S. Soccer chose to stage this game here — 40,847 fans showed up, the seventh-largest home qualifying crowd in U.S. history — and Seattleites have every right to be proud of the culture they have created. But was it worth it to install such a subpar temporary grass surface for the game? I'm not so sure. Players were slipping from the start and there was also the risk of a serious injury, which thankfully didn't happen. After a wild snowstorm in the U.S. first home hex game in Denver and the embarrassing field in Seattle, it'll be great from a soccer perspective to move to Real Salt Lake's excellent grass field in Sandy, Utah, next Tuesday (unless there's an unexpected plague of locusts).