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  • Christian Pulisic, Darlington Nagbe and DeAndre Yedlin shined brightest in Thursday's World Cup qualifier win over Trinidad & Tobago.
By Brian Straus
June 09, 2017

COMMERCE CITY, Colo. — The Americans had been better, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at the Dicks Sporting Goods Park scoreboard. It doesn’t show possession stats. There’s no indication of the number of shots taken. At the end of the first half of tonight’s World Cup qualifier between the USA and Trinidad & Tobago, it showed only zeros, and the atmosphere around Denver was tempered with some concern.

This was a game the hosts had to win, thanks to a poor start to the Hexagonal and a trip to the Estadio Azteca right around the corner. And despite all those unlisted advantages, they just couldn’t break through.

U.S. midfielder Christian Pulisic said that at intermission, coach Bruce Arena told his team to “just basically keep doing the same things, to just continue to be aggressive and things will start to open up. They’ll get tired and eventually the goals will come.”

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The Americans basically did do that, but with a bit of extra emphasis on a couple key players. Forwards Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey had been unable to stretch or get behind the Trinidad back four and the US wasn’t able to carve out much space in the middle. In the second half, there was a greater effort to make room for Pulisic and Darlington Nagbe, who entered the match with a combined 29 senior caps.

A lot of the pre-game hype focused on Dempsey and his pursuit of Landon Donovan’s all-time scoring record. Following Thursday’s 2-0 win, the spotlight fell on the program’s new generation of stars.

In the 52nd minute, Pulisic, Nagbe, Altidore and DeAndre Yedlin combined to score a beautiful go-ahead goal that came with plenty of youthful speed and old-world soccer savvy. Nagbe, who critics and coaches have been pushing to take more chances in the attack, shimmied and shifted and blew past Trinidad midfielder Khaleem Hyland on the dribble. A quick wall pass sent the Portland Timbers veteran into the penalty area, where he smartly pulled back and shielded a defender from the ball rather than taking a shot that would’ve been blocked.

“He laid it back to me—put it on a platter—and I just tried to play it across the goal as hard as I could,” Yedlin said.

Why not pop it into the air, toward the back post?

“I just thought I’d hit it on the ground. That’s where deflections happen. Luckily, Christian was in front of the goal,” he said.

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It wasn’t luck. Pulisic reads the game like a veteran and was sprinting in front of T&T defender Daneil Cyrus as the ball left Yedlin’s foot. The hard work had been done and the finish was easy. Get used to that celebratory slide toward the corner flag.

Ten minutes later, Pulisic doubled the American lead thanks to a beautiful build-up from Yedlin and Altidore. The target forward’s pass sent Pulisic behind the Trinidad defense, and he calmly slotted his shot just inside the near post. That sort of contribution is expected from Altidore at this point in his career, especially if the scoring chances aren’t falling his way. The impact that Pulisic, Yedlin and Nagbe had, however, is a very good sign. The intelligence and composure required to ensure the USA won a vital game it was supposed to win hasn’t always been readily available, and its emergence Thursday should be comforting as Sunday’s meeting with Mexico approaches.

“I thought when we made the game for them in the second half, you saw it was better,” Altidore said of Pulisic and Nagbe. “Look, they have quality and we’ve got to get them on the field and put them in spots to succeed. The game was 10 times easier when we made them the focal points of the game and the attack, and we got rewarded for it …. They unlocked the game for us.”

He added, “We needed the three points. No we can go into Mexico and kind of play with our minds clear and just go after it.”

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Pulisic, as everyone keeps reminding him, is 18 years old ("Everyone asks me questions about my age," Pulisic said Wednesday. ”It doesn't matter anymore. We're all at the same level.”) Nagbe fell out of favor with former US coach Jurgen Klinsmann and didn’t seem to have much of an international future until Arena took over. Yedlin, too, appeared to be on the outside looking in as he sparred with Klinsmann over his club career, which had stalled before a bold move down to the English Championship’s Newcastle United put the fullback in position to earn regular minutes and promotion back to the Premier League. 

But Arena and veterans like Altidore haven’t had an issue relying on those younger and/or less experienced players in big moments. Thursday’s success doesn’t mean they’ll make good at the Azteca, as the atmosphere, El Tri’s quality, the short turnaround time and altered tactics influence proceedings. But they came through Thursday when the U.S. needed a jolt, which Arena said afterward is a good sign for the program.

“Our young players are getting better. I watch our U-17s when their World Cup comes, our U-20s. I see the players in Major League Soccer and the [Development] Academy,” he said. “We have a tremendous amount of talent in our country and we just have to do a better job of moving them forward. But all those guys are examples. We have good players now, no question about it. I said I think in 2026, we can challenge better in a World Cup and I really believe that.”

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Arena has brought a bit of confidence and continuity to the national team. That certainly doesn’t mean its going to sail through the rest of the Hex, but it does mean players like an occasionally reticent Nagbe are more likely to take an opponent on that lay a ball off. 

“I think he’s an exceptional player,” Arena said of Nagbe. “I tell him all the time, ‘You’ve got to be a little bit more selfish and you saw tonight, when those opportunities are there, he’s exceptional. Part of our plan was to give him some opportunities one-on-one. He’s a very talented kid, and he’s just beginning to get experience at this level.”

Said Nagbe, “When your teammates have confidence in you and your coaching staff has that confidence in you, it definitely feels good.”

So that means Yedlin will feel better about overlapping a midfielder he trusts. It means Altidore will do the dirty work to give younger teammates the chance to shine. And it means Pulisic feels comfortable going on Fox following Thursday’s victory and saying of the Azteca, "We're going to come out with a win there too.”

Arena said he already has a plan in place for Sunday’s showdown. It may shift slightly based on how players recover over the next day or two, but the basic ideas—whatever they are—aren’t likely to change that much.

“I think we’re pretty well set on that, what we’re going to do on Sunday,” the manager said.

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He insists that Kellyn Acosta’s insertion into midfield alongside Bradley, which created a 4-2-3-1 with Pulisic underneath Altidore, wasn’t a sign of things to come. But it shouldn’t come as a surprise if it is. Acosta has been brilliant for FC Dallas this season and may just have what it takes to be the two-way midfield support required in a match against Mexico. Left back Jorge Villafaña, who won his sixth cap Thursday, was very good against Trinidad and should be fine going up against his Liga MX rivals in another three days. Pulisic almost laughed when asked if he had another 90 minutes in him.

“Absolutely,” he said. “I’m still young.”

That’s no disadvantage on this evolving national team.

“We have some good players,” Arena said, joking later that if he’d been hired “much earlier,” he’d have had even more time to mold them.

“We also have another group behind them that’s pretty good. We see them every day in training. I’m very confident in this group of players,” he said. “I’m hopeful that as we get through the year, we’ll get better.”

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