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Christian Pulisic makes his presence felt; more takeaways from USA vs. Panama

USA’s peformance against Honduras and Panama has brought some stability to their World Cup 2018 qualifying campaign.

PANAMA CITY, Panama — The game wasn’t 15 seconds old when the Panamanians started targeting Christian Pulisic. That it was a ballboy doing the targeting was perhaps a bit unusual. Pulisic, the 18-year-old emerging U.S. star, had earned a throw-in deep in the opposing end, and when the ballboy refused to throw him the ball—he did the opposite later for Panamanian players—Pulisic gave him an earful.

The physical targeting of Pulisic came soon enough from the Panamanian players. A forearm shiver here. An overly rough tackle there. The hosts even got into Pulisic’s face after he did the sportsmanlike thing and hit the ball out of bounds with a Panamanian player on the ground. By the time Tuesday’s game was over, it was obvious that Panama had a clear strategy to target and frustrate the young American. Welcome to road qualifying in CONCACAF, young man!

Ultimately, the biggest takeaway from the U.S.’s two March World Cup qualifiers will be the four points—from Tuesday’s 1-1 tie against Panama and Friday’s 6-0 win over Honduras—that gave coach Bruce Arena the point total he had set as this week’s goal and brought some stability to the U.S.’s World Cup 2018 qualifying campaign. The U.S. vaulted from sixth to fourth place in the six-team, 10-game CONCACAF Hexagonal and gained ground on every team involved except Mexico.

Pulisic wows again as USA continues World Cup qualifying rebuild with point in Panama

But there are several other lessons to take from these games as well, not least for Pulisic, who made his U.S. breakthrough after doing the same at club level with Borussia Dortmund.

“Christian will probably learn the most from this game,” said U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard on Tuesday. “Because he’s incredibly talented. When you play against top defenders in Europe, they recognize the talent and they defend properly. In CONCACAF they don’t defend properly, they just come steaming through. And then the next one comes steaming through. It’s crazy. But it’s effective on certain nights when the referee isn’t on your side. He’ll learn from this. He was good. He was resilient for a little fella.”

No kidding. Late in the first half, Pulisic created the goal that put the U.S. ahead, using his talent and guile to turn burly Panamanian center backs Felipe Baloy and Román Torres into traffic cones before feeding Clint Dempsey for the Texan’s 56th career international goal. If you try to imagine how many U.S. players over the years could have done what Pulisic did on that goal, you might be thinking for a while. Pulisic fought through the physical nonsense. He wouldn’t let himself be CONCACAF’d.

Pulisic's temperament, pace impressed Gundogan in American's early Dortmund days

“It was a good lesson for Christian tonight,” said Arena. “I think Panama thought there was a bullseye on his back, and they went after him from minute one all the way through. He has to learn that the referee is not going to protect him. He has to deal with it. I think he did well. He created our goal and in the second half was part of some things where he could have created the second goal. It was a good lesson for him. That’s something you can’t tell him. You’ve got to be in it.”

Pulisic acknowledged that it was tough at times to play in his dynamic style considering the way he was being manhandled. “It’s difficult, especially here,” he said. “Sometimes it’s not always about soccer in these games. You have to really stay focused and physical out there and keep the same intensity. It’s all about finding that balance. It’s important. There were times I didn’t have that today.”

When the next qualifiers come around in June, one question will be the same: Does Arena start Pulisic centrally (as he did against Honduras at home) or out wide (as he did with the return of Jermaine Jones away at Panama)? From here, the central option looks like the better one. But at the very least, it was good to see that Pulisic can be the impact player for the U.S. in the exact same way that he has been for Borussia Dortmund.

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A few other big takeaways came out of these qualifiers. To wit:

Arena can count on his mainstay veterans. Dempsey scored four goals in two games not long after people were questioning if his career might be over due to an irregular heartbeat. Howard returned in goal after an injury layoff and made a giant save in the second half to preserve the Panama tie. “Our veteran leadership—Michael Bradley, Tim Howard and Jozy and Clint—is exceptional,” Arena said.

Geoff Cameron remains incredibly important. You notice when Cameron is there, and you notice when he’s not. After being out injured for the two losses in November, Cameron was solid at right back in the Honduras win, but he missed out again with a muscle strain on Tuesday. Not coincidentally, the U.S. defense had its issues at times without him (and John Brooks, who left camp with a sickness).

“Cameron had a muscle strain and wasn’t able to get through it over the last couple days,” said Arena. “We took him out around 55 minutes against Honduras and he wasn’t able to recover enough to play in this game.”

The U.S. may have found a left back. Jorge Villafaña did a credible job against Honduras and Panama and may be the answer at a position the U.S. has always struggled at. “It was good to get him two games at left back,” said Arena. “It’s going to take some to piece the team together.”

And while Graham Zusi probably won’t start many more games at right back, Arena said he was glad that he experimented with Zusi at that position in January just in case he’d be needed to play there on occasions like Tuesday night. Arena added that he was pleased with the performances of his subs on Tuesday, not just Alejandro Bedoya but also younger players like Kellyn Acosta and Paul Arriola.

When you look at the players who missed out on one or both of these games due to injury or suspension—Bobby Wood, Fabian Johnson, DeAndre Yedlin, Cameron, Brooks, Jordan Morris, Sebastian Lletget—the four points become even more impressive.

Bruce Arena's sarcasm with media offers a window into how he operates with his team

“Would you have taken four points and plus-6 on goals? The answer is yes,” said U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati. “The 6-0 win is important. It’s not four points on the night, but if it comes down to it, getting a bunch of goals on a tiebreaker is important, especially after we had the 4-0 loss [in Costa Rica]. So that’s a big deal.”

Still, the most striking change under Arena so far has been the overall vibe around the team. When Arena came in, he said he wanted to build a chemistry that hadn’t been there for a while. So far, it seems to be happening.

“We wanted to creep up the table, and I think we did that these past 10 days,” said Omar Gonzalez. “So we sit in fourth right now, and I think we can be very happy with these past two games with the 6-0 win and a tie here on the road. We showed a lot more spirit, a lot more camaraderie, a team spirit that maybe we haven’t seen in a long time. I think we can build off this.”

The next chance comes against Trinidad and Tobago (at home) and Mexico (away) in June. Suddenly, reaching the World Cup doesn’t look like it’s in jeopardy anymore.