PANAMA CITY, Panama — The U.S. tied Panama 1-1 in a World Cup qualifier here on Tuesday, fulfilling coach Bruce Arena’s objective of getting at least four points from the two March qualifiers, though the U.S. will be disappointed that it wasn’t more after a defensive breakdown allowed Panama to score the equalizing goal at the end of the first half.
The tie left the U.S. in fourth place (1-1-2, four points) in the Hexagonal, two places higher than it was to start the week. The top three teams in the six-team, 10-game tournament will automatically qualify for the World Cup, with the fourth-place team going to an intercontinental playoff against Asia’s fifth-placed team.
Two goals came in a flurry at the end of the first half. Clint Dempsey put the U.S. ahead in the 39th minute after Christian Pulisic hoodwinked two Panamanian defenders in the box and delivered a pinpoint assist. It was Dempsey’s 56th career international goal, putting him just one behind the all-time U.S. men’s record held by Landon Donovan.
But while Arena wanted his team to run out the first-half clock, Panama struck back quickly. Off a throw-in in the U.S. end, defender Tim Ream misplayed the ball by turning his back to it, and Gabriel Gómez pounced on the loose ball in the box to equalize.
Here are three thoughts on the game:
Pulisic has got the gift
Kicked relentlessly by the Panamanians, who picked him out from the start, Pulisic nevertheless showed once again that he has the rarest of talents in soccer: The ability to create a goal out of nothing even in hostile environments. Receiving a mostly innocuous pass on the right side, the 18-year-old figuratively pulled down the pants of veteran Felipe Baloy in the box, then stopped on a dime on the edge of the six with scary poise before beating Román Torres and feeding the ball to Dempsey for the first U.S. goal.
Pulisic can do remarkable things on perfect fields in the Champions League, but it’s another step in his development to connive rivals on the road in CONCACAF without getting CONCACAF’d.
The U.S isn’t that deep everywhere
The preferred starting center backs, Geoff Cameron and John Brooks, weren’t able to play due to various physical maladies. In their place, Arena started Omar Gonzalez and Ream, who are O.K. but a bit of a drop-off. Panama’s goal wasn’t entirely Ream’s fault, but it was largely on the Fulham player, who had a bad miscue against Panama before in the 2011 Gold Cup that led to a U.S. defeat. Ream did come back in the second half to save a goal on a Panama break, but he’s still going to look back on this game with some regrets.
You also can’t deny that it hurts to miss Cameron, who was also absent during the brutal two-loss stretch in November.
Four points a solid haul as qualifying campaign steadies
The 6-0 win against Honduras gave people reason to think the U.S. had a chance to win here and take six points from the week, but all things considered, four points has to be viewed as a promising restoration of the U.S.’s World Cup hopes after that miserable November.
The U.S. will have every expectation to win its next qualifier in June, at home against Trinidad and Tobago, before visiting archrival Mexico and hoping to avenge November’s home loss.
Four games of a 10-game tournament are done, and Arena has brought some stability back to a World Cup qualifying process that will continue to be a challenge.