ORLANDO, Fla. — In the days before the U.S.’s tension-soothing 4-0 World Cup qualifying blowout of Panama on Friday, the players went through what Jozy Altidore called some of the most detailed preparations he had ever encountered in his national team career to ready a gameplan that would attack Panama mercilessly from the opening whistle.
The key, captain Michael Bradley said, would be found in movement, especially among the three lead men—Altidore, Christian Pulisic and Bobby Wood—in a bold five-man attack.
“I thought we were smart in how we went about it,” Bradley said on Friday night. “We talked a lot about making sure that Jozy and Bobby and Christian were mobile and not making things so clear and easy for [Panama], not giving them reference points. I thought the three of them did a really good job.”
Added Pulisic: “We needed a lot of movement against a physical Panama team that’s going to sit in and not make it easy for us. Our movement was good today. I was able to play off those guys, and they had some great layoffs to me. I think the spacing was pretty good for most of the night. Still some things we can do better, but I think the gameplan was pretty much executed.”
The Panamanians had conceded only five goals in the first eight games of the Hexagonal, but the U.S. attack tore them apart on Friday, scoring two goals in the first 19 minutes and four overall in a victory that put the U.S. on firmer footing in its quest to reach World Cup 2018. After a week in which many wondered what would happen if the U.S. failed to reach the World Cup for the first time since 1986, the discussion changed on Friday. A win at last-place Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday will clinch a spot in Russia, while a tie will likely do so as well.
What stood out the most for the U.S. was the renewed brilliance of Pulisic, the 19-year-old Borussia Dortmund star who’s already the U.S.’s best player, and his often telepathic understanding with Altidore in both directions. It was Altidore's early lay-off passes that created chances for Pulisic, including his expertly taken eighth-minute goal. And it was Pulisic's ankle-breaking drive that created space down the left wing before his cross hit Altidore for a ruthlessly efficient finish and a 2-0 lead.
“They smelled blood from the beginning,” U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “Anytime they picked up the ball, it was either a yellow-card foul or some sort of breakaway. They clearly recognized that from the beginning. We spoke about being aggressive and not just being up-against-them and kicking-them aggressive, but getting the ball forward and putting them on their heels. We stuck to the gameplan.”
As Altidore said, “In all my years with the national team, I don’t think I’ve ever been this prepared. The coaching staff from Sunday since the guys landed was showing video, pulling guys aside, making sure we were prepared for this game … At the end of the day, the players have to go out and do it … This game is an easy game when you play with good players, and [Pulisic] is a quality player. Such a young kid, and he gets it. Every time I play with him, you can see he keeps improving every game.”
Wood did well too, earning the penalty that Altidore converted before Wood himself scored the fourth goal later on. Wood is at his best when he’s stretching defenses, as he did often on Friday, with Altidore more focused on holding up balls underneath and laying them off for Pulisic.
“That’s one of Jozy’s best qualities,” said Pulisic, who has now been directly involved in eight of the U.S.’s 15 goals in the Hexagonal. “He scores goals, but he’s a great passer. He knows where I am. He knows where everyone is. He’s a great guy to play with.”
Pulisic was walking with a noticeable limp after the game, the result of the disgraceful repeated physical targeting by the Panamanians (who did the same thing in the teams’ 1-1 tie in Panama back in March). U.S. coach Bruce Arena pulled Pulisic out of the game in the 57th minute with the U.S. up by three goals.
“He was kicked a few times,” Arena said. “He’s been getting beat up in these games in CONCACAF. That’s the way it is. It doesn’t look like anything is going to change. He took a few shots, and we thought it was smart to get him off the field.”
For his part, Pulisic said he would be fine for Tuesday’s game. The environment will be significantly different in Trinidad, with all the usual challenges of playing on the road in CONCACAF except perhaps for the menacing crowds. (The Soca Warriors, who led at Mexico late before succumbing 3-1 on Friday, are already eliminated.) But the stakes are just as high. A World Cup berth is still up for grabs. If the U.S. is as aggressive as it was on Friday, the objective will be achieved.
“On a night when so much was on the line—maybe everything—we played in a way from the get-go that we gave no doubt as to who was going to win the game,” Bradley said. “Across the board, we had guys ready for a big game and come through in a huge way. So we feel good about that. But now we’ve got to understand that the job isn’t done yet.”
On Tuesday, they hope, it will be.