And breathe. All those worries and crippling fears of missing out on the World Cup were banished by the brilliance of Christian Pulisic, who produced the kind of stellar performance needed in these types of career-changing games.
Bruce Arena had demanded a big performance ahead of this crucial qualifier and, luckily for him, America’s bright young hope expertly delivered. A superbly-taken opener on eight minutes was just the tonic to ease rampant worries of missing out on the party in Russia next summer before the Borussia Dortmund starlet turned provider for strike partner Jozy Altidore to pick up the first of his two goals.
His second, a cheekily-chipped penalty after Bobby Wood was brought down in the area just before half-time, spoke volumes about the sudden jolt of confidence flowing through Arena’s men. It was a dominant performance when it really mattered and now that ticket to Russia can be rubber-stamped with a win in Trinidad on Tuesday, though a draw should be enough.
Panama, who arrived with such great hope and left totally and utterly deflated, still have a play-off against Australia or Syria to aim for. Honduras, whose match in Costa Rica was put back a day because of adverse weather, also remain in the mix.
Yet this night was all about the preciousness of Pulisic. Kicked here, there and everywhere during the 1-1 draw with Panama in March, he responded by driving a dagger through the visitors’ hearts with pace, vision and skill. Boot him? They could barely lay a finger on him.
Arena said of Pulisic: “Christian’s first goal was a terrific finish and I was pleased for both Jozy and Bobby Wood. Our top three attackers all had a good night. I’ve never built a team around one player, he’s exceptional and he stands out but for him to be more effective he needs better players around him. The better players we have around him the better he will be. He was kicked a few times, he’s been beaten up a few times in this Concacaf qualifying competition so I wanted to protect him.
“It was a good win for our team. We have had a great year despite what people think. We have come a long way, the game in Trinidad won’t be easy but we are in a good position now. It won’t be easy, it will be challenging. We faced challenging conditions in Honduras and Panama so we will be ready. Trinidad are out but will be a handful.”
Pulisic’s unforgettable first 45 minutes produced a stat which proves Arena must build a team around the 19-year-old: the goal and assist here means Pulisic has had a hand in 11 of the 16 goals scored in this Concacaf hexagonal. The Dortmund forward is a game-changer, that precious commodity which separates the best from the rest and with youth firmly on his side, the future, all of a sudden, seems incredibly brighter.
None of the 25,303 who packed Orlando City’s stadium will think Arena’s team head to Russia with an eye on the prize, yet this kind of performance in a must-win match will boost confidence levels no end. And, for that, they have that little man Pulisic to thank.
While the Panamanians arrived in Orlando knowing a positive result would help them take them a strident step towards an emotional, debut World Cup appearance, it was hard to escape the feeling that it was the home side feeling all the pressure. The last four matches between the sides have all ended in draws. Coming into this encounter, the US couldn’t afford another one. With Panama to face a Costa Rican side who should be in cruise control, a win was imperative.
For Arena’s side not to participate in next summer’s finals was something the impressively loud American Outlaws dare not envisage let alone Arena and the man who appointed him, Sunil Gulati. This kind of nail-biting scenario wasn’t what the head of US Soccer anticipated when he brought Arena back for his Second Coming as national coach. His reintroduction gave them the spark so badly missing under Jürgen Klinsmann yet the last few results have induced serious panic.
It is as if a run of just one defeat in 16 has somehow been airbrushed from history. That’s what World Cup worries can do to a team. The US should have already qualified by now, sitting on easy street with Mexico and Costa Rica. Nevertheless, the task in hand was simple. Two games, two wins.
Unsurprisingly, Arena had urged his side to come out the blocks firing and heap pressure straight onto a Panama side who’ve been notoriously difficult to break down. And so it emphatically proved. Just five goals conceded in this hexagonal qualification tournament meant the US had no option but to sense blood early on.
Wood, who helped salvaged a draw in Honduras last month, was selected ahead of Clint Dempsey in the hope his pace could help the US get behind the visitors backline. It was a smart move. The atmosphere was raucous. Expectant. And very loud.
Altidore almost helped increase the volume with just two minutes gone when his close-range effort was charged down before Wood poked wide yet this was the kind of high-octane start Arena wanted. Panama, on the other hand, looked nervous. They barely saw any of the ball but on six minutes, Gabriel Torres wriggled free of Matt Besler only to fire high and wide. It was costly miss because just seconds later, Pulisic superbly opened the scoring.
Altidore flicked the ball on and the diminutive midfielder expertly skipped clear of Roman Torres before rounding Jaime Penedo and squeezing the ball home. That was just what Arena ordered. The early goal – it was Pulisic’s sixth of this qualifying campaign – to calm nerves on the pitch and in the stands.
Pulisic was already proving the difference and with 19 minutes on the clock, he brilliantly turned provider for Altidore, his excellent, low cross from the left wing easily steered home by the former Sunderland striker. The US were rampant.
Wood almost made the game safe three minutes later only for Penedo to stand tall and keep him out. Pulisic was irrepressible – every time he ran at the Panama defense, they were firmly on the back foot. He was terrorizing them. It was hugely encouraging stuff from Arena’s side, even if their defending at times was of a quality which better teams than Panama will have field days with.
Tim Howard kept out Torres well on the half-hour mark though Hernan Dario Gomez – who said his side could have lost 10-0 – must have been furious on the touchline. All that hope had been extinguished as his side spent the first half chasing shadows. When the lively Wood was clipped in the area just before the break by substitute Armando Cooper, the game was done and dusted. Altidore’s chip down the middle was the coup de grace on an emphatic first-half performance.
Pulisic left the field on 56 minutes to a standing ovation which was utterly deserved before Wood capped his workmanlike performance with a well-taken fourth on 62 minutes.
Question marks remain for Arena. His defence needs shoring up and a deeper squad would be handy if serious waves are to be made on the international stage. Yet this was the night Pulisic arrived. And in some style, too.
This article was written by Steve Brenner in Orlando, for theguardian.com on Saturday 7th October 2017 03.30 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010