Before Friday’s game against Honduras, I wondered whether the U.S. national team would bring joy to its fans, especially after seeing the sign at the entrance of Avaya Stadium announcing a $30 fee to park in the mud, added to that $86 ticket you bought if you didn’t shell out for the more expensive seats.
That’s a lot to pay to watch a team not expected to entertain, based on the performances of the last few years.
Of course, on Friday, there was a degree of guaranteed drama, because this game would have a major impact on the USA’s chances of reaching the 2018 World Cup, after opening the final round with two losses, to Mexico and Costa Rica, before Bruce Arena replaced Jurgen Klinsmann as coach.
Would Arena’s team be fun to watch? Would it play attacking soccer, aiming to conquer not just grind out a win? Would the fans leave in a good mood, not just because of a positive result, but because the soccer entertained?
My hopes increased when the U.S. lineup was announced, with a front five of these guys -- Sebastian Lletget, Christian Pulisic, Darlington Nagbe, Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore. Five attackers.
• Dempsey and Altidore, veterans with a combined 89 goals for the USA under their belts.
• Pulisic, the 18-year-old whose exploits at Borussia Dortmund represent the most exciting rise of a young American since we watched Landon Donovan lead the San Jose Earthquakes to the 2001 MLS Cup title at age 19 -- while Arena was integrating Donovan into the national team during Arena’s first stint at the U.S. helm.
• Nagbe, the super skillful, swift dribbler, who finally got USA starts under Arena after Klinsmann used him only as a sub.
• And the 24-year-old Lletget, a teen prodigy who languished in England after he left California at age 17 -- but reemerged with the Galaxy under Arena.
Another welcome addition to the USA starting lineup, a player who debuted under Arena this winter, was Jorge Villafana. His appearance in a Santos game the previous weekend was his first Liga MX game in nearly half a year, but Arena saw the value in adding to the backline a defender with exceptional balls skills.
Soon after the kickoff, another hopeful sign. Villafana and right back Geoff Cameron, the 6-foot-3 defender whom one doesn’t expect to see helping with possession play in the opponent’s half, pushed down field whenever the USA got the ball. A smart tactic, as Honduras lined up with a single forward, so there wasn’t much danger in moving backs forward -- and the Catrachos were immediately overwhelmed.
The first goal came in the fifth minute, when Lletget buried a rebound of Pulisic’s shot after Altidore fed Pulisic. Michael Bradley played the deepest, most defensive role in the U.S. midfield, but he scored the second goal.
Pulisic assisted on Dempsey’s second, and Pulisic drew the foul for the free kick that completed the Dempsey hat trick. Pulisic scored his goal 14 seconds into the second half, receiving a pass from Altidore, who got the ball from Dempsey.
Altidore has at times struggled by being stranded alone up top. On Friday, he had partners in Dempsey and Pulisic, creating an attacking trio that dizzied the Honduran defenders.
Since the Hexagonal format for final round Concacaf qualifying was adopted for the 1998 World Cup, no team has celebrated a bigger win.
Arena had taken the USA into a crucial, high-pressure game, and his team responded with one of the best performances in national team history.
The players came from the same pool available to his predecessor.
The only players who had not played for Klinsmann were Lletget and Villafana. The 27-year-old Villafana played solid defense and connected 36 of his 39 passes, according to InStatFootball.com. Nagbe didn’t figure in the goals, but he ignited some counterattacks and completed 37 of his 38 passes, often connecting the backline to the forwards.
Such precise passing enabled to keep the ball after winning it, while the USA responded to Honduras’ five-player backline by moving more players into the attack.
Indeed, it looked like Arena gave his players an all-out attacking game plan and instilled in them the confidence to execute it. And that’s entertainment.