Here are three takeaways from an impressive victory that nonetheless contained a few disquieting elements.
1. The 4-4-2 formation works … sort of.
Arena, mindful that Panama didn’t present the attacking potency nor defensive resilience of Costa Rica and Mexico, went with forwards Bobby Wood and Jozy Altidore and also slotted Christian Pulisic in behind them with only Michael Bradley as cover.
Despite some success attained earlier in the Hexagonal playing a three-man back line against Mexico and Honduras that triggered speculation by some observers he go away from the 4-4-2 formation, Arena played with a back four screened by Bradley. At times, it looked more like a 4-3-3 with Pulisic drifting wide left to set up a goal for Altidore as well as knifing through the middle to put away the first one himself.
The attacking three – supported on the flanks by Darlington Nagbe and Paul Arriola -- ran between and behind the Panama back line, for which veteran and captain Felipe Baloy was especially shaky, to strike twice within the 20 minutes.
The Americans generated chances throughout the game but not until late really snuffed out the Panamanian attacks. In the last two qualifiers against Costa Rica and Honduras, individual errors resulted in the U.S. conceding three goals; on Friday, trailing, 2-0, Panama found large spaces in the attacking third as their midfielders got in behind Nagbe and Arriola to pull Bradley out of position.
A desperation tackle by DeAndre Yedlin on Alberto Quintero and fine save by Howard on Gabriel Torres midway through the first half kept Panama scoreless, but its forays forward exposed the U.S. defensive deficiencies with five attacking players and only Bradley anchoring the middle. Early in the second half Arena brought on Dax McCarty to shore up the middle third alongside Bradley and get Pulisic, who had already been hammered to the ground several times, out of harm’s way.
Before the three points were secured Panama had done more than enough to confirm the feeling that if the Americans are to use the 4-4-2 going forward there will have to be defensive tweaks of roles and/or personnel.
2. Main questions about Pulisic are not of position but of protection.
For the third straight game, Pulisic took several severe hits from tackles coming in too late or simple professional shots with the ball many yards away. He’d been physically and psychologically knocked off stride by Costa Rica and Honduras but unlike in those games he and his teammates converted early chances that were exploited.
That didn’t stop the punishment but Pulisic kept going at the Panamanians to maintain the pressure. He left the game early in the second half with the U.S. leading, 3-0, and was shown by TV cameras after the game walking gingerly up a ramp to the U.S. locker room.
Protection for gifted players from Concacaf referees is, in many cases, wishful thinking. No one from the U.S.
team took up the teenager’s cause to dish out a retaliatory foul and though Jermaine Jones is possibly out of the national-team picture forever, it’s hard to imagine the game
unfolding as it did if an enforcer like him had been on the field.
Several U.S. players came into the game carrying a caution and thus didn’t want to risk committing the type of foul that could prompt a caution and suspension for the Trinidad & Tobago match on Tuesday, but the issue of how to limit the damage inflicted on the young American star is not going away.
He’s the second coming of Landon Donovan -- whose blend of energy, creativity and finishing helped transform the national team 16 years ago – and likely destined to be much better. What he probably needs to develop is a bit of Clint Dempsey, adept and always willing to dish out punishment – legally if possible – before he receives it. Playing Texas summers in a rough-and-tumble Hispanic league taught Dempsey, in his words, “to take care of yourself,” and a targeted player like Pulisic needs some of that orneriness as well
3. Nothing wrong with the right kind of direct play.
The Americans were unable to dictate tempo for much of the game through possession despite grabbing three first-half goals, but direct play -- often derided by critics as too predictable and preventable – produced those goals in the first place.
A long goal kick by Howard was headed by Wood to Altidore, whose flick caught Pulisic in stride and sent him clear to ride a desperate attempted tackle by Ramon Torres and touch the ball past Penedo to slot home from a tight angle. Nagbe triggered the second scoring sequence with an early ball up the flank that Pulisic took past right back Michael Murilllo to hit a low centering pass Altidore tapped into the net.
By driving at defenders on and off the dribble, Wood unhinged the Panamanian back four repeatedly. Big saves by Penedo denied Wood and Altidore on breakthroughs before Wood skipped past Baloy and was yanked back by substitute Armando Cooper. Altidore bagged the third goal with a classic Panenka penalty kick as Penedo dove to his left.
Wood showed his skillful side to score the fourth goal by collecting a nice cross from Arriola – whose bustling work and constant pressure added to the benefits of direct play -- and twisted clear to shoot low inside the far post.
When he took over from Jurgen Klinsmann 11 months ago, one of Arena’s stated aims was to get the team to regain confidence in its strong points. It has many attackers who relish direct play, and one of his main tasks leading up to the World Cup will be developing methods to unleash those players.