USA-Panama Takeaways: Americans play to their strengths to win going away

Qualification for the 2018 World Cup regained momentum Friday as the USA cast off the shadows of two lackluster performances in September to thrash Panama, 4-0, at Orlando City Stadium.

The Americans charged out of the gate to push Panama back on its heels yet despite scoring twice in the opening 20 minutes couldn’t then knock the ball around to dictate tempo and drain the energy out of their opponents. Instead, Panama swept forward numerous times through the middle third of the field to find shooting opportunities.

Another masterclass performance by Christian Pulisic earned him a goal and an assist as well as several punishing hits. Forwards Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood marked solid performances by sharing the other three goals, and keeper Tim Howardand his defensive mates did enough to post a somewhat shaky shutout.

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.

13 comments about "USA-Panama Takeaways: Americans play to their strengths to win going away".
  1. Wooden Ships, October 7, 2017 at 8:35 a.m.

    Even though CP needs to recognize what happens when you hang on to the ball a couple more touches than necessary, I'm disappointed that his teammates seem slow, dare I say reluctant, to quickly object. Very glad for the win and hopeful that some on the team can rid themselves of their inconsistent play from one match to the next. It shouldn't be necessary for a Lalas and Balboa, et al opinion to help motivate at this level. At this time in our nations soccer history it sounds disingenuous to have to hear, "when are backs are against it we rise to the occasion." Could we have seen a different game/result if Panama hadn't had a horrid tactical approach? Again, damn happy for the result, so now lets see another "we deserve to go" performance Tuesday.

  2. Mark Grody, October 7, 2017 at 12:48 p.m.

    The 1st thing I remember seeing Harkes do to help the MNT, was to put opponents on notice with a HARD professional foul in yet another game we were being knocked around in. Add savvy support behind him in Balboa, & we were no longer neophytes getting pushed around on the field. Jones was a little out of control with fouls & positioning, but some steel is necessary. 

  3. Daniel Clifton, October 7, 2017 at 1:28 p.m.

    I realize a number of the guys on the field faced second yellow cards and disqualification for T and T, but these guys have got to help protect Pulisic.  I knew this was coming once it became clear how good he is.  Let the fouling begin.  His teammates have got to get on the refs and quite frankly foul the foulers.  Let them get a taste of their own medicine.  Then things will change.  As it is now I am concerned about Pulisic getting injured like Lleget did.

  4. Ben Myers, October 7, 2017 at 1:32 p.m.

    The USMNT direct style is almost a necessity because the team does not pass that well and it does not have anyone on the pitch who distributes well with killer through passes.  So, here we go again, over the top.  They will most likely qualify for Russia, but, once there, it will be a difficult slog.

  5. Wooden Ships replied, October 7, 2017 at 2 p.m.

    Last night could have had the countries best passer of the ball, with Feilhaber. Cameron for Bradley. CP, while an amazing player, shouldn't have to be shouldering the attack, solely. The team needs to have a proven distributor centrally. Looks like we will qualify, but remember this is CONCACAF. As we are playing, with this core group from the last couple years, we would have to have a weak group to get to knockout. My opinion.

  6. stewart hayes, October 7, 2017 at 1:37 p.m.

    We were good to take advantage of a dreadful Panama.  

  7. Charles Stamos, October 7, 2017 at 1:37 p.m.

    The ref was the problem, not the USA teamates. While you can be more vocal, you can't intentially take a yellow, which an overreactive ref could decide is a red, esp those with a yellow from a previous game. Also, few of the fouls on Pulisic resulted in a stoppage as he was adept to get off a good pass before the foul, hence advantage - then at the next stoppage a yellow should be displayed! I'm glad the US players kept their cool and all are available for the critical hex final game. I'm sick that Pulisic is banged up and bruised, again the ref is to blame.

  8. R2 Dad replied, October 7, 2017 at 2:07 p.m.

    That mexican ref wasn't different from any other CONCACAF ref. What's really needed is post-match punishment for players based on video evidence--the do this in UEFA.  Watch how the Panama player punches CP--that's not soccer, that's not physical play, that just cheating and hacking because the officials allow it and it won't get better until FIFA steps in:

  9. Wooden Ships replied, October 7, 2017 at 2:08 p.m.

    Agree with you Charles about the referee, but disagree with you about the players. The only player we can ill afford to lose on Tuesday is CP and perhaps Yedlin. Either way, its not complicated (or at least it didn't use to be) to protect one of your own, come to his aid, find those moments during the run of play for message sending. 

  10. Wooden Ships replied, October 7, 2017 at 2:11 p.m.

    I'll go along with that R2 and also fine the Federation. 

  11. Bob Ashpole replied, October 7, 2017 at 5:30 p.m.

    Don't forget the elbow strike to Besler's face which the referee apparently thought was "accidental" until it happened the second time. 

  12. Bob Ashpole, October 7, 2017 at 5:33 p.m.

    Regarding the first point of the article, I considered this a 433 until Dax replaced Pulisic. The key for me is that Pulisic defended with the forwards rather than beside Bradely. 

  13. Craig Cummings, October 7, 2017 at 9:23 p.m.

    I agree with both Mark and W S. One from the past and one for the future.

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