For the second time in a year, the U.S. men’s national team found itself facing a not-technically-must-win-but-pretty-much-must-win game to keep its hopes of qualifying for its eighth straight World Cup alive.
The mood was grim. The team was dead last in the final round of CONCACAF qualifying, limping into Friday’s match against Honduras without injured starters DeAndre Yedlin, Bobby Wood, and Fabian Johnson. The U.S. was also breaking in a new (old) coach tasked with rousing a team that had four months to stew in the collective ignominy of November, when tactical miscalculations and ill-considered motivational ploys from a home loss against Mexico gave way to cascading individual errors in an embarrassing 4–0 away defeat to Costa Rica. Whatever optimism that remained among American fans was based on a belief that the team’s supposedly better-than-the-continental-competition talent would ultimately prevail.
The United States’ 6–0 destruction of a talented but struggling Honduras squad was about as thorough of a rejection of that doom and gloom as possible, an unequivocal reassurance that the book had been closed on the Jürgen Klinsmann era. So much enthusiasm came surging back so fast that you’d be forgiven for thinking the U.S. was now the World Cup favorite.
In Bruce Arena’s first competitive match as U.S. manager since 2006, his team played at a level it never achieved under Klinsmann. Arena is always quick to downplay his own tactical savvy, but the consensus was this U.S. team displayed more purpose and clarity in individual roles, and in how those individuals coalesced into a teamwide sense of purpose. Simply put, the players seemed to know what they were doing. Klinsmann’s teams toggled between sitting deep on defense and trying to keep possession of the ball on offense, because he was perhaps the last coach in the world to realize that possession is a defensive weapon rather than an offensive one. What his teams lacked was penetration, the ability to get the ball consistently into dangerous spots with targets who could take advantage of those opportunities. At times, the offensive game plan seemed to be to give Clint Dempsey the ball and let him figure it out. Without that option in Costa Rica in November, the U.S. managed just a single shot on target.
The U.S. still fed Dempsey with regularity on Friday. It’s not a bad plan. The 34-year-old, playing his first international match after being diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat in August, tallied a hat trick that brought him within two of Landon Donovan’s all-time U.S. scoring record. But Arena also cajoled a huge number of Dempsey’s teammates into becoming the best possible versions of themselves. There was Jozy Altidore receiving the ball with his back to goal and channeling his inner Bill Walton as he picked out runners, Darlington Nagbe escaping pressure as one might solve a chess problem then slaloming across the field to scramble the defense, and Christian Pulisic—still only 18—seeing and raising fans’ insanely high expectations.
Pulisic scored once, played two audacious and well-taken assists, hit the shot that was parried into the path of Sebastian Lletget for another goal, and drew the foul that let Clint Dempsey complete his hat trick with a free-kick goal. The only one of the six goals he didn’t play a part in was Michael Bradley’s long-range rocket, which no one played a part in because Bradley had an entire stadium’s worth of space to himself when he dribbled a diagonal across the field then hit his shot into the lower-right corner.
The fear in the hour between the announcement of the lineup and kickoff was that it would be too much, too soon to throw Pulisic into the center with the keys to the entire U.S. offense. Even if he has been playing centrally more often with Borussia Dortmund, the German club’s roster is filled with quick, technical, creative players that could help relieve some of the playmaking burden. Would Pulisic be ready to shoulder more of that burden, meshing his game with the creative-in-a-different-way Dempsey, Altidore, and Bradley?
The early returns on Friday weren’t great; Pulisic had some bad turnovers before he settled in and lorded over the game. But Arena apparently never doubted that the 18-year-old could lead the U.S. national team. His initial roster for the games against Honduras and Panama featured neither Sacha Kljestan nor Benny Feilhaber, the pair of veteran attacking midfielders who spent most (in Kljestan’s case) and all (in Feilhaber’s) of Klinsmann’s tenure frozen out. (Kljestan did end up joining the squad as an injury replacement for Wood.)
Arena’s roster favored defenders, runners, and savvy veterans. It was a team constructed to grind its opponents into submission. For some, this was a good thing. For others, it was too pragmatic. If anything, that’s what Klinsmann was—a manager who valued the point that came from a draw more than the additional two that came with a win.
Arena, though, took that roster and constructed a lineup that was as aggressive as logic and good sense allowed. It was a move that caught Honduras off guard. Like every other opponent the U.S. has played for the past two years, Honduras started the game determined to press Michael Bradley at every opportunity, seeking to cut off the supply to the attacking players. Since moving to a deep-lying role, Bradley has always served as a safety valve for the U.S., and sometimes his teammates exploited that a little too readily, overloading him with passes that put him under immediate duress.
Klinsmann’s solution was to put more defensive cover around Bradley to help clean up his mistakes. On Friday, Arena made sure the U.S. had more options to transition from defense to attack. Hound the U.S. captain too aggressively and you’d have Nagbe bursting into space with the ball at his feet or the 6-foot-3 Geoff Cameron pushing up to serve as a target right back against an overmatched winger. Combine this improved transition game with an in-form offense, and Honduras had no choice but to ease off. Bradley played just a single errant pass after the 18th minute.
It won’t always be this easy. Honduras was not good on Friday, failing to take advantage of some opportunities gifted to them by poor defensive rotation. The U.S. is still in fourth in the final round of CONCACAF qualifying, and if they end up in that same position, they’d be forced to travel halfway around the world to face an Asian hopeful in a playoff to make the World Cup. And it’s unlikely the team will find its away fixture against Panama on Tuesday night as welcoming, especially without starting central defender John Brooks, who was sent home after having to be subbed off on Friday.
Still, even if the U.S. won’t hit those heights every game—no team could—the benchmark set against Honduras will be one for the team to aspire to for the rest of Arena’s tenure. That includes, if the U.S. national team can keep even a portion of this up, the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Friday showed that the talent is there. Now the U.S. has a manager who knows what to do with it.