Bruce Arena’s big gamble paid off. The coach of the U.S. men’s national soccer team started five attackers in Friday’s must-win game against Panama, asking Panama coach Hernán Darío Gómez to witness the firepower of this fully armed and operational battle station. That this left the Americans’ rickety defense protected by a single shield was a calculated risk, one that paid off in a 4–0 obliteration of Panama that has the U.S. back on track to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Arena dared his opponent to overload Michael Bradley in front of the U.S. back line, then hit Panama in the gaps that their forward momentum (and curiously high defensive line) left behind.
The U.S. had scored only once in the previous 180 minutes of qualifying. On Friday, each of the American front three of Christian Pulisic, Jozy Altidore, and Bobby Wood scored a goal, and all three also either assisted or drew a penalty on the night. The biggest difference between Friday night and the dismal offensive showings against Costa Rica and Honduras in September? Arena started Pulisic high and central instead of on the midfield periphery, making it easier for him to combine with Wood and Altidore. Safe to say the U.S. will do everything it can to keep him there in the future.
Pulisic, you might have heard, is a generational talent, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t need help. (Ask Lionel Messi, whose Argentina team is in serious jeopardy of missing the World Cup.) His opening goal was brilliant—the way he stopped his run on one leg to reach back and corral the ball on the other, then instantly reached top speed again is the definition of “you can’t teach that.” But it doesn’t happen without Wood, who won Tim Howard’s long goal kick in the air, and Altidore, whose one-touch flick bypassed one Panamanian center back and left the other lost in no man’s land.
No one benefited more from having Pulisic in the thick of things than Altidore, he of the two goals and one assist on the night. In many ways the 19-year-old Pulisic is Altidore’s most natural partner on the roster, certainly the closest thing the U.S. has to his club running mate Giovinco. Pulisic gives Altidore a creative passer and a dynamic runner who can scramble defenses and open up space in the final third so he doesn’t have to play the entire game with a center back kicking his ankles. Altidore, in return, gives Pulisic someone to engage defenders and collaborate with on those quick one-twos that give him some freedom from the scything tackles the entire world will be aiming at him for the rest of his national team career. Some of their interplay Friday looked like the soccer equivalent of the pick and roll.
That makes Wood … Manu Ginóbili? Shawn Marion? Thunder-era James Harden? He looked essential Friday night and has shown a penchant for clutch goals, but this is the kind of thing he’s competing with right now:
This matters, because going forward the U.S. is unlikely to get away with throwing caution so wantonly to the wind. Teams better than Panama will take advantage of an undermanned defense, so how do you bolster that area of the field and keep playing what amounts to three forwards on the other end? A three-man defense? A narrower diamond? If you give Pulisic more defensive responsibility, how will that dull his attacking prowess? Which of Paul Arriola and Darlington Nagbe is more essential to the U.S. game plan? (On Friday night it was Arriola, but will that be true every night?) Are we sure Wood can’t play out wide? We’re probably not going to outgun Germany, so who sits if one of those three has to sit? (Hint: It won’t be Pulisic.) Where does Clint Dempsey fit in all this?
The U.S. is not out of the qualifying woods yet, but a win or draw at last-place Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday will almost certainly ensure the national team finishes third and goes directly to the World Cup without having to deal with a home-and-home playoff against the fifth-placed Asian team. Arena might get away with pressing his luck and fielding another offensive-minded team in the Caribbean, but if the U.S. qualifies as expected he’s eventually going to have to fine-tune the balance on his squad. What he gives up, and what he gets back in return, will determine how far the United States will go next summer in Russia.