ORLANDO – U.S. men’s national team manager Bruce Arena was full of praise for his side after it thrashed Panama 4-0 in a World Cup qualifier, in particular his attacking trio of Christian Pulisic, Jozy Altidore, and Bobby Wood.
Pulisic and Altidore both scored inside of the first 20 minutes, Altidore added a penalty just before halftime, and Wood completed the scoring with a tally midway through the second half.
“Bobby Wood and Jozy [Altidore] were a handful for their center-backs, and certainly Christian [Pulisic] was as well,” said Arena. “Some of our counter-attacks were great. [Pulisic’s] first goal was a terrific finish. I think all three of those guys played well up top. Jozy had two goals, Bobby one and Christian one. You can’t do better than that.”
The win counted as something of a relief for the U.S., which vaulted over Panama into third place in the final round of World Cup qualifying. Better yet, it puts the U.S. firmly in control of its own destiny ahead of Tuesday’s road encounter against Trinidad & Tobago.
“We’re doing well,” said Arena. “I know everyone thought we were going to qualify in six games in 2017. It doesn’t happen that way. I think we’re moving along well, we’ve advanced from sixth to third, we’re positioned well with goal differential, and now we have to finish it off on Tuesday in Trinidad.”
The U.S. came out with an aggressive posture, both in terms of personnel and its approach in attacking the visitors. Arena positioned Pulisic in a central attacking role closer to Wood and Altidore, while using the pace and athleticism of Paul Arriola and Darlington Nagbe to provide further support.
“We wanted quickness on the field, and [Arriola] and [Nagbe], combined with the other three were able to pressure up the field, we were able to get out on the break,” said Arena. “So our quickness and speed tonight was a factor.”
Arena added that the formation was a “gamble” in that it left Michael Bradley to do the bulk of defensive work in midfield, but ” we wanted to push five players forward in the attack as aggressively as we could. The way Panama plays we could afford to do that.”
Pulisic has been the target of frequent fouling from opponents, and this match was no different. He was fouled three times and was on the receiving end of some additional physical contact off the ball.
In a bid to save Pulisic for Tuesday’s match, Arena subbed him out in the 57th minute and put on Dax McCarty.
“I think he’s going to be okay,” said Arena about Pulisic. “He was kicked a few times. He’s been getting beat up in these games in CONCACAF. That’s the way it is. It doesn’t look like anything is going to change.
“He took a few shots, and we thought it was smart to get him off the field. We felt confident that we could walk off with three points tonight. He got a few kicks.”
Arena disputed the notion however,that Pulisic is a player the U.S. will be built around.
“I’ve never built a team around one player,” said Arena. “I know [Pulisic] is an exceptional player and he stands out, but we don’t’ build a team around Christian. He’s a good player. For Christian to be more effective, he needs to have good players around him. The better collection of players we have around Christian, he’s just going to be a better player.”
Despite his coach’s comments, Altidore couldn’t help but heap praise on Pulisic after the match, while admitting he didn’t want to put too much pressure on the young star.
“He was able to just disrupt them in so many ways, and you saw the difference he can make in the middle of the park, being able to go each way and just being so dynamic,” Altidore said. “I hate to kind of pour too much praise on him. I know he’s a young kid.
“He’s got a lot of work to do. But you can’t help not see the difference he makes when he’s on the field, especially when he’s in the middle of everything.”
U.S. captain Bradley was thrilled with how the team hit Panama right from the opening whistle, but said there is still work to do in Trinidad.
“On a night where so much was on line, maybe everything, we played in a way from the get-go that gave no doubt as to who was going to win the game,” Bradley said.
“The job isn’t quite done yet. We’ve got to enjoy this, use it for confidence and spirit and make sure that come Tuesday we’re ready to finish the job.”
The challenge for Arena now is to prepare for Tuesday’s game against T&T.
“We have to be smart,” he said. “We have to watch Trinidad tonight — they’ve made some changes in their roster — but prepare like they’re a team that’s going to play to beat us. We have to respect our opponent.
“We have to have the right players on the field, understand the conditions. We did a remarkable in both Honduras and Panama in getting results there. So we understand how difficult the conditions are.
“I think in Game 10, when you’re playing a team that is eliminated, they can play relaxed, they can play very aggressive, they can care less if they have a player who is sent off and all those things.
“I suspect they’re just going to be a handful because they have nothing to lose.”
Information from the Associated Press was used in this story.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.