Coming out of the first round of World Cup qualifiers in the Hexagonal, the U.S. Men’s National Team’s (USMNT) hopes of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia were on life support, to be generous. A home defeat by archrival Mexico and an embarrassing road shellacking by Costa Rica left the USMNT four points behind the automatic qualifying places. Changes had to be made and manager Jürgen Klinsmann’s head was the one to roll.
Post-Klinsmann, the team needed a steadying presence: enter Bruce Arena, the definition of a U.S. Soccer legend. If there was a USMNT Mount Rushmore, Arena would at the very least be the architect, if not claiming a spot for himself. The winningest coach in U.S. Men’s history, Arena managed the team previously from 1998 to 2006 and steered the Yanks to their best World Cup finish in the modern era, reaching the quarterfinals in 2002. A safe, if somewhat predictable, choice, Arena turned out to be just what the U.S. needed going into a pivotal set of qualifiers against Honduras and Panama.
Going into the Honduras match in San Jose on March 24, Arena and his men knew that anything less than a victory and three points on home soil would be a colossal failure. A strong critique of Arena in his first stint with the U.S. was that he tended to field an overly cautious and defensive team; it seems he learned from his mistakes. The U.S. team against Honduras was strong in the midfield and eager to get the jump on a compact and well-organized Honduran side playing five in defense. The talismanic Clint Dempsey started up top as a second striker behind Jozy Altidore; 18-year old wunderkind Christian Pulisic, last seen scoring in the Champions League for Dortmund, formed the point of a midfield diamond, allowing Michael Bradley to control play from his preferred deep-lying central midfield role.
The U.S. stormed out of the gate and blew the doors off the Hondurans from the opening whistle, scoring in the fifth minute after strong build-up play put Pulisic alone on goal and led to Sebastian Lletget’s first USMNT goal. After a bit of a lull in the game, the U.S. poured it on, with Bradley scoring from deep in the 27th minute and Dempsey finishing off a world-class chip from Pulisic with a Honduran defender draped all over him with a rocket of a finish. Coming out of the break up 3-0, the Yanks put Honduras to the sword in the second half, as Pulisic added a goal of his own and assisted Dempsey for his second, before Dempsey capped his hat trick with an inch-perfect free kick for a 6-0 final.
The story of the game was simplicity. Arena’s tactics were a breath of fresh air for the U.S., stripping down the game plan and allowing the skill players to excel in their best roles. While Altidore didn’t get on the scoresheet, he played perhaps his best game in a U.S. shirt, with exceptional holdup and linking play as often the lone striker when Dempsey dropped into midfield to interplay with Pulisic. Finally playing deep and freed of the lofty responsibility too often placed on him under Klinsmann, Bradley excelled without having to do much except disrupt the Honduran attack.
And then there was Christian Pulisic. While Dempsey and his hat trick stole most of the headlines (and deservedly so), returning to the national team when his career looked to be in jeopardy after being sidelined for club and country with an irregular heartbeat, Pulisic was the creative engine of the team. The 18-year old didn’t look out of place playing against a physical Honduran side, pulling strings and playing balls leading to his involvement in five of the U.S.’s six goals. The numerous comparisons made between him and Landon Donovan now seem unfair to Pulisic, as he’s already risen well above Donovan’s level at 18 with no signs of stopping.
The following game against Panama on Tuesday in Panama City was a very typical CONCACAF affair, involving an awful pitch, hostile fans and a physically imposing Panamanian team. Thanks to a moment of individual brilliance from Pulisic again, fighting through the formidable Roman Torres and Felipe Baloy to square for Dempsey to coolly finish, the U.S. left with a 1-1 draw. While not the most glamorous of matches, the Yanks showed fortitude and mental toughness to scrap a vital road point in a tough environment, leaving the team with four points from four matches in the Hex and in much better position to qualify for Russia.
The two matches weren’t without their share of issues for the U.S., however. Arena’s decision to play Jermaine Jones against Panama was a bit puzzling, given his lack of fitness and recent playing time. The Jones-Bradley partnership in central midfield looked overmatched too often, a far cry from the Honduras game, where the U.S. dominated the midfield. Jones’s days for the U.S. should be numbered, especially with the breakout of Dallas’s Kellyn Acosta who can play across the midfield or alongside Bradley if Arena wants to play two deep midfielders. Fullback remains an issue for the U.S. as well, with Graham Zusi having to step into an unnatural position at right back due to injuries, leaving back options rather thin.
Going into the next round of qualifying in June, the USMNT look revitalized under Bruce Arena, as much as it may pain me to say it. I wasn’t completely sold on Bruce 2.0 at the helm, but he’s won my—and many other supporters’—confidence. For the first time in a while, the U.S. looked to have a definitive plan going into a set of matches and took care of business. With Pulisic continuing his meteoric rise and the ageless Dempsey still banging in goals, there’s much to be optimistic about in the near future of the USMNT.