Dempsey, Pulisic and Altidore impress; U.S. boosts World Cup qualifying hopes
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- A day before the United States systematically annihilated Honduras 6-0 in Friday's high-stakes World Cup qualifying match, coach Bruce Arena was asked to describe the mood of his squad.
"The mood is we'd like to be playing right now," he responded.
It showed. The hosts were relentless from the opening whistle, taking an early lead on Sebastian Lletget's first international goal and going on to triple their advantage to make the outcome a formality with almost an hour still left to play.
Clint Dempsey, appearing in his first national team game since last June -- an irregular heartbeat sidelined him since then -- scored a hat trick that brought him within two goals of Landon Donovan's all-time record of 57. Christian Pulisic, meanwhile, scored and was involved in three other goals, assisting on Dempsey's first two tallies with inch-perfect passes.
The U.S. played with urgency, passion and cohesion in a showing that was the polar opposite of its last qualifier, a disjointed and alarmingly disinterested-looking display that led to a 4-0 defeat in Costa Rica last November. The result led to the dismissal of Jurgen Klinsmann and the rehiring of Arena, who previously led the national team from 1998 to 2006.
"Since Bruce has come in, he's shown no fear," said captain Michael Bradley, who scored the second goal on a low shot to give the home team some breathing room. "He wants to have a group on the field that is aggressive and presses and attacks and goes for it in an aggressive way. That's certainly something that Bruce has really stressed."
The three points earned were badly needed after the U.S. opened the six-team, 10-game final "Hexagonal" round of regional qualifying with back-to-back defeats. Arena's men still have ground to make up -- only the top three finishers will automatically qualify for Russia 2018 -- but such was the margin of victory against Los Catrachos that the U.S. leapfrogged Trinidad and Tobago and Honduras on goal difference and now sit fourth after starting the day in last place.
The rout was even more impressive considering that starters Fabian Johnson, DeAndre Yedlin and Bobby Wood were missing. Moreover, the chemistry between Dempsey, Pulisic and Jozy Altidore was encouraging. Dempsey and Altidore had combined for 19 goals in 16 starts as a pair heading into this game, but Dempsey and 18-year-old Pulisic had never been in the same lineup. Not that it looked that way.
"Clint's an easy guy to play with," said Pulisic, whom Arena deployed in a central playmaking role similar to the one he's manned recently with Borussia Dortmund. "He's strong, he's technical, he makes good runs and he always gives good support. That's exactly what you need from a forward."
All of those qualities were in evidence when, having been played in behind the Honduran defense by Pulisic's deft chip, Dempsey's first goal came when he rocketed a shot into the top corner with a man draped all over him.
In the second half, Altidore beat his man on the sideline and played a simple pass to Pulisic, whose perfectly weighted through ball to Dempsey allowed the 34-year-old to take a touch around goalkeeper Donis Escober and fire into an empty net.
Dempsey completed his hat trick five minutes later with a free kick that caught Escober cheating to his near post. While that was a moment of individual brilliance, Dempsey was quick to credit his young teammate on his first two.
"Man, he's a great player," Dempsey said of Pulisic. "He can beat people one-on-one on the dribble. It creates mismatches because of that; someone else has to try to step to him, and if you're able to make good runs, he'll find you. It's great to have players like that that can win that battle and kind of break teams open ... he makes players better around him."
If the fluid attacking display and lopsided victory helped restore confidence in the home dressing room, it also built momentum heading into the Americans' next match. The U.S. will train in San Jose on Saturday before flying overnight to Panama, where they play another important qualifier on Tuesday.
"Morale-wise, it helps certainly," Arena said of Friday's win, but that's not to say a repeat of Friday's performance should be expected in Panama City.
"We're not going to get ahead of ourselves," Bradley said. "We feel good about improving our goal difference, which before tonight was obviously not good, but we've got to get ready for another huge game on Tuesday because the reality is we're not playing with house money yet. We have to go there with the mentality that we're taking more points, whether it's one or three."
With Lletget's status uncertain at best after he was substituted with a foot injury shortly after opening the scoring, at least one lineup change could be in store. That could mean a start for Alejandro Bedoya or Jermaine Jones, the latter of whom is available after serving a suspension against Honduras.
Meanwhile, fellow veteran DaMarcus Beasley could possibly spell left-back Jorge Villafana, who made his qualifying debut at Avaya Stadium. By the looks of it, Arena will have more selection headaches down the road when Johnson, Yedlin and Wood return.
"A lot of those guys were pushing for starting spots," Dempsey said. "There's a lot of depth here."
That's a good problem for Arena to have, but it's also one for another day. On Friday he was able to squeeze everything out of this current group -- no small thing given how listless the Americans looked late last year -- and get the Americans' sputtering qualifying campaign on track in the most emphatic fashion.
"We were six points behind [first place] going in; now we're four points, so we're making progress." Arena said. "It's nice to be part of it now."
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.