Christian Pulisic finally gets some help as U.S. teammates step up vs. Panama
ORLANDO, Fla. -- The debate has raged for much of this calendar year. Where do you play Christian Pulisic?
The 19-year-old usually plays out wide for his club, Borussia Dortmund, though the particular wing he plays on changes every so often. U.S. manager Bruce Arena has alternated Pulisic between wide and more central positions, but the discussion has tended to obscure an even larger truth about this U.S. team: If the players around Pulisic don't play well, it doesn't really matter where he lines up. He'll be smothered, kicked and largely shut down.
So on a night when Pulisic was reinserted into a central role in the U.S. attack and excelled, it was the collective contribution from players not named Christian Pulisic that proved to be a huge difference in the 4-0 victory over Panama on Friday night.
"We played in a way from the get-go that left no doubt as to who was going to win the game," U.S. captain Michael Bradley said. "Across the board we had guys ready for a big game, and come through in a huge way."
Without question, Pulisic reveled in his newfound (or was it regained?) freedom, drifting up field in a bid to provide closer support to forwards Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood. It allowed him to find pockets of space and when the U.S. lost the ball, he was intent on attacking as quickly as possible before Panama could get sufficient numbers back.
Pulisic pushed forward even when the U.S. didn't have the ball, relying on Darlington Nagbe, Paul Arriola and even Altidore at times to put in more of the defensive dirty work. It's what allowed Pulisic to score one goal, assist for another and run at the Panama defense countless other times that led to plenty of near-misses.
"I think with Christian playing in the hole like that, he's able to just sniff stuff out, and I thought he was the difference, between playing him in the middle and on the wing," Altidore said. "He was able to 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. I thought that was a big plus for us."
But instead of waiting for Pulisic to carry the load in the "save us Christian" offense, his teammates were right there with him, taking the initiative. Wood and Altidore were dynamic in their movement and precise with their touches. Or at least precise enough, as evidenced by Altidore's layoff to Pulisic for the Americans' opener, one in which Pulisic had to reach back and touch the ball into open space and before rounding Panama keeper Jaime Penedo and scoring into an empty net.
"We needed a lot of movement against a physical Panama team that was going to sit in and not make it easy for us," Pulisic said. "Our movement was good today. I was able to play off [Wood and Altidore]. They had some great layoffs to me and think the spacing was pretty good for most of the night."
Wood and Altidore got on the scoresheet as well, with Altidore scoring twice before half-time -- including a deft, Panenka-style penalty -- and Wood scoring the Americans' lone goal in the second half. It amounted to a complete performance from both players.
That was by no means the extent of the attacking help supplied to Pulisic. Nagbe and Arriola excelled on the wings, albeit in different ways: Nagbe served as the crafty playmaker, while Arriola used his speed to offer a more classic wing presence. It seemed that whenever the U.S. engaged the hyper-drive in its transition game, Arriola was joining the attack to provide another passing option for Pulisic, or whomever else was manning the controls on a particular counter-attack. And it was Nagbe who at times provided the pressure-breaking pass, like the ball he played into space for Pulisic in the run-up to Altidore's 19th minute goal.
"We were dynamic; we could play on either side tonight, and I think that makes it tough on defenses," Altidore said.
That mobility was an aspect with which the Canaleros simply couldn't cope, leaving Panama manager Hernan Dario Gomez playing tactical catch-up. He subbed out Edgar Barcenas after 26 minutes and changed his formation to put more pressure on Bradley. While Panama did threaten a few more times thereafter, it proved unable to do anything to slow down the U.S. offense, which continued to find opportunities on the break.
The irony is that this was a night when the U.S. didn't finish all that well.
"We could have scored a lot more goals," Arena noted.
Wood and Arriola in particular had opportunities to pad the U.S. lead but such was the dominance displayed, both individually and collectively, that it didn't matter. Even though the Americans had some shaky moments early on in defense, it recovered to deliver a better second half.
Credit is due to Arena as well. He took some deserved heat for his decisions during the September fixture period. But on this night, he sensed a weakness in Panama's defense and set his team out with a tactical plan that used their speed advantage.
"In all my years with the national team, I don't think I've ever been this prepared," Altidore said. "Since the guys landed on Sunday, the coaching staff were showing video, pulling guys aside, making sure we were prepared for this game. They made us aware how important this game was to everybody. At the end of the day, the players have to go out and do it but I thought we were very well prepared today.
So Arena will be keeping Pulisic central for the foreseeable future, right? If only it were that simple.
Arena may very well keep the same formation against Trinidad & Tobago. But against more potent teams -- like the kind the U.S. will encounter at the World Cup, assuming they qualify -- the single holding midfielder setup will likely come under more pressure.
This is not intended as a knock on Bradley, rather an acknowledgement that one less defensive domino needs to fall in order for teams to get a chance at goal. Even a team like Trinidad & Tobago, who the U.S. will face on Tuesday, stretched the U.S. defense to the breaking point in their World Cup qualifier last June. Right now that appears to be a tradeoff Arena is willing to make.
"Yes, it was [a gamble]. We wanted to push five players forward in the attack as aggressively as we could," Arena said. "The way Panama plays we could afford to do that."
That won't always be the case, but that is a concern for another day. The U.S. team's World Cup qualifying campaign is back on track, the swagger has returned and while Pulisic's play remains a source of confidence, this time so were the performances of everyone else on the field.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.