U.S. attack needs to be more creative, clinical in vital qualifier vs. Panama
ORLANDO, Fla. -- As Bruce Arena settled into his seat for his pregame media conference, he looked out at the assembled horde and quipped: "I guess I can sense from the gathering here that there might be some significance to this game tomorrow."
Indeed there is. Friday night the U.S. will take on Panama in its penultimate World Cup qualifier (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2/WatchESPN) and, while technically it's not a must-win, for all practical purposes, it is.
The Americans trail the Canaleros by one point for the third and final guaranteed qualification spot. A win puts the U.S. in prime position to qualify. Anything less and a fourth-place finish, accompanied by the back door of a playoff against either Syria or Australia, beckons. The thought of missing out on qualification entirely remains the nightmare scenario.
The packed media room wasn't the only sign of the stakes involved. There was Arena's plea earlier this week for local fans to come out and support the team. On Wednesday, ESPN FC's Sam Borden reported that Los Angeles FC manager -- and former Arena assistant -- Bob Bradley has been brought in to provide additional coaching help. Sure enough, there was Bradley, darting through the mixed zone on his way out to the field at Orlando City Stadium as several players spoke with the media.
Prep work has been ratcheted up as well; striker Jozy Altidore indicated that the amount of video the team has watched is the most he has ever had in a camp.
"You pay attention more to details, maybe look at things you didn't look at before, maybe even more the tendencies of Panama, their strengths and weaknesses," Altidore said in an interview with ESPN FC. "Obviously we're very prepared for every game you go into, but with this game, obviously we're looking for any little advantage we can get in terms of how they play, what to expect from them, just to make sure we try to take advantage of the team that they put on the field.
But Altidore also sounded as if, after all the build-up, he was keen for the game to begin.
"I think the coaching staff has done everything they can, up to this point, to prepare us. At a certain point, you can't do anything more. It's on us as players now to be protagonists and make sure that come Friday night the intensity is there. The urgency I think is the biggest thing that needs to be there. Hopefully we can take care of business."
An argument can made as to whether such moves are about Arena being thorough or desperate. Perhaps it's a bit of both. Regardless, that word "urgency" has come up often this week, especially as it relates to the team's attack.
The offense was sluggish -- albeit in different ways -- during the September fixture period. The U.S. had loads of possession in a 2-0 loss to Costa Rica but didn't look all that threatening. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, the team's expected goals mark of 1.26 versus the Ticos was actually less than the 1.39 generated in the 1-1 tie against Honduras, a match in which the U.S. attack looked even more labored as it struggled to keep the ball in admittedly difficult conditions.
Suggestions of how to fix it vary from player to player. Captain Michael Bradley seemed to reject the notion that the offense wasn't dynamic enough, telling reporters on Wednesday that the team was looking at it "in terms of the bigger picture" and being "mobile and aggressive with how we move, with how we play." But Altidore dug in a bit more into the details.
"Be better with the ball, be good with the ball, not lose it in bad places," he said. "And make sure that while we have the ball, we're creating danger, our movement is good, and that we're playing with a tempo that can unbalance them. We have the players to do it, it's just a matter of putting it together. Talk is cheap at the end of the day, especially right now. Come Friday we need to make sure that we apply the things we're talking about."
There is also an acknowledgement that the U.S. team needs to do more than just rely on Christian Pulisic to generate offense. Pulisic, for his part, insisted that he wasn't going to change his approach in the face of persistent fouling, though releasing the ball a bit quicker might aid his game.
For now, the hack-a-Pulisic strategy employed by CONCACAF opponents has yet to be consistently punished by the U.S. side, though he did win the free kick that led to Bobby Wood's equalizer against Honduras. Still, the more contributions the U.S. can get in the attacking third, the more likely it is for Pulisic to find more space and be more effective.
"I think we all need try to create more," Altidore said. "We have the quality. It's a matter of everyone else doing more, whether it's Darlington [Nagbe], me, Bobby [Wood], the guys on the wing, [Alejandro] Bedoya, or [Kellyn] Acosta, or [Paul] Arriola. We all have to try and create more danger and try to bring danger from different places. Absolutely, we have to be more dangerous going forward, more aggressive."
Without question, breaking down Panama will be no easy task. The Canaleros have conceded just five goals in eight games during the Hex; only Mexico has allowed fewer (three). Panama will also be galvanized by the revenge factor after being eliminated by the U.S. four years ago on the last night of qualifying.
But Friday night is really about the U.S. team. It will be at home, in front of what is expected to be an energized Orlando crowd. This is a game in which Arena's men should prevail.
"I think this is why we play and coach in these kinds of games," Arena said. "This is what high-level athletes and coaches are supposed to be about. We're playing in a big game. That means there's going to be big moments and we need to have big performances, and I believe we're prepared to do that."
A big win will have the U.S. breathing a lot easier.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.