Bruce Arena 'not surprised' Christian Pulisic and Clint Dempsey clicked
SAN JOSE, Calif. - U.S. men's national team manager Bruce Arena was full of praise for his side after the Americans thrashed Honduras 6-0 in a World Cup qualifier.
But he singled out hat trick hero Clint Dempsey, who made his return to the national team after missing the end of 2016 with an irregular heartbeat, calling his performance, "exceptional, damn good."
The U.S. was in control from the start, and broke on top through Sebastian Lletget in the fifth minute. The Americans extended their lead to 3-0 before half-time thanks to goals from Michael Bradley and Dempsey. The U.S. then turned the game into a complete runaway in the second half, with Christian Pulisic scoring just 13 seconds in. Dempsey then completed the rout with two superbly taken goals.
"We had a good night," said Arena at his postgame press conference. "Our finishing was exceptional, and some of our attacking play in the first half was great. The start of our second half was fantastic, and after that I thought we were a bit sloppy but I'm not complaining about a six-goal win in World Cup qualifying."
Arena admitted that when he first put the U.S. roster together, he expected that Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood would be his two starting forwards, but Wood was forced off the roster due to a back injury. Jordan Morris suffered an ankle injury as well. It was on Monday that Arena decided that Dempsey would start.
"Why? We didn't have anyone else," he quipped. "It made it easy for me."
But Arena then stated that he had been watching Dempsey closely over the first few weeks of the MLS regular season, and liked what saw.
"It was impressive the way he kept improving," said Arena about Dempsey. "Checking with his fitness coaches there [in Seattle], we knew he could play. Then he plays late Sunday afternoon in Seattle, he comes in late Sunday night here, Monday he does a little bit of training, and he feels good. It was remarkable, and I say, 'He's got to play.'"
Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, and Pulisic linked up well all night, despite Dempsey and Pulisic having never started a national team game together before. Arena said he expected the trio to perform well.
"We've seen Clint do this before," he said. "That's not a surprise, and then there's Jozy's quality and Christian I've kind of seen a little bit of this in the last couple of months. I'm not surprised that they played well together.
"Clint and Jozy know each other pretty well. Christian is just a natural. The game is easy for him. He's got exceptional skill, vision, he's pretty smooth. It was a nice combination of players."
Arena added that it was his intention for the U.S. to be aggressive right from the start, and his lineup, one that included talented, but relatively inexperienced players like Lletget, Darlington Nagbe, and Jorge Villafaña, was a reflection of that.
"Our attitude was we were going to press and get at them as best we can," he said. "Clearly a goal in the opening minutes of the game was big. I thought Honduras came at us a little bit after we scored, and I thought Michael's goal was huge and Clint's was tremendous and likely positioned us for the three points.
"I'm amazed at how we came out in the second half to be honest with you. We told them at half-time that Honduras was going to come out and be all over us, and we wanted to play the opening kickoff at their end of the field. Little did I know it was going to result in a goal."
The only downside to the night was the early exits of Lletget, who was forced to depart with a foot injury in the 18th minute, and John Brooks, who Arena said had been battling a sinus infection. Arena said Lletget's status was unknown at the moment, but he expected Brooks to recover.
"[Brooks] is traveling," said Arena. "Whether he likes it or not, he's traveling."
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.