Bruce Arena says 'exceptional talent' Christian Pulisic still improving
COMMERCE CITY, Colorado - U.S. manager Bruce Arena credited his side with playing "a solid 90 minutes" in its 2-0 World Cup qualifying defeat of Trinidad & Tobago, while hailing the influence of "exceptional talent" Christian Pulisic.
Pulisic scored a second half brace to lead the U.S., which wore down the Soca Warriors in a match played at an altitude of over 5,000 feet. The result saw the U.S. leap over Panama -- who drew 0-0 away to 10-man Costa Rica -- and into third place in the Hex with seven points at the competition's halfway mark.
"These games are tough," said Arena. "And to walk away with three points and two goals, we've started off 2017 in pretty good shape. I'm pleased at this point."
The win means the U.S. can now head into Sunday's match against Mexico with some confidence, as it attempts to win its first-ever World Cup qualifier at the Estadio Azteca.
"I think because we got three points tonight, I think we can go there a little bit relaxed and try to have a good tactical approach to the game and try to come out of there with at least a point," said Arena.
The U.S. created plenty of chances in the first half, but could also count itself fortunate not to trail at half-time after T&T's Kenwyne Jones saw his 33rd minute header carom off the crossbar. It was a display that Arena said left him "frustrated."
"We had to play with a little bit more urgency in the final third, a little bit quicker with our passing, a little bit better with our passing, a little bit better with our final product," he said. "Defensively we had to do a better job when they got advantages out wide to close down players on crosses and then mark people in front of the goal."
The U.S. did just that in the second half, with Pulisic opening the scoring in the 52nd minute by stabbing home DeAndre Yedlin's low centering feed. The 18-year-old then doubled the advantage 10 minutes later, taking a well-placed Jozy Altidore pass and firing home past keeper Jan-Michael Williams.
It was just the latest stellar display from the Borussia Dortmund midfielder, who has been involved in the last eight U.S. goals by scoring four, assisting on three others, and drawing a free kick that was converted for a goal.
"[Pulisic] is having fun, and I just think he's just a natural for the game," said Arena. "He sees the game very well, and has good instincts on getting in good spots. His running off ball is exceptional. As he gets a little bit better and a little bit more experience, I think his ability to be a playmaker or a better passer of the ball in the last half of the field will improve. He's certainly an exceptional talent."
Arena was also full of praise for Darlington Nagbe, who was a menace in the open field all night and was involved in the buildup to Pulisic's opener.
"I tell [Nagbe] all the time that 'you've got to be a little bit more selfish,'" Arena said. "You saw tonight that when the opportunities are there, he's exceptional. Part of our plan was to give him some opportunities one-on-one. I think he's a very talented kid, he's just beginning to get experience at this level."
About the only other noteworthy incident on the night was when Clint Dempsey -- just one goal away from tying Landon Donovan's U.S. goal record -- was subbed out in the 61st minute for Kellyn Acosta. After trying to avoid shaking his manager's hand, he exchanged a few words with Arena, who said the issue has already been taken care of and explained he made the switch to strengthen the U.S midfield.
"[Dempsey] is a guy with a lot of confidence, and he wants to be on the field," said Arena. "However, my job is to do what I think is right for the team, to position us to win a game. And I understand that. He's a competitive guy. We talked about it. He's okay. He's got a real competitive edge to him. At that point in the game I needed to take out one forward, and I chose Clint over Jozy [Altidore]."
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.