Orlando (World Soccer Talk) — The U.S. and a dominant offense looked revamped on Sunday night following Thursday night’s drab draw against its biggest rival, Mexico.
In Mexico City, the U.S. failed to convert several chances in front of goal at the Estadio Azteca. Now, the World Cup party is in full swing following a demolition of Panama in Orlando, 5-1.
Theoretically, the United States could still miss out on Qatar 2022. However, that would require a collapse even more dramatic than what happened back in 2017. As the table stands after 13 games, the United States sits in second place with 25 points. Mexico sits in third, also on 25. Meanwhile, Costa Rica’s win over El Salvador puts the Ticos on 22 points.
Crucially, the U.S. holds a goal difference of 13, 10 goals more than Costa Rica.
Simply put, the U.S. has one foot in the group stages in Qatar. On Wednesday night in San Jose, the United States just has to manage the game. A win, draw or even loss puts the Stars and Stripes through.
In a losing effort, the USMNT can lose by five and still advance. A five-goal difference in defeat, in tandem with Mexico winning, puts the U.S. into the intercontinental playoff.
In FIFA World Cup Qualifying, the first tie breaker is goal difference, followed by total goals scored then head-to-head record.
One step from qualification
That is why the offensive bombardment from the U.S. Sunday night against Panama proves so crucial.
Had the U.S. only managed a one-goal win, Costa Rica enters the finale with a sense of hope. After all, the USMNT holds a winless record in World Cup qualifying against Costa Rica. However, the U.S. silenced that probability, even if it is still a miniscule possibility.
That being said, the USMNT had a 93% chance to qualify in 2017. Interestingly, that statistic arose after a 4-0 win in the second-to-last game of qualifying. Moreover, it came in Exploria Stadium, against Panama. A bad omen that it is this eerily similar?
U.S. offense dominant when it counts
The prodigal son
Christian Pulisic scored the opener in that 2017 game, as he did from the penalty spot on Sunday night.
One of the most talented products to emerge from the United States carries the expectations of a country that has a rapidly growing soccer fan base. The face of the sport among USMNT supporters, he needed to step up when it mattered most.
Entering a game that many fans saw as a must-win, the American starlet converted a pair of first-half penalties. He capped off his hat trick with a silky touch and finish past Luis Mejia in the 65th minute.
Speaking about Sunday night’s captain postgame, Berhalter mentioned how Pulisic filled all his roles against Panama.
“He was on the field when we didn’t qualify. When I look at his performance, besides the three goals, everything else was in line. His work rate, intensity and leadership.”
Equally important for a young USMNT squad, Pulisic came to the defense of his teammates against a staunch Panama side. Although he picked up a yellow card for dissent against Salvadorian referee Iván Barton, he shows leadership for the future generations of U.S. soccer.
It works well with his appearances on the scoresheet, which came in bunches on Sunday night.
Contrast from Thursday
Periods of the game transpired when Costa Rica maintained possession, holding off players like Pulisic, Jesus Ferreira and Paul Arriola in their press. In fact, Panama finished the game with 61% possession on the road, drawing 23 American fouls.
However, the USMNT was direct in its opportunities when the visitors presented them.
While capturing five goals, the USMNT mustered five shots on target. Of course, Panama helped create its own demise in part. Two penalties given away in silly fashion practically gift-wrapped two of Pulisic’s goals.
Yet, Christian Pulisic, as well as other players, missed clear-cut opportunities against Mexico. This includes forcing Guillermo Ochoa into a save of what should be converted 10 times out of 10 by one of America’s most prominent names.
Fans expected a bounce back, but not on the level that saw the U.S. offense dominant to the point it put this game to rest after 27 minutes.
It was far from a perfect game. Panama failed to capitalize on a number of errors among the USMNT back line. Some miscommunications between Zack Steffen and his center backs as well as the occasional spill from Steffen cracked the door for Panama. Eventually, a free kick from five yards outside the 18-yard box broke what would have been the USMNT’s seventh shut out of this qualifying cycle.
Regardless, the Manchester City stopper, along with his MLS-based center backs Walker Zimmerman and Miles Robinson limited the visitors in their opportunities.
Something else to build off of is the performance of Luca de la Torre. While Pulisic grabs the headlines, de la Torre fit in to a midfield with Tyler Adams and Yunas Musah well. The 23-year-old only made his first start for the national team in February’s 3-0 win against Honduras. His performance in linking a ruthless front three to a stalwart back line should be admired, especially considering the magnitude of this game.
Luca de la Torre, Paul Arriola and others proved crucial despite not being household names. Depth is key for this USMNT team, especially considering the injuries and runs of form with players. Gregg Berhalter says he has full confidence in players he calls into camp.
“We talked early on about the next an up mentality. We don’t call people up unless we trust them. It’s about maintaining a high level, and the national team can be difficult. I’m really pleased with guys like Luca, Gianluca Busio,… it makes a difference when you call on these guys to perform.”
Costa Rica in the qualifying finale
The U.S. did not need a an offense dominant over Mexico. It would have been nice, considering the record in World Cup qualifying the Americans hold while visiting their southern neighbors.
The U.S. needed to have goals in this game. A win was paramount, but building on the goal differential puts the U.S. that much closer to Qatar.
Now, Gregg Berhalter has the option of solidifying his defense in Costa Rica. The U.S. does not need to win. The U.S. does not even need to draw. Rather, the U.S. must maintain a defense that prevents Wednesday’s game from getting out of hand.
Do that much, and the U.S. goes to Qatar in November. A calamity like 2017 is not out of the question, but it would be perhaps even more unfathomable than what happened against Trinidad and Tobago.
Photo credit: Brad Smith/ISI Photos / Contributor
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