The U.S. Men’s National Team entered play on Friday night with something to prove, and prove something they did. After having earned just nine points from eight matches in the Hex, qualifying for the Men’s World Cup in 2018 was hardly guaranteed. Only a win would put the Stars and Stripes back in control of their own destiny to secure a spot in the tournament. As for their opponents, Panama could afford to split the points with the U.S. and close out their qualifying campaign next week against Costa Rica. However, winning would put the U.S. at the mercy of results from Honduras’ games to even have a chance at winning a spot for a playoff against either Australia or Syria and would be sweet revenge for the heartbreak dealt to Los Canaleros in the last qualifying campaign.
In the end, the heavy responsibility of booking a trip to Russia fell on the shoulders of 11 men on a warm and humid October night in Orlando, Florida.
The U.S. came out strong throwing numbers forward against the Panama defense. The front three of Bobby Wood, Jozy Altidore, and Christian Pulisic were buzzing around the Panama box to open the match. The interplay between the three immediately created chances with Jozy Altidore being played through by Pulisic just to have his shot blocked. Bobby Wood almost put the U.S. ahead in the 6th minute when he pulled down a low cross but pushed his shot wide.
It seemed as if Panama might score against the run of play in the 7th minute when Blas Perez flicked a long ball into the path of Gabriel Torres who managed a clean shot on goal, but his shot went wide.
In the ensuing goal kick, Tim Howard boomed the ball down the field where it was won by Bobby Wood who passed it on to Jozy Altidore. The U.S. forward played Christian Pulisic through for a one v. one with Jaime Penedo. The Panamanian keeper stabbed wildly at Pulisic who got around Penedo and scored with a shot taken from a tight angle that put the U.S. ahead by one and that much closer to passing their opponents in the Hex standings.
The U.S. continued to attack and a second goal came in the 19th minute as Christian Pulisic sent a daisy cutter through the Panama six yard box that Jozy Altidore hammered home for his first goal of the Hex.
Even down by two, Los Canaleros were far from giving up in the game. In the 26th minute Edgar Yoel Barcenas was taken off in favor of Toronto FC midfielder Armando Cooper to provide a spark. The U.S. was lucky not to concede and a last ditch tackle by DeAndre Yedlin kept the U.S. lead intact. Then, in the 29th minute Cooper passed to Gabriel Torres who took a strong strike forcing Tim Howard to punch the ball out for a corner.
For the rest of the half Panama threw numbers forward and their pressure made it difficult for the U.S. to build possession. However, the Stars and Stripes still managed to find chances on the counter. After two huge goals from Christian Pulisic and Jozy Altidore, it was time for Bobby Wood to help add to the score sheet. Wood found himself facing three Panama defenders at the edge of the 18 yard box and ran at them. Armando Cooper pulled him down to stop another one v. one with Penedo and the referee immediately awarded a penalty, giving Cooper a yellow card.
If any U.S. player was lacking confidence in the match at this point, it sure wasn’t Jozy Altidore. The American striker stepped up and after a delay by Penedo to get in Altidore’s head, he stepped up and chipped home a Panenka. Still, the first 45 came to a close with the match completely open. Panama was totally outmatched by the front three of the U.S., but the American backline was disjointed at times and as it looked like Michael Bradley alone was not enough to shield the defense to deal with the numbers Panama was sending forward.
The second half opened with Panama setting a more physical tone nearly when the referee’s whistle sounded. Playing more centrally, Christian Pulisic had been tearing through their midfield and Michael Murrilo fouled him from behind on a breakaway earning a yellow card. Panama would get another chance against the U.S. backline that seemed content to continue giving them space when a free kick was volleyed by center back Roman Torres into the arms of Tim Howard in the 53rd minute.
After feeling the ill-effects from his foul at the beginning of the half, Christian Pulisic was subbed out for Dax McCarty in the 56th minute. Panama responded with their second substitution by taking out Blas Perez for forward Abdiel Arroyo. It clearly wasn’t the Panama attack that had put them in the spot they were in and the defense failed them yet again in the 63rd minute. Paul Arriola cut in on the right side of the Panama 18 yard box and passed to Bobby Wood who turned a fired a shot to put the U.S. ahead 4-0.
Bruce Arena then used his second substitution in the 71st minute to bring Clint Dempsey in for Jozy Altidore with Deuce on the brink of breaking Landon Donovan’s all-time USMNT goals record. He was followed by Alejandro Bedoya who was brought in for Darlington Nagbe in the 79th minute to help see the game out. Panama seemed to run out of gas in the final 10 minutes of the match, and the U.S. came away on top 4-0 with Dempsey having to wait at least one more game for his record setting goal.
Overall the U.S. dominated the match but the scoreline belied the sloppy defense that almost made the game much closer than it was at the final whistle. Still, the result was exactly what the United States needed. The team bounced back and made a statement that they deserved their place in Russia. Now they have a chance to seal their third place finish in the Hex with a win at Trinidad & Tobago on Tuesday night.