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USA at Panama, 2018 World Cup qualifiers: What We Learned

Some very good, some not so good.

Honduras v United States - FIFA 2018 World Cup Qualifier Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The United States men’s national team went on the road in CONCACAF against a very respectable side and earned a hard-fought draw on Tuesday night. The U.S. were held by Panama, 1-1, for a sole point. Through four matches in the Hexagonal, the Americans find themselves in fourth place and according to ESPN’s Soccer Power Index, they have a 82% chance of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup. Heading into the summer there’s plenty left to play for with nothing guaranteed, but it’s safe to say that the U.S. are in much better shape now than they were through the first two matches in November. Here are a few things we learned from the Panama City stalemate:

CONCACAF away environments are still as tough as ever

The Estadio Rommel Fernandez field last night was bumpy, lopsided, rough, fast, and 17 other adjectives that make for a very tough playing surface. The raucous crowd was 99.999% behind the home side (credit to the small group of Yanks who made the trip). The referee was unforgiving with his decisions most of the night. These aren’t excuses, these are just facts. They aren’t even abnormal in CONCACAF away fixtures, it’s totally expected by now, but that doesn’t make the environment any easier to deal with. For the most part, the U.S. handled themselves okay in the tough atmosphere and playing conditions. It took them around 30 minutes to finally get settled into the match and they never truly found their groove in the passing game thanks to the field and Panama’s high pressure. Through all that, they managed to come away with a point.

Expectations of some were unrealistic

After a 6-0 beatdown of Honduras at home, some USMNT supporters were feeling it. I was among them. That was the most fun I’ve had watching a national team game in years. So, it shouldn’t be surprising that expectations for the next fixture, even if it’s away from home in a typically tough environment, were extremely high. However, this is still CONCACAF. The “if A beats B, then A should beat C” formula just doesn’t apply in this region, especially when it comes to away matches. The understanding of the Hex for teams like the U.S., Mexico, and Costa Rica is this, win your home matches and get what you can away from home and you should be in a great spot to qualify. That’s exactly what the U.S. did in these two matches and here they now sit with a great chance to go to Russia. It wasn’t pretty, but the job is done. Whether they met your expectations or not, they are right where they should be after the very poor start last year.

The USMNT’s mental toughness might be returning

Let’s be clear here, this isn’t a shot at Jurgen Klinsmann. But, think back to the Costa Rica away match in November. As soon as the U.S. conceded, heads dropped and they lost all focus. The match resulted in an embarrassing result on the night. The same could’ve easily happened after they took the lead before halftime and conceded an equalizer right after. Playing with a makeshift backline that had never played together, they could’ve folded under the second half pressure, but they didn’t. They gave up several chances, but they also fought hard to create their own. They didn’t waver under adversity and still tried to go for the win. It was a commendable performance by four defenders who may never play together again. Again, it’s another set of excuses we won’t make, but the mounting injuries caused many selection issues and still, a point was earned.

Christian Pulisic can do it on a hot night in Panama City

Leave it to the 18-year-old kid from Hershey to be the most poised and influential player for the USMNT in a tough away qualifier. That’s exactly what he was. There’s no questioning Pulisic’s talent, but sometimes even the most talented players struggle in these types of matches. If not for a moment of brilliance by the youngster, we may be talking in a whole different tone about this match.

His work ethic and composure created something out of nothing and set up Clint Dempsey for the opening goal of the match. This assist encapsulated Pulisic as a player. Hard working mixed with the right amount of skill and intelligence. I’ve run out of superlatives to describe him at this point, just know that it’s not normal for such a young player to be this good. We’re witnessing a special, special talent here. Enjoy it.

Jermaine Jones is past his expiration date

This might be the best Tweet I’ve ever put out into the Twittersphere:

Getting caught in possession, getting pulled out of position, being generally ineffective, I think we learned last night that while we still really want some Apple Jacks, it’s time to pour that milk down the drain and buy a new bottle.