The United States men’s national team took fans on a bit of a roller coaster ride during its two March World Cup qualifying matches. Despite low expectations, the team played one of its best games in years against Honduras, posting a 6-0 win.
But three players went down injured in that match, leading to a makeshift lineup away to Panama. The USMNT struggled on Tuesday, but still got a 1-1 draw and looks capable of making the World Cup.
Because these were the first competitive matches in the second tenure of new national team manager Bruce Arena, we were always going to have a chance to learn a lot about his philosophy and what the team might look like under him going forward. Thankfully, we got to learn a lot.
Here are eight takeaways from the USMNT’s games during this international break.
This is now the Pulisic and Nagbe show
Darlington Nagbe wasn’t really valued by Jurgen Klinsmann, while Christian Pulisic was too young and inexperienced to make a huge impact for almost all of Klinsmann’s tenure. But Arena has built his attack around these two, and for good reason. They’re head and shoulders above their peers in technical quality and ability to beat a defender.
#USMNT one-v-ones vs Panama...— Paul Carr (@PCarrESPN) March 29, 2017
- Pulisic: 4 of 9 successful
- Nagbe: 3 of 4
- Rest of team: 1 of 7
They bring slightly different things to the table too. Nagbe is probably the USMNT’s best ball-retaining player, while Pulisic is better than anyone else at making a scoring chance out of nothing. The Americans couldn’t put together dangerous attacks against Panama and Pulisic had an extremely inconsistent game, but he still won the point for his team with one moment of magic.
Among the front six, Pulisic and Nagbe should now be the first two names on the team sheet. The other four names and their positions should be filled in to balance out the team to give those two players the best chance to succeed. Pulisic is Batman, Nagbe is Robin, and everyone else is interchangeable.
Clint Dempsey is going to break Landon Donovan’s scoring record
After scoring a hat trick against Honduras and the Americans’ lone goal in Panama, Dempsey is now on 56 career USMNT goals, one short of Donovan, and with a lot fewer penalties. Many thought he’d never have a chance to chase the record after he was sidelined with an irregular heartbeat last season, but him breaking the record now seems like an inevitability. Especially if he’s going to get setups like this from Pulisic:
Dempsey hasn’t racked up those goals in friendlies or against junk opposition either. He’s the only American to score in three World Cups. He scored three times at Copa America last summer, and he recorded three goals during the USMNT’s stunning Confederations Cup run in 2009.
One thing Dempsey’s never done is score at Estadio Azteca. Wouldn’t that be a cool place for goal No. 57? The USMNT heads there on June 11.
It’s time for Jermaine Jones to go
We will not write anything mean about Jones here because he’s a USMNT legend. Even though he came to the team late in his career and has only made 68 appearances in an American shirt, he’s played harder than anyone else on the pitch in most of those games, and he was the best American player at the 2014 World Cup. We have nothing but respect and appreciation for Jermaine Jones.
But time is undefeated. Eventually, every player has a moment where it’s clear he’s not good enough anymore. Pele had it. Alfredo Di Stefano had it. Paolo Maldini had it. And Jones had it against Panama on Tuesday night. He has reached the point where his intelligence is no longer enough to make up the physical ability between him and the two midfielders who were subbed on in Panama City: Alejandro Bedoya and Kellyn Acosta. He had a bad game, and their introductions were a wake-up call.
Where were Dax McCarty and Sacha Kljestan?
In the second half of both games the USMNT played during this international break, they really needed someone to come into the midfield and just settle things down. Someone to put their foot on the ball, help the team keep the ball and ensure that the team didn’t get caught out of shape.
Arena had two really good players for that on his bench: McCarty and Kljestan. He used neither. This was strange.
Jorge Villafaña did fine, but left back is still an open contest
About three years too late, Villafaña finally got his shot in the USMNT’s depleted left back spot. Given that he’s a natural lefty who has performed well in both MLS and Liga MX, you’d think any USMNT manager would want him on their teams, but he remained in exile until 2017.
He had some good attacking moments and was competent defensively but also got caught up the pitch sometimes, leaving the American center backs in a bad spot. Villafaña definitely did enough to keep getting call-ups, but he was far from perfect. He’ll have to play well for Santos Laguna and hope no one else hits top form over the next couple of months to retain his starting spot for sure. Arena won’t have his name marked down in ink quite yet.
Tim Howard is still the man
Honduras should have scored a couple of goals, and Panama will feel like it deserved three points against the United States. But Tim Howard was immaculate in both games and was the biggest factor besides Pulisic in his team picking up points. This save in the second half against Panama kept the USMNT in the game:
With Brad Guzan still being Middlesbrough’s backup until June and none of the younger American keepers doing anything truly spectacular, Howard should remain the USMNT’s No. 1 for the foreseeable future.
Is John Brooks the USMNT’s most crucial player?
Save for the two November matches where a whole host of Americans looked bad, John Brooks has been pretty much impeccable in a USMNT shirt over the past year. He was the Americans’ best player by far in Copa America, and he was absolutely superb against Honduras.
When Brooks had to be subbed off in San Jose due to illness, fans started worrying about what it would mean to miss him in Panama. As it turned out, the Americans missed him quite a bit.
While Tim Ream wasn’t directly at fault for the Panama goal on Tuesday, he did have a shaky match and was responsible for some other good Panamanian chances. And Ream isn’t some random backup — he’s been a solid MLS, Premier League, and Championship starter for seven years and has 23 national team caps. He’s a good backup. But the difference between him and Brooks was huge.
Pulisic is the Americans’ most talented player, but they’ve won ugly without much flair in attack for years. Howard is probably the most consistent American player, but there’s not much drop-off to his backup, Guzan. So it might be the case that the most important American player is actually Brooks. Without him, the USMNT defense looks like a mess. With him, it can contain superior teams.
Given all the injuries, these games went well
Whatever criticism you have for Arena — and obviously we have plenty — it’s important to not get too carried away. Not only were these his first competitive games in charge, but he had to go through them without nailed-on, first-choice players: Bobby Wood, Fabian Johnson, and DeAndre Yedlin (plus a host of other right backs). He lost Brooks, Geoff Cameron, and Sebastian Lletget to injuries between games. Graham Zusi was effectively a sixth-choice player starting on the right side of defense and managed to not embarrass himself.
Under these circumstances, the USMNT did well to get four points, and you should be encouraged about future possibilities. The summer World Cup qualifying and Gold Cup squads should look more impressive than this one.