Arena said his squad was aware of what was stake if the U.S. fails to deliver the goods in Orlando tomorrow: "I have not had to lecture the players in any way as to just how significant this game is".
There are nearly endless permutations, enough to make a mathematician's head spin, of how the US men's national soccer team could qualify for the World Cup by late Tuesday night.
A draw means the Yanks will need a win in Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday and a Panama loss or draw versus visiting Costa Rica. Darlington Nagbe was his usual confident self on the ball working the left wing, and while he had the quietest night among the US attackers, he still provided a calming presences when needed. Sure Costa Rica had beaten the U.S. 4-0 in their game in Central America, but the U.S. had beaten them 4-0 last summer and in the Gold Cup this past summer and was riding a 15 game unbeaten streak since Bruce Arena became the USMNT's head coach again. Then, when stoppage time came and the US scored two late goals for a 3-2 win. "God bless America!" while watching the end of that U.S. game in 2013 split screen with Mexico's last game. It doesn't happen that way. "Whenever you're in that situation I think it's a positive", Arena added. We've advanced from sixth to third position with goal differential. "On the night, we actually didn't finish well".
Playing his first global match since he turned 19 last month, Pulisic was moved to central midfield from the flanks by coach Bruce Arena and sparked the attack from the opening whistle with pace and ball control seldom seen from Americans.
"Well, it's not as normal as possible", Arena said. "I hate to kind of pour too much praise on him". He scores goals, but he's a great passer and he knows where I am. He's got a lot of work to do. That helps Panama not see this match as a daunting task.
Second-placed Costa Rica meanwhile can clinch their qualification with at least a draw at home to fifth-placed Honduras. The top three teams in CONCACAF - which includes North America, Central America and the Caribbean - automatically qualify for next summer's World Cup, while the fourth-place team advances to a home-and-away playoff against Australia or Syria. In March, they outshot the US 19-7, and had 54 percent possession. "We all felt it and felt a big responsibility for the team and for our country". Los Canaleros sitting third with 10 points on the table is headed by manager Hernan Dario Gomez.
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If the United States wins Friday night, it'll have 12 points heading into a final showdown with Trinidad & Tobago, the weakest team in the field.
Panama looked understandably nervous but Gabriel Torres' first sight of goal on six minutes should have tested Tim Howard instead of flying harmlessly wide.
"Games don't get much bigger", said USA captain Michael Bradley.
When Pulisic tore open the left side of the Panama defense 11 minutes later, slotting a cross that Altidore simply poked into the net, the game - 19 minutes old - seemed over.
The only concern of the Americans afterward, then, was for Pulisic, who was battered several times and then, finally, so badly that he required treatment after a particularly rough foul at midfield just after halftime.
"Jozy just laid it off to me and then I was just gone, I guess, that was it".
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Altidore (8) and Wood (3) have tallied 11 goals in the nine global matches they have started together.
Pulisic, just 19 but already the team's most exciting and accomplished player, eased US nerves with a rapid burst forward followed by a clinical finish in the eighth minute, then set up Altidore for the second 11 minutes later. Wood was tripped in the area by substitute Armando Cooper and Altidore stepped up and cheekily chipped the ball down the middle.
Picking up the ball on the left wing, Pulisic delivered a superb cross which was gleefully tapped in by Altidore.
Preparing for today's crucial qualifier against Panama, the U.S. held a closed-doors scrimmage Wednesday against Orlando City's B team.
"The job isn't quite done yet", Bradley said.
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