The U.S. national team earned a hard-fought point in Panama and the young BVB star proved he was up to the task in a hostile CONCACAF environment.
The signs were clear from the beginning of Tuesday night's match in Panama City. Christian Pulisic was going to face tough treatment from the Panamanian national team, and wasn't going to get the benefit of the doubt from the referee. It was a match sure to test his patience and temperament, and it would have been easy for the teenager to struggle and fade into the background on a night when he was once against the youngest player on the field.
Pulisic didn't struggle though. He was dangerous, persistent and effective, helping create the lone U.S. national team goal of the night in what finished a 1-1 draw against a Panama side that will count itself lucky to hold the Borussia Dortmund sensation to just one goal-creating play.
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No, Pulisic wasn't anywhere near as effective as he was against Honduras last Friday, but Tuesday's clash in Panama was never going to be that kind of match. Both teams set out in cautious systems, looking to keep the game close and limit chances. The game was always going to come down to special plays, and mistakes, and Pulisic did his part to create one of those plays.
Felipe Baloy hadn't faced Pulisic before, so he probably didn't realize just how fast the teenager is. That's the only real explanation for why Baloy took a lazy touch in his own penalty area with Pulisic closing in on him. He watched helplessly as Pulisic stripped him and set up Clint Dempsey for an easy finish.
That goal put Panama on its heels, but not for long. Unlike Friday, when Honduras folded under the weight of an early U.S. goal, Panama responded by capitalizing on a U.S. mistake, a poorly-played Panama throw-in that Gabriel Gomez buried just before halftime.
Panama had the better of the play in the second half, but not by much, and as much as the home team did test Tim Howard on a handful of occasions, the final 45 minutes felt like both teams were content to settle for the draw.
Pulisic did his part both offensively and defensively to continue pestering the home side. He also showed his feisty side, never backing down even as bigger opponents did their best to try and intimidate him. That fearless demeanor is rare in someone so young, but it has become very clear Pulisic isn't your typical 18-year-old.
From a team standpoint, It was by no means a pretty performance for the United States, but Bruce Arena will take the road point and four points from the March qualifiers, which leaves the Americans in fourth place as the Hex takes a break until June, when a visit to Estadio Azteca to face Mexico comes after playing host to Trinidad and Tobago.
Here are some more observations from the U.S. draw in Panama:
OMAR GONZALEZ STEPS UP TO LEAD SHORTHANDED DEFENSE
With no John Brooks or Geoff Cameron available, it was Omar Gonzalez who took on the leadership role for the American defense and he was outstanding, cutting out every threat that came his way and rarely putting a foot wrong on a night when Panama created several dangerous situations for him to deal with.
Gonzalez was solid against Honduras last Friday, but had much more to do against Panama. While he did get caught up field on one second-half sequence, he raced back to force a cutback that allowed teammate Tim Ream to block the subsequent shot.
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Gonzales has shown improvement since moving to Liga MX side Pachuca, having won a title already with the Mexican club to go with his MLS Cup titles with the LA Galaxy, and with Bruce Arena back as U.S. coach, Gonzalez will have a serious chance to reclaim his starting U.S. center back role on a regular basis.
VILLAFANA'S DREAM CONTINUES
Folks wanting examples of how Bruce Arena differs from Jurgen Klinsmann need only look at Jorge Villafana, who couldn't get a look from Klinsmann when he was actually playing regularly for the Portland Timbers and Santos Laguna, but who Arena gave an opportunity even when he was stuck on the bench for the Mexican club.
Arena's faith has been rewarded, and now Villafana has turned a belated January camp invitation into a starting role in some key World Cup qualifiers. Villafana held up well against a tricky assignment in Panama winger and Toronto FC midfielder Armando Cooper, who danced down the right wing for much of the night, only to have Villafana stand up well to the challenge.
The left back position is wide open with the national team, but Villafana looks to be the leading option now, especially with Arena intent on playing Fabian Johnson in midfield when he is healthy. Greg Garza is showing promise with Atlanta United and should be in the conversation soon, but Villafana has taken Arena's faith and used it as a confidence boost that has even helped him earn more playing time for Santos Laguna. Based on how he played in the March qualifiers, Villafana looks like the first-choice left back option going forward.
DEMPSEY INCHES CLOSER TO SCORING MARK
It wasn't one of Dempsey's toughest goals, but the goal he scored on Tuesday night was huge for the point it earned for the Americans, and because it edged him within a goal of tying Landon Donovan on the U.S. national team career scoring chart.
The 34-year-old forward turned in a 90-minute shift, and while he was clearly exhausted by the end, Dempsey put in the kind of work that shows why he remains a player Arena will count on through the rest of the Hex. Dempsey played in a different role on Tuesday night than he played last Friday. Against Honduras he played as a striker in a 4-4-2 with Pulisic working behind him and providing service. Against Panama, Dempsey worked underneath Altidore in a 4-2-3-1 where the former captain was going to see fewer chances, but have much more work to do defensively.
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Dempsey met that challenge, and also used his famous nose for goal to slide into perfect position, giving Pulisic a target to pass to immediately after his tide-turning steal. Four goals from two March qualifiers isn't bad at all, and what is even more encouraging is the fact Dempsey isn't even at full fitness yet. Given how sharp he already looks, it would be a good bet that he catches Donovan in June, and who knows? Maybe he can even break the record in Mexico City.
REAM ENDURES ANOTHER TOUGH MOMENT AGAINST PANAMA
Tim Ream officially hates Panama.
You can't really blame him considering two of the more forgettable moments of his national team career have come against the Canaleros. Back in the 2011 Gold Cup, Ream was burned for a goal that helped Panama upset the Americans. On Tuesday, Ream misplayed a long throw-in that hit him in the chest and fell to Gabriel Gomez for Panama's equalizer.
It was a moment to forget, but credit to Ream for continuing to fight and for making several big defensive plays down the stretch. The former New York Red Bulls and current Fulham defender has shown enough improvement to move past Matt Besler on the U.S. depth chart at left center back, but he didn't do enough against Panama to threaten John Brooks' hold on the starting spot.
ZUSI RIGHT BACK EXPERIMENT DRAWS MIXED RESULTS
Graham Zusi started at right back on Tuesday in place of the injured Geoff Cameron. While Alberto Quintero didn't score a goal, you wouldn't call Zusi's performance a memorable one.
Arena isn't likely to mind too much. It's clear Zusi is still raw as a right back. He has a lot to learn and instincts to develop. More importantly, Zusi wound up at right back because of the rash of injuries that left out DeAndre Yedlin, Eric Lichaj, Fabian Johnson, Michael Orozco and Geoff Cameron. As the sixth-best option at the position, Zusi wasn't terrible, though obviously he didn't have as good a night as the last time he played in Panama.
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And for anybody suggesting that Arena should have called in Timmy Chandler, have we really forgotten how absolutely terrible Chandler has been in his two trips to Central America? Chandler has enjoyed an outstanding season in the German Bundesliga with Eintracht Frankfurt, but he has had enough stinkers with the United States to make any suggestions that he would definitely have been an upgrade highly questionable.