Resur­gent US face Panama test

New Straits Times - - Sport -

LOS AN­GE­LES: A re­vi­talised United States face Panama on Tues­day brim­ming with con­fi­dence af­ter a record World Cup qual­i­fy­ing vic­tory in­spired by teenage star Chris­tian Pulisic and vet­eran for­ward Clint Dempsey.

The pall of gloom en­velop­ing the US na­tional team fol­low­ing de­feats against Mex­ico and Costa Rica in Novem­ber was blown away on Fri­day, with Pulisic and Dempsey help­ing to de­liver a 6-0 thrash­ing of Hon­duras.

The win was the big­gest ever recorded by a US team in the fi­nal round of World Cup qual­i­fiers in the CONCACAF zone, which com­prises teams from North Amer­ica, Cen­tral Amer­ica and the Caribbean.

But it was the man­ner, rather than the scale, of the vic­tory that has reignited con­fi­dence in Amer­ica’s bid to qual­ify for an eighth con­sec­u­tive ap­pear­ance at the World Cup fi­nals.

Though it was the 34-year-old Dempsey who took the man-ofthe-match award with a hat-trick on his first re­turn to na­tional team duty since re­cov­er­ing from an ir­reg­u­lar heart­beat, Pulisic was un­ques­tion­ably the most in­flu­en­tial US player.

The Borus­sia Dort­mund prodigy, still only 18, scored one goal and set up three oth­ers in a dis­play that sug­gests US foot­ball has fi­nally un­earthed the sort of au­then­tic at­tack­ing ta­lent Amer­i­can fans have craved for years.

“He’s a great player. He can beat peo­ple one-on-one and he cre­ates mis­matches be­cause of that,” Dempsey said of his young strike part­ner.

“It’s great to have play­ers like that, who can win those one-onone con­tests be­cause it breaks teams open.”

Against Hon­duras, Pulisic thrived in the No 10 role, buzzing around men­ac­ingly in the space cre­ated by the for­ward part­ner­ship of Dempsey and Jozy Alti­dore.

US coach Bruce Arena said he had no hes­i­ta­tion in mak­ing Pulisic the ful­crum of the US at­tack af­ter watch­ing him play in a sim­i­lar po­si­tion for Bun­desliga side Dort­mund this sea­son.

“He’s been ex­cep­tional the last cou­ple of months with his club team, it’s clearly a po­si­tion he’s played a lot and I felt it was the right de­ci­sion to make,” Arena said, en­thus­ing about Pulisic’s range of tal­ents.

“He’s just a nat­u­ral, the game’s easy for him,” Arena said.

“He’s got ex­cep­tional skill, vi­sion. He’s pretty smooth.”

Fri­day’s vic­tory lifted the United States off the bot­tom of the six-team round-robin fi­nal qual­i­fy­ing com­pe­ti­tion into fourth place.

The top three fin­ish­ers qual­ify au­to­mat­i­cally for next year’s fi­nals in Rus­sia while the fourth­placed team face an in­ter-con­fed­er­a­tion play­off against an Asian side.

The Amer­i­cans will move into the au­to­matic qual­i­fy­ing places if they are able to grab a vic­tory in Panama City to­day, where they won 3-2 in 2013 dur­ing qual­i­fiers for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

Panama, who are third in the stand­ings with four points from three games, head into the match aim­ing to bounce back fol­low­ing a 1-0 de­feat in Port of Spain against Trinidad and Tobago on Fri­day.

Mex­ico, the only un­beaten team, can ce­ment their place at the top of the stand­ings with a vic­tory over Trinidad to­day.

The day’s other game sees Hon­duras at­tempt to re­cover from Fri­day’s maul­ing with a game against 2014 World Cup quar­ter-fi­nal­ists Costa Rica, who suf­fered a 2-0 de­feat to Mex­ico in the Aztec Sta­dium on Fri­day.

Chris­tian Pulisic

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