So this Christian Pulisic kid might be pretty good.
OK, we knew that already, but the U.S. men's national team's 4-0 victory over Panama on Friday night in a must-win World Cup qualifier showed just how special the American wonder teen is. He had a goal and an assist playing through the middle of the pitch, dictating play all night in Orlando. He was the driving force behind almost everything positive the U.S. did in its attack. With his attacking savvy, along with fantastic performances from Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood up front, the Americans flipped the script on Panama, which had allowed only five goals in its previous eight Hex matches.
But it isn't just Friday night that showed how important Pulisic has become to this squad. Through all the struggles and strife the Americans have faced in this round of World Cup qualifying, the 19-year-old Dortmund star has consistently been in form and ready to bail the squad out of tight spots. Between goals and assists, he's had a hand in 11 of the 15 goals the Americans scored in the Hex stage of qualifying. Despite his young age and just a bit more than a year as a full-time member of the senior squad, Pulisic is the biggest reason the USMNT is on track for a trip to Russia in 2018.
It took only eight minutes for Pulisic to make his mark on the game and finish a wonderful bit of long play started by Tim Howard in goal. Howard booted the ball deep down the pitch to midfield, where Wood rose to flick on a header. The ball fell to Altidore, who sent a one-touch pass into the path of the surging Pulisic.
From there, it was pure individual brilliance from the teenager. A burst of pace put him past the Panama defense and one-on-one with the keeper. A deft side step opened up the net for him, and a clinical finish from a tight angle secured the goal, his eight for the national team. By the looks of his celebration, it's clear Pulisic was dying to get this goal.
About 10 minutes later, Pulisic returned the favor to Altidore with an assist of his own on Altidore's goal.
In the 19th minute, Pulisic, who was deployed centrally to wonderful effect, drifted to the left of the pitch, where he took on a Panamanian fullback. A bit of cheeky footwork played him around the defender and put him in great position for a cross. Pulisic put his pass right on the money, skimming past the feet of the Panama defense and onto the boot of Altidore for a simple finish and a 2-0 lead.
Don't let the scoreline trick you into thinking it was all roses for the USMNT in this win. There was a 20-minute or so spell after the second goal when the squad shut off and the defense looked susceptible to a goal, as it's been so many times in qualifying. Panama looked dangerous on the left. DeAndre Yedlin, who was generally fantastic in his return at right back, was playing high on the American right, while Paul Arriola drifted inside, opening space for the Panama attack. Centrally, defenders Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler were stretched and allowed a few chances. Panama could easily have ended the first half with a goal or two.
But minutes before the end of the first half, the U.S. put the game on ice thanks to a powerful, clinical move from Wood. With the ball on the right flank, Wood beasted his way past a trio of defenders and into the box, where he was fouled and drew a penalty kick. Altidore stepped to the spot and finished with a Panenka to give the U.S. a 3-0 lead and essentially end the contest.
Wood had problems on the night, but he was undoubtedly a positive force. He missed a couple of chances he should have buried with nothing between the goal except him and the keeper. But he finally got his due with a goal in the 63th minute to give the match its final 4-0 score.
As Pulisic continued his star turn, he also got the CONCACAF star treatment. Panama did what most CONCACAF minnows do when they face a player who completely outclasses them and opted to foul the hell out of Pulisic all night. It finally came to a head when Pulisic was tripped shortly after the beginning of the second half. Seeing that this would be his life for the final 30 minutes of the match, Bruce Arena made the wise move to sub out Pulisic, get him out of harm's way and save whatever's left in his tank for the crucial showdown Tuesday with Trinidad and Tobago.
The U.S. is in a good position now, back in the top three spots in the Hex, which are the automatic qualifying spots. But it isn't out of the woods yet, as the trip to Trinidad and Tobago looms. Thanks to the blowout win, the U.S. turned the tables on Panama, which is now in fourth. The four goals extended the Americans' goal differential from +1 to +5 and cut Panama's from +2 to -2. That's big. As things stand, the U.S. could still tie with Panama on points if the Panamanians beat Costa Rica and the U.S. draws with Trinidad. The goal differential lead could prevent inclusion in a playoff match with a team from Asia that comes with the fourth-place spot. All that, of course, will be avoided with a simple victory in Trinidad.
There will be time to sweat that match in the coming days, but now is the time to bask in the brilliance of Pulisic and his attacking counterparts. Considering the weakness this defense has shown in qualifying and the penchant the U.S. has shown to seize up in front of goal, this team would be lost without his occasional but increasingly frequent spurts of creative genius and attacking verve. If this team makes the World Cup -- and that doesn't seem like a big if anymore -- Pulisic be why. And if the U.S. excels in Russia, Pulisic will be why, too.
The days of taking about his potential are done. He's the best player on the team not only because of what he does as an individual, but because he makes his teammates better. He's the kind of player who Americans are blessed to be able to call their own.
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Cy Brown writes about football, golf, soccer and other stuff for Sports on Earth. Follow him on Twitter@CEPBrown.