It would be easy to attribute the U.S. national team’s dismantling of Panama in Friday’s must-win World Cup qualifier to extraordinary performances by Jozy Altidore, Christian Pulisic and Bobby Wood.
You could also credit the grit and determination of a team with its backs to the wall. Or even blame Panama’s woefully poor performance.
All of those things contributed to a 4-0 win that has the U.S. on the doorstep of an eighth consecutive World Cup appearance, needing only to avoid a loss Tuesday against Trinidad and Tobago to clinch a berth in next summer’s tournament in Russia.
But the real foundation for that success was built during countless hours of video research in the StubHub Center offices of coach Bruce Arena and his staff, who devised a audacious game plan that kept Panama on its heels all night.
“I don’t think we could have been any more prepared,” Altidore said. “In all my years playing with this team I thought this game, it was the most preparation I’ve ever seen from a coaching staff. I don’t think there was anything they missed.”
Added defender Omar Gonzalez: “There were a lot of meetings. Two or three meetings every day just to make sure there was no stone left unturned. We knew what we needed to do.”
In the team’s final meeting the night before the match, Arena left the players with one final message: What they had practiced was going to work.
“To be quite honest with you, I’ve never been more relaxed and confident as a coach,” he told them. “Tomorrow’s your day. We’ll get it done. 7:35 we kick off, by 9:30 we’ll have three points.”
The plan called for Altidore, Pulisic and Wood to stay mobile and create space. The U.S. also needed to pressure Panama, so Arena threw five speedy attackers forward in wave after wave of counterattacks.
It was a risk against a defense that gave up only five goal in its eight previous qualifiers combined. Following Arena’s blueprint, the U.S. scored four in a little more than an hour.
“The coaching staff, from the [time] guys landed, were showing video, pulling guys aside. They made sure we understood how important the game was,” said Altidore, who scored two goals and assisted on another. “Kudos to Bruce and his team for preparing everybody.”
Arena’s gamble paid off in more than just a win, though. With the four scores, the Americans head into the final World Cup qualifiers with commanding leads in the goal-differential tiebreaker over the only two teams that can still catch them in the standings. The U.S. is seven goals better than Panama and 12 better than Honduras.
But that advantage will mean nothing if the U.S. doesn’t get a result against Trinidad and Tobago, which relocated the game from the national stadium in the capital of Port of Spain to a tiny 10,000-seat venue 45 minutes away — a move even the stadium’s namesake, Olympic sprinter Ato Boldon, criticized in a tweet.
“This is not a good look,” he wrote.
With Honduras tying Costa Rica on Saturday, the U.S. needs only a draw with Trinidad to finish third in the CONCACAF tournament and earn the confederation’s final automatic berth in next summer’s World Cup.
That the U.S. would enter its final qualifier with its fate in its hands seemed unlikely in November, when Arena replaced Jurgen Klinsmann after the U.S. dropped its first two qualifiers.
The Americans have lost once in 17 games since then.
“It’s been a long road to put ourselves in this situation at this point. A lot’s gone into it,” midfielder Michael Bradley said. “And now we’ve got a chance, in 90 minutes in Trinidad, to finish the job and make sure that we’re on the plane to Russia.
“The motivation will be huge to go down there and do whatever it takes.”