It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t always pretty.
But in the end, the U.S. national soccer team proved effective Thursday, riding a pair of second-half goals from teenager Christian Pulisic to a 2-0 victory over Trinidad and Tobago in a World Cup qualifier the Americans couldn’t afford to lose.
The win, combined with a scoreless draw between Panama and Costa Rica, lifted the U.S. to third in the qualifying table halfway through the 10-game CONCACAF tournament, rescuing a qualifying campaign that was a shambles less than three months ago.
The top three teams in the six-team table advance to next summer’s tournament, but the U.S. has little time to celebrate because the team will be flying to Mexico City on Friday for a Sunday qualifier with unbeaten Mexico.
“These games are tough,” said coach Bruce Arena, who is unbeaten since taking over the national team in December. “To walk away with three points and two goals, we’ve started off 2017 in pretty good shape. So I’m pleased at this point.”
And for that he has a trio of young players, headed by the 18-year-old Pulisic, to thank. After a frustrating first half in which the U.S. put five shots on goal but couldn’t get any of them into the net, midfielder Darlington Nagbe began to solve the Trinidad defense just after intermission.
Nagbe set up the first goal, in the 52nd minute, by squirting through Trinidad’s packed midfield and sending the ball to Clint Dempsey at the top of the penalty area. The ball quickly came back to Nagbe, 26, then out to the right wing for DeAndre Yedlin, 23, whose low cross into the six-yard box was perfectly met by a sliding Pulisic, who deflected it into the net.
“The game was 10 times easier when we made them the focal points of the game, of the attack,” said striker Jozy Altidore. “Christian and Darlington, [when] we freed them up more … they unlocked the game for us.”
Trinidad appeared to tie the score before the sellout crowd of 19,188 had stopped cheering Pulisic’s goal, but Nathan Lewis was judged to have been a whisker offside, disallowing his score.
The sequence started with Altidore taking a pass from Yedlin, then chipping the ball forward for Pulisic, whose well-timed run took him behind the defense on the right side.
After settling the ball, Pulisic pulled up about 12 yards from goal and beat keeper Jan-Michael Williams cleanly with a right-footed shot at the near post, bringing the players on the U.S. bench back to their feet.
Well, most of the players. Dempsey, who initially refused to shake Arena’s hand after being subbed out a minute earlier, stayed seated after the goal. He didn’t speak with reporters afterward.
“He’s a guy with a lot of confidence and he wants to be on the field. However, my job is to do what I think is right for the team, to position us to win a game,” Arena said. “We talked about it. He’s OK.”
So is Pulisic, whose two goals Thursday gave him four in as many games — with three of those coming in the last six days. He has also scored five times in eight World Cup qualifiers, with all five goals coming in the second half.
Pulisic, however, insisted that he’s not keeping track.
“Just being out there, it’s like a dream of mine to wear the USA crest and just be playing with the players I am for the country,” he said. “It’s amazing. The fact that these goals are coming, it’s just a little bonus.”
Another bonus is the fact that six of the players who closed out Thursday’s win are younger than 27, something Arena said puts more urgency on the need to make it to next summer’s World Cup, which would be the eighth straight for the U.S.
“These are kids with a good future,” he said. “And we’re hopeful that if we can keep moving along and qualify for the next World Cup, that we can put a competitive team on the field for Russia.”