The U.S. national team's once-rocky road to next summer's World Cup in Russia has smoothed out considerably in the last five days, with Tuesday's 1-1 draw with Panama giving the Americans added confidence and a hard-earned point, keeping them in the middle of the CONCACAF standings four games into the 10-match tournament.
Clint Dempsey scored the U.S. goal, converting a brilliant feed from Christian Pulisic in the 39th minute. Gab-riel Gomez scored for Panama off a loose ball in the U.S. penalty area four minutes later.
Yet, given the difficulty of playing of playing on the road in CONCACAF, a draw was a welcome result for the U.S., whose World Cup hopes appeared to be on the ropes just a week ago. But after blistering Honduras at home and playing Panama even away, the Americans have risen from last to fourth in the table, one point behind Panama.
"We're obviously in better shape. We've made progress," Coach Bruce Arena said. "Every game in qualifying is going to be critical. It's going be a battle for the second, third and fourth spots."
In the other qualifiers Tuesday, visiting Costa Rica tied Honduras, 1-1, and unbeaten Mexico stopped Trinidad and Tobago, 1-0, on the road on Diego Reyes' second-half header. That leaves unbeaten Mexico in first with 10 points, three better than second-place Costa Rica.
The top three teams earn automatic berths for the 2018 World Cup. Yet even that modest accomplishment looked to be a challenge after the U.S. lost its first two qualifiers to Mexico and Costa Rica. However, after sacking Jurgen Klinsmann and hiring Arena — the first time the U.S. has changed coaches in the middle of a qualifying campaign since 1989 — the Americans appear to be back on track.
The temperature was in the low 80s and the humidity was almost as high at kickoff Tuesday — and soon tempers were running high as well. But Mexican referee Cesar Ramos made little effort to control what quickly became a chippy game.
"It was a slugfest for 90 minutes. Panama was determined to be physical," Arena said. "The heat, the humidity, the surface of the field combined with the physicality made it a real rough game."
Pulisic, a baby-faced teenager who made his national team debut a year ago, was the target of much of Panama's brutish play. But he got his revenge with some brilliant dribbling that set up the first goal.
The sequence began with Pulisic taking the ball from Felipe Baloy at the right side of the area and dribbling into the box, then turning Roman Torres around with some slick ball-handling at the edge of the six-yard box. From there he slipped a deft left-footed feed to Dempsey, who had an easy finish for his fourth goal in two games.
The lead was short-lived, though, with Gomez quickly equalizing for Panama after scooping up a loose ball in the box following a long throw-in.
"I'm disappointed our concentration wasn't there at the end of the first half. Maybe we get out of there without conceding a goal," Arena lamented.
Pulisic nearly got that goal back in the opening minutes of the second half, but his left-footed volley off a sliding cross from defender Jorge Villafana was deflected wide by Baloy.
"It was a good lesson for Christian tonight," Arena said. "Panama [put] a bull's-eye on his back and they went after him from minute one. He has to learn that the referee's not going to protect him. He's got to deal with it. It's all part of the learning curve. Next time around he'll be better for it."
The U.S., which lost three starters to injury in the Honduras game, made three lineup changes.
Jermaine Jones, back from a one-game suspension, took over for Galaxy teammate Sebastian Lletget in midfield while Tim Ream replaced John Brooks, teaming with Omar Gonzalez at center back. Graham Zusi started at right back in place of Geoff Cameron, who has a quadriceps strain.
It was the first time the back four had ever played together. And that made a draw worth celebrating all the more.
"At the end the day," an exhausted Gonzalez said afterward, "we're happy leaving here with a point."