ORLANDO, Fla. — U.S. national team coach Bruce Arena wasn't giving much away Thursday morning regarding who he would start in Friday's crucial World Cup qualifier against Panama, but a clear priority will be getting more from the attack.
The Americans managed just one goal in two September qualifiers, and will now be facing a Panama side that has allowed just five goals in eight matches during the Hexagonal round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.
How will the U.S. go about breaking down the stingy Canaleros?
"I think we need to add a little more numbers and finish off plays," U.S. midfielder Paul Arriola said. "We worked a lot this week on the type of team that we're going to be on Friday night. We're going to have to put Panama on their heels early and get a goal and after that we'll have to take care of the game."
The struggles have been particularly frustrating given the good form the team's attacking stars have been in on the club level. That form didn't translate to team success for the U.S. in September.
"We all need to be more aggressive," striker Jozy Altidore said. "If you look at the attacking players we have, everyone has been successful with their club teams. It's a matter of being aggressive and being more confident. Bobby (Wood) can score goals, I can score goals, Christian (Pulisic) can score goals, Paul, Juan (Agudelo), Clint (Dempsey). It's a matter of everyone being a little more confident, taking a little bit more of a risk in the final third and that's really it."
Pulisic will figure prominently in the U.S. attack, but could be due for a positional change after struggling to put his stamp on September's qualifiers on the right wing. Arena could choose to use Pulisic in an attacking midfield role, like he played against Honduras in March and Trinidad & Tobago in June — which happen to be two of Pulisic's best games for the national team.
Here is a look at how Pulisic could be deployed Friday, with Darlington Nagbe and Arriola providing good options on the flanks who can combine well with Pulisic:
As important as Pulisic has become for the U.S. — he has had a hand in the majority of the goals scored in qualifying this year — Arena isn't building his attacking focus solely around helping the 19-year-old find more success.
"It's not making Christian more effective, it's making everyone more effective," Arena said. "Our team is not centered around one player in the attack. We have to focus on our concepts on how to attack the Panamanian defense, and I'm sure at kickoff we'll be ready to apply those tactics. Christian's an important part of the team as well as others.
"Our focus isn't on creating space for Christian as much as it's creating space and goal-scoring opportunities for our entire team."
The U.S. attack hasn't exactly been toothless in 2017, and even in the Costa Rica match there were some good chances created, only to have Keylor Navas step up with big saves. So it isn't necessarily a case of the U.S. needing to make wholesale changes, but more about sharpening things in the final third and dedicating more numbers to the attack.
Another option for the Americans is changing their system, with the 3-5-2 setup having produced the vital equalizer against Honduras. Though it may still not be likely a formation Arena uses from the start against Panama, it is certainly a setup Arena can turn to if the Americans need a late goal.Above all, the U.S. will be focused on a strong and effective start, one that yields the early goal the team was lacking in September — an early goal that would push the Americans a big step closer to qualifying for the 2018 World Cup.
"That's something that's going to be important for us, and we touched on that a little bit," Arriola said. "We have to really throw numbers at those guys and get an early goal. If we can get an early goal, they can't bunker for long, and they'll have to go out and expose themselves in the back, and that's when we can open the game up even more."