ORLANDO, Fla. — Christian Pulisic put on another masterpiece Friday, reminding us all why he has begun to draw comparisons to Argentine superstar Lionel Messi. Even Messi might have come away impressed, but probably would been more jealous at the type of support the 19-year-old's teammates gave him.
While Messi endures his own personal World Cup qualifying nightmare with an Argentina squad that simply can't give him any support, Pulisic's latest gem came with the considerable help of teammates who were as determined as he was to deliver a vital qualifying victory on Friday night. They did just that in an emphatic 4-0 win that has the Americans on the verge of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup.
It was Pulisic who set the tone early, going right at Panama's normally stingy defense from the start, with his speed and confident dribbling tearing through opposing defenders with ease. That might not have been enough to unlock the feisty Panamanians if Jozy Altidore hadn't also been in top form on the night. It was Altidore whose pass sprung Pulisic on the opener, and it was Altidore's well-timed run that put him in place to finish off Pulisic's inch-perfect cross soon after.
Altidore earned Man of the Match honors on a night where everyone in the attack played well. Both Altidore and Bobby Wood were effective at getting into dangerous spots, and each played a part in multiple goals. Paul Arriola was especially effective on the night playing on the right wing, where presumably Fabian Johnson would have played if Bruce Arena hadn't chosen to leave him out. Darlington Nagbe was his usual confident self on the ball working the left wing, and while he had the quietest night among the U.S. attackers, he still provided a calming presences when needed.
"Those guys are great players so it’s not difficult to play with great players,” Pulisic said. “I’m happy I was able to contribute a little bit, and contribute a goal. It was a really good team performance."
You could feel the U.S. attack feeding off of Pulisic's confidence, as every member of the group contributed, making Panama pay for giving the U.S. attack too much room to operate.
“It didn’t surprise me because they’re players who need space and we gave them space,” Panama coach Hernan Dario Gomez said when asked about the performances of Pulisic's supporting cast. “In the other games we played against the United States we never gave them so much space in the back. This time we gave them space and that was the error. They took advantage and they were superior and we were bad and they hit us hard.”
"We needed a lot of movement against a physical Panama team that was going to sit in and not make it easy for us. Our movement was good today," Pulisic said. "I was able to play off those guys, they had some great layoffs to me. I think the spacing was pretty good for most of the night — there were still some things we could do better — I think the game plan was pretty much executed."
This was the kind of team effort the U.S. desperately needed, and the kind we hadn't seen from the Arena's side since the 6-0 thrashing of Honduras back in March. In the matches since, the U.S. attack had grown a bit predictable and overly reliant on Pulisic, which made it easy for opposing defenses to neutralize the Americans.
On Friday, the U.S. attack came out as a motivated group, and made a Panama side that had allowed just five goals in eight previous Hex matches look old and slow. The Canaleros were simply overwhelmed by the speed, passing and movement from the entire American attack, not just Pulisic.
That said, the 19-year-old was still the most impressive player on the night. You could certainly make a case for Altidore for the night's man of the match honors, but the way Pulisic took control of the game early on was a sight to behold. Playing in the biggest game of his young international career, Pulisic chewed up the pressure like a chocolate bar from his hometown of Hershey, Pennsylvania, and did it with the swagger of a player who absolutely expects to do the magical things he can do at such a young age.
"That kid killed us," Gomez said of Pulisic. "He did what he wanted."
As much as Pulisic was the catalyst of an impressive attacking performance by the team, U.S. coach Bruce Arena was once again wary of saying the team was built around its youngest player.
"I really don’t build a team around one player. I know he’s an exceptional player and he stands out, and you think that, but we don’t build a team around Christian," Arena said. "He’s a good player, but for Christian to be more effective he needs to have good players around him. The better collection of players we have around Christian he’s just going to be a better player."
Messi might want to borrow a copy of the U.S. win to show to his teammates as evidence of what can be done when you attack as a group, and support your star. Against Peru on Thursday, it was tough to single out any other Argentina player for praise on a night when there were scoring chances but no goals against a disciplined Peruvian defense. If Messi doesn't get any teammates to step up in the attack on Tuesday against Ecuador he and Argentina won't even make the World Cup.
After Friday's win, the United States is on the verge of making their eighth straight World Cup, and as much as Pulisic is now the unquestioned star of the U.S. team, we saw Friday a U.S. side that showed it has the ability to be more than a one-man team.