USMNT settles for a hard-fought point in 1-1 tie with Panama in World Cup qualifying

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Pulisic set up another Dempsey goal. (Reuters)
Pulisic set up another Dempsey goal. (Reuters)

Turns out, playing in Central America is still hard. Even after you’ve just hammered Honduras 6-0 at home four days earlier, riding the high of a refreshing managerial change.

An injury-ravaged United States men’s national team had to settle for a 1-1 tie in Panama in World Cup qualifying on Tuesday, giving away Clint Dempsey’s lead to Gabriel Gomez’s equalizer on the brink of halftime. The point nonetheless lifts the U.S. into fourth place in the final phase of qualifiers in the CONCACAF region. As such, with six of 10 games left to play, the Americans have climbed from last place into a spot that entitles the holder to a playoff with Asia’s fifth-place team for a berth in Russia next year.

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Following losses in the Americans’ first two games, Jurgen Klinsmann was relieved of his duties in November. Bruce Arena was hired back after a decade out of the national team job to rescue a sinking qualifying effort. The USA responded emphatically against Honduras. If the lone point in Panama was a tad disappointing, it nevertheless helps right a wayward campaign by putting the Americans squarely back in the chasing pack behind regional leaders Mexico, who took over Costa Rica’s top spot earlier in the day.

Going into the game, the U.S. had never lost to Panama in World Cup qualifying, tying once and winning the last five with a 17-3 total goal difference. In fact, the Americans had lost just once to Panama in 16 games overall, winning 11 of those.

Predictably, there was gamesmanship from the hosts. The night before the game, fireworks were repeatedly set off outside the U.S. team hotel.

The Panamanian game plan, too, was designed more to keep the U.S. from playing soccer than to actually face it head-on. The challenges were scrappy from the first whistle, with 18-year-old American prodigy Christian Pulisic taking the brunt of the abuse off the ball and after the plays. On a wretched field, the Americans attempted to play soccer, but it was tough going and the turnovers were chronic. And it was risky at that, against an athletic opponent.

But, as so often, the American attack was energized by Pulisic, starting on the right of the four-man midfield again. Just before the half hour, he was sprung on a savvy pass from Dempsey, but Luis Ovalle made a mighty recovery to deflect the teenager’s shot.

In the 39th minute, Pulisic, kicked and baited all half, made a fool of Roman Torres by stripping him of the long ball the defender should have cleared. And then Pulisic held off Felipe Baloy as he waited on somebody to join up with him in Panama’s box. He finally laid off for Dempsey, who had a simple finish for his 56th USA goal, just one behind all-time leading scorer Landon Donovan.

In a lethargic second half, Pulisic was also the only American to forge any danger. He volleyed Jorge Villafana’s cross at goal just after halftime, but it was blocked by the diving Baloy. And Pulisic’s penetrating run resulted in a look for the otherwise anonymous Jermaine Jones.

Panama initially forged its chances off set pieces. Baloy rose over Jones on a corner but couldn’t get his header down. And Panama would get its goal from a throw-in just before the break when Adolfo Machado’s throw wasn’t dealt with by the American defense and fell for Gomez, who spanked his volley past goalkeeper Tim Howard.

Panama’s goal swung the momentum. The Americans struggled through the second half, when the initiative and chances dried up and the tempo slowed. That left striker Jozy Altidore stranded on an island, devoid of supply.

The U.S. defense was hardly faultless for the spilled points, though. Although this Panama team had previously just scored only once in this final round of World Cup qualifying – and just five times in its last eight games – it forged preventable chances.

Tim Ream made a series of dubious clearances and overly pensive plays, although he blocked a dangerous shot in the second half. Makeshift right back Graham Zusi, drafted in with a half dozen or so other options unavailable, was burned by Alberto Quintero, who cut inside on him and rifled a shot right at Howard. The veteran goalkeeper had no trouble parrying it.

Howard, the 38-year-old stalwart who was guaranteed the start in these games when his longtime understudy Brad Guzan left the team to witness the birth of his second daughter, came up big just before the hour. He made the save on Gabriel Torres from point-blank range.

Although the Americans had won in Panama plenty of times, there was no great shame in leaving with only a point. After all, the only place a swaggering Mexico wasn’t able to win thus far in the final round of qualifying was also in Panama.

After a scintillating beginning on Friday, Arena’s honeymoon seemed to end abruptly in an underwhelming second half. But over the last week, his team nevertheless accomplished what he was hired to do: get points.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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