LOS ANGELES: A revitalized United States face Panama on Tuesday (Wednesday in Manila) brimming with confidence after a record World Cup qualifying victory inspired by teenage star Christian Pulisic and veteran forward Clint Dempsey.
The pall of gloom enveloping the US national team following defeats against Mexico and Costa Rica in November was blown away on Friday, with Pulisic and Dempsey helping to deliver a 6-0 thrashing of Honduras.
The win was the biggest ever recorded by a US team in the final round of World Cup qualifiers in the CONCACAF zone, which comprises teams from North America, Central America and the Caribbean.
But it was the manner, rather than the scale, of the victory that has reignited confidence in America’s bid to qualify for an eighth consecutive appearance at the World Cup finals.
Though it was the 34-year-old Dempsey who took the man-of-the-match award with a hat-trick on his first return to national team duty since recovering from an irregular heartbeat, Pulisic was unquestionably the most influential US player.
The Borussia Dortmund prodigy, still only 18, scored one goal and set up three others in a display that suggests US soccer has finally unearthed the sort of authentic attacking talent American fans have craved for years.
“He’s a great player. He can beat people one-on-one and he creates mismatches because of that,” Dempsey said of his young strike partner.
“It’s great to have players like that, who can win those one-on-one contests because it breaks teams open.”
Against Honduras, Pulisic thrived in the No.10 role, buzzing around menacingly in the space created by the forward partnership of Dempsey and Jozy Altidore.
US coach Bruce Arena said he had no hesitation in making Pulisic the fulcrum of the US attack after watching him play in a similar position for Bundesliga side Dortmund this season.
“He’s been exceptional the last couple of months with his club team, it’s clearly a position he’s played a lot and I felt it was the right decision to make,” Arena said, enthusing about Pulisic’s range of talents.
“He’s just a natural, the game’s easy for him,” Arena said.
“He’s got exceptional skill, vision. He’s pretty smooth.”
Friday’s victory lifted the United States off the bottom of the six-team round-robin final qualifying competition into fourth place.
The top three finishers qualify automatically for next year’s finals in Russia while the fourth-placed team faces an inter-confederation playoff against an Asian side.
The Americans will move into the automatic qualifying places if they are able to grab a victory in Panama City on Tuesday, where they won 3-2 in 2013 during qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Panama, who are third in the standings with four points from three games, head into Tuesday’s match aiming to bounce back following a 1-0 defeat in Port of Spain against Trinidad and Tobago on Friday.
While the US are buoyant after their destruction of Honduras, Arena believes the scrap for World Cup places will go right down to the wire.
“It’s going to be a real battle with all six teams down the stretch right the way up to October,” Arena said.
Mexico, the only unbeaten team, can cement their place at the top of the standings with a victory over Trinidad on Tuesday.
The day’s other game sees Honduras attempt to recover from Friday’s mauling with a game against 2014 World Cup quarter-finalists Costa Rica, who suffered a 2-0 defeat to Mexico in the Aztec Stadium on Friday.