Entering the last two matches of CONCACAF Final Round Qualifying, the U.S. Men’s National Team held its destiny firmly in its hands. After a resounding 4-0 win against Panama in one of the most raucous venues in M.L.S., a trip to the 2018 FIFA World Cup is now within reach. For the USA, a result in a high-pressure qualifier is nothing new.
“Every time I’ve been on this team, whenever our backs are against the wall we always find a way to perform,” said Jozy Altidore, whose two goals tied him as the team’s all-time leading goalscorer in World Cup Qualifying with Clint Dempsey. “I thought from the first minute we made it so the bar was so far in our favor that there was only going to be one winner.”
When the Americans have gone down in qualifying, they have proved time and time again that they are never out. The U.S. got off to a rough start in the Final Round, falling at home to rival Mexico and on the road to a strong Costa Rica squad. Its results from the first two matchdays in November left the USA in last place and with little margin for error.
When its next qualifiers rolled around in March, a new leader stood at the helm as Bruce Arena – the all-time winningest coach in U.S. Soccer history – set out to put the MNT on track. The red, white and blue put on a show, rolling Honduras 6-0 at Avaya Stadium in San Jose as Clint Dempsey announced his return to the National Team after missing months with an irregular heartbeat. The victory against Honduras marked Christian Pulisic’s first goal in Hexagonal play, and the then 18-year-old Borussia Dortmund star also notched two assists.
Pulisic similarly provided a spark against Panama on Friday night. From the opening whistle, the aggressive U.S. attack set the tempo and the tone for the match. Pulisic silenced any lingering doubts about the MNT in the eighth minute, when he netted on an incredibly tight angle off of a ball from Altidore.
“The attackers were electric. They smelled blood and went after it,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “The objective was clear when we came in here. We controlled our own destiny. It was exactly where you want to be on the last two matchdays. We took care of business tonight.”
As is the case when the team needs to demonstrate its resilience, the attack was relentless. After Pulisic’s opening tally, he assisted on Altidore’s first goal. Altidore then added another on a penalty kick, while Bobby Wood topped things off with a stop-and-shoot chip in the second half.
Altidore led the team in goals during the CONCACAF Semifinal Round of Qualifying, a tournament circuit that provided another chance for the team to prove its determination. After dropping a tough 2-0 loss on the road in Guatemala on March 25, 2016, the USA faced Los Chapines again just four days later on March 29 in Columbus, Ohio. In the home contest, the MNT scored early and often. Dempsey opened things up with a 12th minute strike while Geoff Cameron, Graham Zusi and Altidore added goals to give the U.S. a dominant 4-0 victory. When the team has needed to make a statement in this World Cup cycle, the scoreline has done all the talking.
“We had to respond in a big way,” captain Michael Bradley said after the win against Panama. “Everybody knew what was at stake, and it was just about having guys step on the field and do whatever the game asked. Across the board, guys came through in a big way.”
Now it’s on to Trinidad & Tobago, where another American win would officially punch the USA’s ticket to Russia next summer for the 2018 World Cup. Just as it was entering Matchday 9, the U.S. heads into the final day of CONCACAF qualifying with its fate entirely in its own hands.
“The job’s not done yet,” said Altidore after his Orlando brace. “We need a result and we know it’s going to be a tough place to play.”
“It’s been a long road to put ourselves in this situation,” Bradley said. “Ultimately, we’ve played 15 games in qualifying and now we’ve got a chance in 90 minutes in Trinidad to finish the job and make sure we’re on the plane to Russia. I think the motivation will be huge to go down there and do whatever it takes.”