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Bruce Arena Strikes Back

Sunday 26th March 2017
As players were settling into their international training camps to prepare for this week's friendlies and World Cup qualifiers, I noted returning United States manager Bruce Arena was in a tight spot, using one of my favorite movies as a metaphor. I raised every doubt pundits and fans have been putting forth, then concluded this week's matches "will reveal what progress, if any, the new boss has made, and how far he still must go." Did Arena respond? Definitely. In just the first match, Arena saw my Scott Pilgrim, then raised me a Darth Vader.

Having dropped the first two matches in CONCACAF's Hexagonal qualifying round to its main rivals for regional supremacy, Mexico and Costa Rica, the USMNT were mired deep in the six-nation round robin's cellar. The 4-0 embarrassment courtesy the Ticos placed them three points and six goals behind the country holding down the fourth and final qualification slot, Honduras. While finishing bottom of their group in both tournaments, scoring just one goal and earning a single point (in separate matches) overall, Los Catrachos had nevertheless qualified for each of the last two World Cups. Just to draw level, let alone overtake them at the end of this international break would have been viewed as a good first step for the Americans.
Only, Arena had his squad so motivated, so prepared, it took just one match. LA Galaxy midfielder Sebastian Lletget opened the scoring just five minutes in. By halftime it was 3-0. When the final whistle mercifully sounded for Honduras, it was a six-star romp. The US had drawn level on points with Honduras, flipped their respective goal difference on its head, and, despite Trinidad and Tobago's 1-0 win over Panama, had claimed the final qualifying place. Bruce Arena strikes back, indeed.

The opening goal was a homecoming for Borussia Dortmund teenage sensation, Christian Pulisic. The young number ten overran a turnover just in front of the opposition eighteen-yard box. With three teammates on the scene, he wisely continued his run. Jozy Altidore chipped the ball over two defenders into Pulisic's path. His shot was deflected by charging goalkeeper Donis Escober, only for the ball to carom across the goalmouth to the anticipatory Lletget, who tapped in a high bounce with dexterity but was less coordinated in his effort to reach the corner flag for a celebration.

Favorable comparisons to Landon Donovan have been made regarding Pulisic. The retired all-time scorer for the USMNT struggled with Bayern and Bayer Leverkusen in Germany, whereas the newcomer has thrived. The question remained whether Pulisic could make a similar impact to Donovan on the international stage. Here was the night's first hint the answer was yes.

Unfortunately, Lletget and co's early joy would soon be tempered by a sliding tackle from Ever Alvarado that injured the American's ankle, forcing Arena to go to his bench early. The Americans would quickly claim vengeance. Michael Bradley, long reviled under former coach Jürgen Klinsmann for his inability to adapt to a more forward role, returned to his marauding self after Arena restored him to a deeper position. Turning away from a defender on the right, he made a diagonal run towards the left side of the Honduran box on twenty-seven minutes. His low, fizzing volley back against the grain eluded Escober but not the far post. Two-nil.
Five minutes later, Pulisic would further announce his arrival. Following Altidore's example, he chipped the ball over the defense for Clint Dempsey. In his first start for country since missing the 2016 MLS season's final months with a heart ailment, Dempsey didn't miss a beat. He used his body to hold off one defender, then beat another to the ball to poke it past Escober. Gianluigi Buffon may have made his thousandth professional appearance in a dream career, earlier in the day, but the Honduran keeper had to be hoping his nightmare would end much sooner.

During the intermission, Arena reportedly warned his side Honduras would be all over them at the restart, coaching them to immediately get the ball in the attacking end. If Klinsmann had lost the room in his final matches, Arena could only claim rapt attention to every syllable. Ten seconds after the half began, Pulisic had the ball at his feet as he pushed into the eighteen-yard box. Three seconds more, the ball was in the net. Landon who?

From there, it was the Clint Dempsey show. Pulisic led him right between the center halves with a pass. Dempsey outflanked Escober, slotting in his second. Then he curled and dipped a free kick from the right side, over the wall, beyond Escober's reach, into the far side netting.
Of those fit, the veterans produced strong performances despite questions regarding their worth. Dempsey had the hattrick. Altidore provided the penultimate pass on Lletget's goal and Dempsey's second. Bradley scored. In goal, Tim Howard stopped four shots. He and the defense kept a clean sheet despite Honduras actually enjoying (?) a slight advantage in possession.

Meanwhile Pulisic confirmed himself US soccer's new crown prince. Sam's Army, after watching two routs go the wrong way, gave voice like perhaps they never have for one that went theirs.

Most importantly, Arena had the answer for every question. After waiting months to see his side kick a ball in anger, the next challenge comes more suddenly on Tuesday. The Americans must go down to Panama to put some distance between themselves and the two Hexagonal outsiders. A second victory will lift them past their hosts into the three direct qualification places.

Winning away in CONCACAF is never easy, however, despite the disparity in quality between countries. It's more difficult when you go into a match too overconfident. Arena has restored his side's self-belief. Now, he must convince them the need exists to prove themselves all over again.
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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