This past week, the U.S. men’s national team played its first meaningful games since Bruce Arena took over for his second stint as its coach. The Americans destroyed Honduras 6-0 on March 24 in San Jose, Calif., then earned a scrappy 1-1 draw with Panama on the road Tuesday despite being outplayed.
It wasn’t the six-point sweep that many American fans hoped for, but it put the team one point back of third place, the final spot for automatic World Cup qualification, with six games to play.
The play was competent and straightforward, like Arena himself. After the eccentricities and constant drama of the Jurgen Klinsmann years, it felt refreshing.
Arena was his usual cantankerous self. Asked before the Panama game whether he’d like his players to have more fun, he cracked, “We’re bringing a clown in for lunch today to make balloons and stuff for the players.” He took much of the nonsense out of the American lineup, including dispensing with Klinsmann’s quixotic quest to (apparently) select his fullbacks via random draw. Arena, on Jorge Villafana: “He’s a left back, which is one of the criteria I think you should have for playing a left back.”
Unlike Klinsmann, Arena didn’t turn the rest of his lineup into a grand experiment, either. With the Americans’ first-choice center backs out injured, Arena didn’t suddenly try to turn midfielder Jermaine Jones into a center back, as Klinsmann once did. He just selected Omar Gonzalez and Tim Ream, the next two most experienced players at the position. He went with veteran, trustworthy players and put them in situations they have experienced before. It seems simple, but the choices paid off.
It helps that Arena is taking over at the dawning of the Christian Pulisic era of American soccer. The 18-year-old midfielder has gotten more hype at this point than any American player in history and, so far, he’s living up to the plaudits. Playing as the organizer and creator of the American attack, free to roam where he needed to create offense behind the two American forwards, Pulisic drew raves for his calm, assured, controlling performance.
It matched Pulisic’s performances for his German club team, Borussia Dortmund, one of the best teams in Europe. In the two World Cup qualifiers, he proved that he is both talented enough and calm enough to take the physical pounding in CONCACAF and still create goals.
It’s impossible not to look at Pulisic and think that the U.S. squad will go as far as he can take it. He and the team might have the perfect coach, someone smart enough to build a solid team around the youngster, one that plays to his strengths.
Sure, it wasn’t a perfect two games. But it was enough to give fans hope for the rest of qualifying and beyond.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
Everton's Romelu Lukaku
Premier League: Everton at Liverpool, 6:30 a.m. Saturday, NBCSN. The Merseyside Derby is attraction enough, but suddenly Everton — with only one loss in its past nine games — is just six points back of Liverpool, and fourth place, in the standings. The Toffees’ European dreams would get a major boost with a win on their shortest road trip.
Bundesliga: Borussia Dortmund at Schalke, 8:30 a.m. Saturday, FS2. Dortmund has not lost a Bundesliga home game since April 2015. But BVB is still only in third place because of the team’s rotten road form, with just four victories all year. If Dortmund still hopes to overtake RB Leipzig for second place, it needs to correct its troubles away from home.
French League Cup Final: Monaco vs. Paris Saint-Germain, 2 p.m. Saturday, beIN Sports. Yes, the Coupe de Ligue is France’s secondary cup competition, so the trophy isn’t that important. For one afternoon, though, the two best teams in France will put aside the Ligue 1 title race and knock the stuffing out of each other.
La Liga: Alavés at Real Madrid, 9:15 a.m. Sunday, beIN Sports. This may seem like a walkover for Real Madrid, but the league leaders shouldn’t sleep on Alavés, which has already defeated Barcelona on the road this year. With Barca struggling, Real Madrid has an opportunity to close out the La Liga title race. But it needs three points in games like this.
• The U.S. is in an imperfect spot in World Cup qualifying, but if FIFA gets its way, qualifying will become almost a moot point for the Americans. FIFA has proposed a 48-team World Cup for 2026, which would include six teams from CONCACAF. Even when the U.S. struggles, it would have trouble missing out on the region’s top six.
• Both MLS squads remaining in the CONCACAF Champions League have a chance to qualify for the final this week. Dallas leads Pachuca 2-1 after the first leg and needs just a draw or better on the road to make the final. Vancouver is in a tougher spot. Though playing at home, the Whitecaps trail Tigres 2-0, and if Tigres scores even once, the Mexican side will hold the tiebreaker.
• You have to wonder what Bastian Schweinsteiger, above, is thinking about in his quest to turn around the Chicago Fire. At Schweinsteiger's introductory news conference, a reporter asked him whether he thought he could win the World Cup with Chicago. I’m sure the German midfielder is confident, but probably not so confident that he thinks he can turn Chicago into its own country, and then win the biggest trophy in international soccer.