The American way: Is USMNT's success under pressure a strength or a crutch?

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The U.S. always responds when its back is against the wall. Why can't the team play that way all the time?

ORLANDO, Fla. – Friday's 4-0 thrashing of Panama marked another fruitful night in U.S. colors for Jozy Altidore. His two goals bring his career U.S. men’s national team tally to 41 and his World Cup qualifying total to 18, joint-best in program history alongside teammate Clint Dempsey. His assist on Christian Pulisic is his seventh in qualifying play, drawing him level with John Harkes at second place in the all-time list.

No one has played more qualifiers for the U.S. in this cycle than Altidore, and only a select few are more influential: his team is 11-0-1 in qualifiers in which he scores. And almost no one else in CONCACAF history is more prolific in the region’s final round of qualifying:

The 27-year-old couldn’t really be bothered with all that, though, when a few such stats were lobbed his way in the postgame media mixed zone.

“Look, I just want to get to Russia, man,” said Altidore with a slight shake of his head. “That’s all that matters to me. I don’t pay attention to any of that stuff. Today was another step toward that.”

That mindset probably best encapsulates the Americans’ collective approach to the nerve-jangling conclusion of this messy, muddled qualification process. Even by CONCACAF standards, it has been a wobbly, winding path, and the Americans have seemingly only summoned their best performances when they absolutely had to.

Whether that’s a mental flaw or a psychological strength is anyone’s guess at this point.

“I don’t know. Ideally we’d like to be qualified for the World Cup. But that’s not the way it is,” U.S. defender Matt Besler said. “It’s been an up-and-down cycle so far, and there’s been three or four times where our backs have been against the wall, and that’s just the way that we respond. That’s the only way that we know how to respond. It’s the American way, it’s the pride we have as a team, and we want to fight for our country like that. So it’s a job well done tonight, but we’re only halfway there.”

For the past year or so, and likely for the foreseeable future to come, the lion’s share of the U.S. spotlight has been focused squarely on Christian Pulisic. The kid from Pennsylvania has all but hung the moon in his short but sterling international career. Yet Altidore – sometimes flawed and frustrating but undeniably productive – might just be the true avatar of this squad at present.

Everyone in the fractured, fussy American soccer community can agree that Pulisic is special and superb as he meets and beats one challenge after another well ahead of his 20th birthday. Altidore, on the other hand, polarizes opinion like few others.

Altidore was sold to Villarreal at a similar age for an MLS-record transfer fee, but failed to maximize his talents in Europe save for that excellent spell in the Netherlands with AZ Alkmaar before eventually making his way back to MLS. Even now, not every touch is perfect, and not every chance is finished – and not every observer is willing to appreciate the dirtier work of the No. 9 role that he performs so well.

After all those years of scrutiny, Altidore has developed a pretty thick skin, and it’s served him well as the bumps on the road to Russia threw everyone around the program into a tizzy.

“To be honest, I don’t think I’ve had a year where the stakes weren’t high, since I started,” he said earlier this week. “Looking back, every game’s a big game. The next game’s always the biggest game. That’s so evident now, being in World Cup qualifying where we are right now.”

Many of us in the press box talked ourselves into thinking that coach Bruce Arena would shuffle his tactical cards for this pressure-packed occasion. Surely, extra midfield protection would be needed to truly unleash Pulisic, or a three-man defense to maximize the flank speed called into this roster.

But Arena rolled out a classic U.S. look instead, packing a 4-4-2 shape with pace and power intended to seize the game by the throat from the get-go, while asking his defenders to be intelligent and mindful given the paucity of midfield protection in front of them.

“I thought it was great,” said right-winger Paul Arriola. “In the end, we needed to get the win. And being an attacking-minded player, it’s great. It’s awesome to be in there and know that it’s all about, ‘we have to get a goal, we have to get a goal early and then continue to work on that.’ And that’s exactly what we did.

“And the big players, they step up in big moments when we need them – obviously Christian, Jozy and Bobby [Wood] finishing it off.”

Noted Pulisic: “We needed a lot of movement against a physical Panama team that was going to sit in and not make it easy for us. Our movement was good today … there’s still some things we can do better, but I think the game plan was pretty much executed.”

If there’s a silver lining to the multiple slips and slides of this qualifying cycle, it’s the fact that they left the players with no doubts or great complexities to ponder this week. They had to win, and to do so, they were told to take an aggressive attacking outlook.

“Press them early, get out on the break and get after their back line,” explained Arena. “On the night, we actually didn’t finish well – we could’ve scored a lot more goals. In the second half we could’ve been a little bit better with our possession and made it a little bit harder for Panama. But on the night, it was a good night.”

Said Altidore: “Everybody was relaxed. We knew we were coming to a place where we were going to have heavy support, as we did here tonight, and we knew we just had to make sure we were the protagonist tonight, and put them under pressure from the first minute, and we did that.”

These are core concepts of ‘American soccer-ness,’ for lack of a better term, as is that backs-against-the-wall mentality. And while they’re probably not what will deliver that deep World Cup run against elite opposition that the nation has long thirsted for, they’ve gotten the U.S. to the big event in the past, and appear likely to have done so again this time.  

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