In the fourth of 10 tests, the Americans (1-2-1) gained an important away point and remained in fourth place among six nations scrambling for three automatic berths in the 2018 tournament in Russia.
“From what I remember about CONCACAF qualifying, it hasn’t changed a whole lot in 12 years,” said Bruce Arena, who is in his second stint as U.S. coach. “It’s just a battle. The referee wasn’t going to call too many fouls. It was a slugfest for 90 minutes.”
Amid the buzz and bedlam at Rommel Fernandez Stadium, there was a twinkle of genuine beauty by Christian Pulisic, the 18-year-old American on a fast-track to stardom.
It came in the 39th minute and put the United States ahead.
He pressured Felipe Baloy, a bigger and stronger man, in Panama’s penalty area. He took the ball and rounded the Panamanian captain.
Roman Torres closed quickly to prevent a shot, but at the six-yard box, Pulisic cut back on Torres and, switching to his left foot in a flash, crossed to Clint Dempsey for a sliding one-timer into the far side of the net.
Reminder: He’s 18.
With his fourth goal in two matches, Dempsey, 34, closed within one of Landon Donovan’s U.S. record of 57 career goals.
The lead was short-lived, however, as Panama (1-1-2) equalized about two minutes before halftime. Improper defending on Adolfo Machado’s long throw-in led to a scramble at the six-yard box and Gabriel Gomez’s angled smash past Tim Howard.
The United States was without three starters from the 6-0 victory over Honduras on Friday in San Jose: midfielder Sebastian Lletget (foot) and defenders John Brooks (illness) and Geoff Cameron (muscle strain).
Lletget and Brooks didn’t travel; Cameron was scratched in the buildup to the match.
Jermaine Jones joined the lineup after serving a yellow-card suspension, fitting into central midfield with captain Michael Bradley. Pulisic moved out wide after a sterling performance in the middle Friday. Darlington Nagbe kept his place on the left wing.
Arena stuck with the forward tandem of Dempsey and Jozy Altidore. On the back line, Tim Ream replaced Brooks and Graham Zusi covered for Cameron. It was the first big test for Zusi, a former midfielder and fourth-choice right back (at best), who embraced his new position this winter.
The formation lacked a central playmaker, prompting Pulisic to pinch in at times and Zusi to overlap.
Panama, seeking its first World Cup berth, had lost at last-place Trinidad and Tobago on Friday, raising the stakes for the American visit.
Los Canaleros (The Canal Men) had never beaten the United States in six prior qualifiers, the last five in defeat. The most painful came 3½ years ago at home when, on the verge of clinching fourth place and a World Cup playoff berth instead of Mexico, Panama conceded two stoppage-time goals to the already-safe Americans in a 3-2 defeat.
The supporters and media had not forgotten. Haunted by the defeat, La Prensa’s headline Monday was “Regresa de Fantasma” (Ghost Returns). More specifically, Zusi, who scored the killer equalizer, had returned.
Outside the U.S. hotel late Monday, fans set off three sets of fireworks — mild stuff compared to disruptive antics in Central America over the years.
The Americans had one previous defeat to Panama in 16 meetings and earned two victories and a draw in qualifiers at this reconditioned venue northeast of the city’s bayside skyscrapers. A running track provides a buffer between fans and field, easing the intimidation factor.
Riding the emotional wave forged by a crackling crowd, Panama was the early aggressor and created several half-chances. Arena and the players had braced for a much different match than Friday’s runaway in San Jose.
The Panamanians were cognizant of Pulisic’s capacity to bust open their defense. Twice in short time, they sent him sprawling. Nagbe received similar treatment.
“Sometimes it’s not always about soccer in these games,” Pulisic said. “You’ve got to really stay focused and keep the same intensity. It’s all about finding that balance.”
When Panama barked at Pulisic for not stopping play for an injury, Altidore and Jones rushed to his defense.
“It was a good lesson for Christian tonight,” Arena said. “I think Panama thought there was a bull’s eye on his back. They went after him from minute one.”
The first genuine opportunity came in the 33rd minute when Alberto Quintero beat Zusi and Jones before testing Howard with a 12-yard effort.
Dempsey and Gomez traded goals before intermission.
Before 10 minutes of the second half passed, Nagbe made two long, promising runs. Gabriel Torres broke into the clear before encountering resistance. Howard stuffed Luis Tejada’s one-timer at close range. Whew — someone surely was going to shatter this deadlock.
Arena called on reinforcements: Alejandro Bedoya for Nagbe, newcomer Kellyn Acosta for Jones and Paul Arriola, a late roster addition, for Altidore.
Both side pressed for the winner, but fatigue and stout defending won out.
Reflecting on the past week, goalkeeper Tim Howard said: “Four points was a must; six points would’ve been great.
“It got us back on track.”
The Americans will resume the slog against Trinidad and Tobago (1-3-0) on June 8 in the Denver suburbs and June 11 against front-running Mexico (3-0-1) at Azteca Stadium.
Notes: Lletget, who scored the opening goal against Honduras, will undergo foot surgery and miss four to six months, the Los Angeles Galaxy announced.