Consider Tuesday night's 1-1 draw in Panama City between the USMNT and Panama a reminder. It's a reminder that CONCACAF is improving, and it's a reminder that the Michael Bradley/Jermaine Jones pairing in central midfield does not work. It's a reminder that the 4-4-2 can often leave teams bereft of meaningful possession, and a reminder that set pieces matter. It's a reminder that Christian Pulisic is indeed a special talent.


Most of all it was a reminder of how brutally unpleasant road games are in qualifying, especially in Central America. Jurgen Klinsmann's teams went just 1-4-1 (the famous "San Zusi" win at Panama back in 2013 was the only three-pointer) over a cycle-and-a-half, and while Bruce Arena's group have gotten off to a better start than that, it's not by much.


The US were, quite frankly, outplayed by Los Canaleros, and were lucky to get the point:

That really does paint an accurate picture. Nobody would've watched that 90 minutes and felt that the US were the better team. Injuries accounted for a lot of that, but injuries happen. There's clearly work yet to be done.


Yet at the end of the night, the US had climbed up to fourth place in the Hexagonal, had taken just their third qualifying result in Central America this decade, and had mostly steadied the ship that seemed ready to sink this past winter.


A few notes:


• Both teams played relatively deep blocks defensively, and there was zero high pressure to speak of – a combined total of one defensive action in the attacking third? That's not what we think of as a "modern" soccer game at all. And when that happens, games can get weird because there's a sort of openness through the lines that neither team really planned on, and neither really wants.


Nobody knew what to do with it. You want a game to put into a time capsule and explain why the 4-4-2 kind of died for a few years? There you go.


• Neither side was particularly good at establishing possession, though Panama were clearly more organized. They regularly funneled the US down the flanks and won the ball in their own defensive channels, then started on a 70-yard gallop toward goal, usually bending inward toward the space that either Jones or Bradley (or both) had vacated. This put pressure on the US central defense, which in turn forced fullbacks Graham Zusi and Jorge Villafaña to defend on an island.


March 29, 2017

I really do think this is the story of the central midfield for the US. Jones works well in a scheme where he is the alpha and the omega, with the rest of the team set up to give him complete freedom and are programmed to react to his movement. Bradley, meanwhile, is less of a freelancer but demands verticality (which Jones only rarely provides) for his outlets.


They're oil and water, two very good players who make each other worse. It's our version of Gerrard and Lampard, and it's been seven years and three coaches and probably needs to end. Perhaps when Arena subbed Kellyn Acosta on for Jones with 15 minutes left, a torch was passed?


• Did Bruce coach to win, or to not lose?

I think it's the latter to be perfectly honest. Moving away from the 4-4-2 diamond to a flatter/flattish version was a conservative play that I advocated for, with the idea that it would protect the makeshift backline he had to employ thanks to the rash of injuries that befell the team.


And that makeshift backline really did struggle to work as a unit. In part it was because of their own limitations, but in part it was because the midfield in front of them was so reactive and stretched, and unable to exert the right kind of pressure in the right spots. Going to the flat 4-4-2 caused the very problem (open space in front of central defense) it was supposed to solve.


I do wonder if Arena would've gone in a different direction had either Geoff Cameron or John Brooks or both been available.


The US gave up a goal off a throw-in. I can't even.


They'd have given up a lot more than that if Panama didn't lose their minds around the box and either over-dribble or play passes with the wrong weight.


• Getting back to verticality... this was not a great game for the Jozy Altidore/Clint Dempsey pairing, especially against as immobile a backline as Panama's. It was left to Pulisic to provide any sort of field-stretching impetus, which...

Just crown him. Sure he had his moments of slop (everyone on both teams did), but he wins games with stuff like this.


Note that this was just about the only time the US forced Roman Torres or Felipe Baloy to make a play in the open field. Arena has to figure out how to encourage more of this. Some will come naturally when Bobby Wood, Jordan Morris and Fabian Johnson get healthy, but much more of it has to come out of useful and purposeful possession that can be turned into penetration.


There wasn't much of that to be found on the night. Just a point – good enough to get the job done for now, even if the process is in obvious need of improvement.