Bruce Arena: Panama hacked Pulisic in USMNT's "slugfest" qualifying draw

Over the past year, Christian Pulisic has met and surmounted an array of challenges on his climb to US national team stardom. The USA’s boy wonder continued that progression in a hostile CONCACAF environment on Tuesday night, fighting through Panama’s cynical game plan to help the Yanks earn a 1-1 draw despite being outplayed for long stretches.

Though he’s only 18, with a mere handful of World Cup qualifying matches under his belt to date, Pulisic found himself right in Los Canaleros’ crosshairs, as they did their best to kick him off his stride with an array of bruising tackles and clashes. The Borussia Dortmund wunderkind shrugged off the harassment to serve up Clint Dempsey for the USMNT’s only goal of the night.

“It was a good lesson for Christian tonight,” said US coach Bruce Arena postgame, noting that Bundesliga referees tend to protect players like Pulisic from excessively physical challenges to a greater extent than their CONCACAF counterparts.

“Panama [had] a bull’s-eye on his back and they went after him from minute 1. He has to learn that the referee’s not going to protect him. He’s got to deal with it. It’s all part of the learning curve. Next time around he’ll be better for it.”

Tasked with a right flank role for most of the match, Pulisic and his opposite number on the left Darlington Nagbe were fouled about as often as the rest of their teammates combined. Combined with some uneven bounces on Estadio Rommel Fernandez’s playing surface, it made it difficult for the US to build rhythm – but the teenager came to grips with the situation quickly.

“Sometimes it's not always about soccer in these games,” said Pulisic. “You've got to really stay focused and physical out there and keep the same intensity. So it's all about finding that balance. It’s important. There were times where I didn't have it today, but the way I play, the style I play, it's pretty normal for me to get kicked around a few times. So I was expecting it, it wasn't too bad.”

In making the play that led to the USMNT’s goal, Pulisic showed he was in tune with the scrappy nature of the match.

Jermaine [Jones] slipped me in behind, I made a run and I just had to battle for the ball – like the whole game – I just had to battle a bit. I was in front of goal, I think I cut it and just saw Clint making a perfect run,” said Pulisic, while admitting some frustrations at giving up the equalizer just moments later.

“It was good to get the lead. We needed to go in 1-0 at half, though, which was big.”

While not exactly content with their overall performance, Pulisic and the rest of the squad expressed satisfaction at taking four points from this month’s two qualifiers, pulling them out of the Hexagonal basement.

“We’re obviously in better shape. We’ve made progress,” said Arena. “Every game in qualifying is going to be critical. It’s going be a battle for the second, third and fourth spots.

“It was a slugfest for 90 minutes. Panama was determined to be physical,” he added. “The heat, the humidity, the surface of the field combined with the physicality made it a real rough game.”