FC Dallas stand up! Jesus Ferreira, Paul Arriola massive for USMNT vs. Panama

Undeniably, Christian Pulisic was the key protagonist in Sunday’s 5-1 win for the US men’s national team over Panama, a hat trick from the captain filled with equal parts wrath and swagger.

But the frontline contained far more punch than just the Chelsea star, with FC Dallas’ duo of Paul Arriola and Jesus Ferreira also hugely important in a World Cup qualifying victory that has the Yanks on the verge of a Qatar 2022 spot.

Ferreira took up his No. 9 role, scoring in the 27th minute what he dubbed “the first of many” as his international profile continues to grow. Arriola set up that strike and headed home an Antonee “Jedi” Robinson cross in the 23rd minute, making the most of his first-half shift with Tim Weah facing a yellow-card suspension.

Encountering essentially a must-win match at Orlando City SC’s Exploria Stadium, head coach Gregg Berhalter’s lineup decisions – and trust in the squad's depth – were repaid.

“Jesus was, for us, pretty clear of how we wanted to use him in this game,” Berhalter said postgame. “I think he did an excellent job, and similarly with Paul. We knew that he would be relentless pressing, we knew he'd stretch the backline and get behind them, and we know he can arrive in the penalty box. Both of those players are in form and doing a great job with their club and scoring goals with their club. We didn't hesitate to start them at all.”

Arriola is new to FCD this year, arriving from D.C. United in a league-record trade for $2 million General Allocation Money and incentives. As for Ferreira, he inked a Young Designated Player deal this past offseason after fellow homegrown forward Ricardo Pepi – who started the 0-0 draw at Mexico on Thursday – was transferred to German Bundesliga side FC Augsburg.

And they’re both playing under new FCD coach Nico Estevez, a former USMNT assistant coach under Berhalter whose tactics and playing style employ similar principles. With club-record acquisition Alan Velasco arriving from Argentina’s Independiente, they project as quite the formidable attacking trio in MLS.

“I think the chemistry between Paul and [me], it shows,” Ferreira said postgame. "We've been doing it before and once he came into Dallas it was even better. We practice the pressing all the time, so it made it easier to have someone that you can trust and that gets your back. I'm excited to share the field and I know every time we're there together we'll do a good job.”

With the USMNT up 4-0 at halftime, it was the most dominant half of the Berhalter era on a night where Canada booked passage to the 2022 World Cup. Arriola and Ferreira both enjoyed vital roles, with the latter even employing a clever decoy tactic on Pulisic's two penalty-kick finishes to prevent Los Canaleros from disrupting the No. 10.

“​​In both of their cases, it's arriving,” Berhalter said of the FCD duo. “You have to get into the penalty box if you want to score. Jesus is a good combination player, is a very clever player. He understands where space is really well and Paul the same thing. We've challenged him about arriving in the box, getting good positions and he did that. Great service on his goal and he was able to put away a nice goal.”

Arriola: “I'll be honest with you, I'm not celebrating anything."

But the job’s certainly not complete, something Arriola stressed during his postgame press conference. The 27-year-old is one of several players who experienced the failed Russia 2018 cycle first-hand, when they beat Panama 4-0 in Orlando in the penultimate game of World Cup qualifying only to lose 2-1 on that fateful night in Couva against Trinidad & Tobago.

That specter still hangs over the program, even if the math is certainly in their favor for Wednesday's visit to Costa Rica (9:05 pm ET | CBS Sports Network, Paramount+, Universo, Peacock). They’ll land one of Concacaf’s three automatic spots with a win, draw or loss by no more than six goals. A fourth-place finish, at worst, is already secured alongside the Oceania one-off playoff that comes with it.

“I'll be honest with you, I'm not celebrating anything,” Arriola said. “Like you said, I was in this exact position or a very similar position four years ago and we know how that qualification ended. So for me, I think it's just maintaining focus, understanding that we still have work to do and anything is possible. For us, like I said, the mentality of this group is and has to be to go down there to get a good result against Costa Rica.”