Inexperienced midfielders step up as USA get back on track in Hexagonal

Sebastian Lletget - US national team - celebration

SAN JOSE, Calif. – For a man perhaps best known the ultimate pragmatist, returning US national team coach Bruce Arena threw a bold lineup on the field at Avaya Stadium on Friday night.

Needing a win against Honduras to arrest a potential slide right out of the Hex, Arena pulled together a diamond formation that showcased captain Michael Bradley – he of the 129 career US appearances – alongside a cadre of young, mostly untested midfielders: Sebastian Lletget, Darlington Nagbe and Christian Pulisic.

It was a calculated risk – with only Bradley left as cover for a US defense missing some potentially critical pieces – that paid off in a huge way during a 6-0 rampage against an overwhelmed Honduras squad.

“We had to win this game and we had to have an aggressive, attacking concept to break down a team that defends well,” Arena told reporters after the match. “So we had to have a number of players in advanced positions.”

With Portland’s Nagbe and LA’s Lletget manning the wings, Pulisic, the Borussia Dortmund phenom, was able to roam freely throughout the US attacking third, creating opportunities at the point of Arena’s diamond. The 18-year-old linked up all night with forwards Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey to create a triumvirate that tore through Honduras’ five-man back line.

All told, Altidore, Dempsey and Pulisic combined for four goals and three assists on the evening. And that’s not even counting the Altidore pass and ensuing Pulisic shot – parried aside by Honduras goalkeeper Donis Escober – that led, via the rebound, to Lletget’s first career international goal.            

“The combination of Altidore, Dempsey and Pulisic was outstanding,” said Arena, who admitted that he had been playing coy with the media when he told them earlier in the week that he wasn’t sure where he was going to put Pulisic on the wing or centrally. The middle was always the plan, with Nagbe and Fabian Johnson (before injury felled him, putting Lletget into the lineup) on the flanks. It’s a spot where Pulisic has thrived lately for Dortmund, as one of a pair of creators working underneath forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

“He’s a great player,” Dempsey said of Pulisic, whose chipped assist help set up the first of Dempsey’s three scores. “He can beat people one-on-one, dribble, creates mismatches because of that, someone else has to try to push to him and if you’re able to make good runs, he’ll find you. It’s great to have players like that.”

All three members of the trio touched the ball as Pulisic scored barely 15 seconds into the second half, the start of a three-goal flurry which doubled the Americans’ halftime advantage inside 10 minutes, turning a blowout into an absolute laugher.

“I’m amazed at how we came out in the second half, to be honest with you,” Arena said. “I told them at halftime that Honduras was going to come out and be all over us. We wanted to play the opening kickoff into their end of the field. Little did I know that it was going to result in a goal.”

It’s the kind of performance that might have been unexpected, given the way in which the US capitulated in their last Hex appearance – a 4-0 drubbing in Costa Rica in November. But players noted the difference between life under Arena and former coach Jurgen Klinsmann.

“He’s given the guys a ton of confidence by letting them be themselves, just letting everyone play their game,” defender Omar Gonzalez said. “He told us in a meeting he’s not trying to bring anyone down, that everyone is here for a reason and he wants to just let them go out there and do what they can do. I think just hearing those words gives everyone a lot of confidence.”