Christian Pulisic dribbles while Bruce Arena looks on
USA Today

Stejskal: Who should the US start against Panama?

It’s not their biggest game in the last 20 years, but the US national team’s critical World Cup qualifier against Panama on Friday night (7 pm ET; ESPN2, Univision, UDN) isn’t all that far off.

A win in Orlando would leave the US in great shape to claim one of the top three spots in the CONCACAF Hexagonal and claim an automatic bid to Russia next summer. A loss, and the Americans are looking at a fight just to finish fourth and advance to a World Cup qualifying playoff against Australia or Syria.

As Matt Doyle detailed in his preview, Panama, who have only allowed five goals in eight Hex matches, will sit deep on Friday night. Los Canaleros will clog the middle, take few risks and stay organized.

It’ll take a moment of magic to break them down in open play, which is why it’s critical for head coach Bruce Arena to start Christian Pulisic as a No. 10. Pulisic is the most talented attacking midfielder on the US roster, and the Americans will need his skills, vision and ability to power through the lines to get the better of the disciplined, though somewhat unathletic, Panama defense.

How to construct the lineup around Pulisic? I’d opt for a 3-5-2. A 4-2-3-1 might be a touch more familiar for most of the US players, but I can’t imagine Arena leaving two of Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey and Bobby Wood on the bench in what’s essentially a must-win home qualifier. I’d pick Altidore and Dempsey as my strikers, with Altidore doing the bulk of the physical work against Roman Torres and Adolfo Machado and Dempsey selected for his best-in-the-striker-pool ability to combine and create with Pulisic.

Here’s how I’d lineup the rest of the XI:

3-5-2, left to right
Tim Howard – Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez, Geoff Cameron – Jorge Villafaña, Michael Bradley, Christian Pulisic, Alejandro Bedoya, DeAndre Yedlin – Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore