Most of my takes are in the video above or in the special edition of ExtraTime Radio linked below, but I'll give you the short version here: Bruce Arena's made a career out of taking calculated risks. In general most of those risks – the 5-4-1 at Mexico in June, or the 3-5-2 vs. Mexico in the 2002 World Cup, or the seen-them-too-often-at-the-time-but-in-hindsight-I-sorta-get-it double d-mid formations of the 2002 and 2006 qualifying cycles – were defensive in nature.
On Friday night, in a must-win game against Panama, he went in the other direction. Our man Charlie Boehm covered it in detail in his column, and here's the telling quote from the manager: "Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war."
Wait no, that quote's from something else. Here's the real one: "We wanted to push five players forward into the attack as aggressively as we could."
They did exactly that, again and again and again, until the scoreline read 4-0 and Hernan Dario Gomez read the Panamanian press the riot act. They played a wide diamond, which I'd not have done and which displeased me when I saw it; they played Christian Pulisic as a burst-through-the-lines No. 10, which I most certainly would have done and pleased me greatly; they used the fullbacks to support rather than overlap, which gave a solidity and structure to the back four that has, at times, been lacking.
And also this:
Bradley is not a perfect player, and a lack of consistency in formation and squad selection has led to some subpar passing numbers relative to what he's done in the past, and what he does on the weekly with Toronto FC. But you don't take this chance – you don't go full Mark Antony – if you have just any old defensive midfielder covering that spot. Your risk calculations probably push you in the other direction, toward a grit-and-grind one-goal result.
The US have had a lot of those over the decades, and Arena was particularly masterful at pulling them off during his first tenure as manager. His teams did so with such frequency that it was a point of unquestioned belief amongst the fanbase that he was a conservative, defensive manager first and foremost.
This win over Panama, and the 6-0 over Honduras to start his eight-game run-in as resuscitator of the program Jurgen Klinsmann nearly smothered to death, gives the lie to that belief. Arena's not an ultra-defensive manager; he's an ultra-pragmatic manager. And sometimes pragmatism demands that you're Antony in Caesar's tomb, vowing total war via all-out attack.
Not against Mexico, mind you, and not against Costa Rica either. Panama was a different sort of challenge and so it was a different sort of calculus for the manager and the players. But the idea of "let's make Bradley's job a lot harder so that the attack's job is a bit easier" was a worthy trade-off.
What comes next will be interesting to see. Even after a 4-0 I still think we'll get a more defensive set-up at Trinidad & Tobago on Tuesday for the final qualifier of this cycle, because it just feels like the right call for a road game where all that's needed is a draw. That could mean a 4-2-3-1 or a 3-5-2 or even a 5-4-1 (that last one feels a step too far).
After that, assuming the US does indeed qualify for Russia, it becomes a more open question of what the US can become over the next eight months rather than the question of what the US must become that dominated 2017.
Arena's pragmatism in answering that second question has revealed him to be something of an idealist. That's not the risk I thought he'd take. I'm glad I was wrong, and I'm very much looking forward to finding out what it might mean next summer, with the whole world watching.