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PANAMA CITY – Omar Gonzalez looked relieved as he spoke in the tunnel underneath Estadio Rommel Fernandez.
Last in the standings with a 0-2 record last week, the United States jumped to fourth with a 6-0 rout of Honduras at home followed by a difficult point earned in a physical 1-1 draw at Panama on Tuesday night.
"Well, we wanted to creep up the table, and I think we did that these past 10 days," the 6-foot-5 center back said. "We showed a lot more camaraderie. We showed a team spirit that maybe we haven't seen in a long time, and so I think we can build off this."
Mexico leads the final round of North and Central America and the Caribbean with 10 points, followed by Costa Rica with seven, Panama with five, the U.S. and Honduras with four each, and Trinidad and Tobago with three. The top three nations in the hexagonal qualify for next year's World Cup in Russia, and the No. 4 team advances to a playoff against Asia's fifth-place nation.
"We've got three home games left. We win our home games and don't take another point, we're on 13. In past years that should get you to the World Cup," goalkeeper Tim Howard said. "We obviously plan on taking some points."
Play resumes June 8 when the U.S. hosts Trinidad, most likely at Commerce City, Colorado, and the Americans start the second half of their schedule three days later at Mexico. The U.S. is home against Costa Rica and at Honduras in September, then closes the next month with a home game against Panama and a road match at Trinidad.
The third-place team had 15 points four years ago, 16 in 2009 and 2005, 17 in 2001 and 14 in 1997.
"We're not going to qualify in seven games," U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati said. "So we're back on good footing. We gained ground on everybody other than Mexico, and Mexico right now is an outlier."
Seeking its eighth straight World Cup berth, the U.S. opened the hex with a 2-1 home loss to Mexico and a 4-0 flop at Costa Rica, prompting the USSF to fire Jurgen Klinsmann and bring back Bruce Arena, who coached the Americans from 1998-2006.
Injuries caused three projected starters to drop out before training camp opened: midfielder Fabian Johnson, right back DeAndre Yedlin and forward Bobby Wood. Jordan Morris, who likely would have started in Wood's place, hurt an ankle. Both central defenders left Friday's game early, Geoff Cameron with a muscle strain and John Brooks because of a sinus infection. Midfielder Sebastian Lletget came off with a foot injury expected to sideline him for four-to-six months.
A defensive four that had never played together faced Panama: Graham Zusi on the right, Gonzalez and Tim Ream in the center, and Jorge Villafana on the left.
"I've been very encouraged by what I've seen over the last 10 days," Arena said. "It's going to take some time to piece that team together."
At 38, Howard returned from a leg injury and re-established himself as the No. 1 goalkeeper. Clint Dempsey returned after an irregular heartbeat sidelined him from August until March, and the 34-year-old forward scored four goals in the two games to move within one of Landon Donovan's American record of 57.
Three of those goals were set up by 18-year-old Christian Pulisic, already the best American player. He dazzled on Tuesday, spinning around defenders before passing to Dempsey for the goal. He was repeatedly pushed and tugged and knocked down.
"I think Panama thought there was a bull's-eye on his back, and they went after him from minute 1 and all the way through," Arena said.
Pulisic has been with Borussia Dortmund's senior team for just over a year, and this month he became the youngest American to score in the Champions League. Yet, CONCACAF is far different from the manicured fields of Europe.
"Christian will probably learn the most from this game because he's incredibly talented, and when you play against top, top defenders in Europe, they recognize the talent and they defend properly," Howard said. "In CONCACAF, they don't defend properly. They just come steaming through you. They do. And steam through, the next one comes steaming through. It's crazy, but it's effective on certain nights when the referee is not on your side."
Pulisic took all the fouling in stride.
"Going into it I knew it was going to be a physical game, and the way I play, the style I play, it's pretty normal for me to get kicked around a few times. I was expecting it, so it wasn't too bad," he said.
Arena moved him to the center of the midfield at home, then out wide at Panama when Jermaine Jones returned from a one-game suspension for yellow card accumulation. Increasingly, it appears Pulisic will be the engine that powers the U.S.
"An invaluable experience for not only Christian, but some of our other players as well," Arena said.