PANAMA CITY >> Christian Pulisic was sent tumbling to the ground early on. The 18-year-old phenom bounced back up, and so did the United States.
Pulisic made an outstanding individual move to spin a defender and feed Clint Dempsey for his 56th international goal, and the Americans hung on for an important 1-1 draw against Panama today that kept up their rebound in World Cup qualifying.
Dempsey’s 39th-minute goal on a warm and humid night moved him within one of Landon Donovan’s American scoring record, but Gabriel Gomez tied the score four minutes later when the U.S. allowed him a clear shot after a thrown-in bounced off a scrum.
“Just the atmosphere and the environment we played in today, I think we can be satisfied going home with one,” Pulisic said of the point.
Mexican referee Cesar Ramos, working in place of injured countryman Roberto Garcia, called 26 fouls, including 19 against Panama, but no yellow cards.
“Three minutes into the game, you realize you’re playing 12 against 11,” American goalkeeper Tim Howard said.
Already the best American player at age 18, Pulisic was one day short of the anniversary of his international debut and the focal point of opponents. He took a chip from Dempsey in the 29th minute, and Luis Tejada made a hard slide tackle that took out his legs. Pulisic went down, grabbing his left leg, and got up, irate, yelling and pointing at Tejada. The Panamanian reached out a hand only to see Pulisic turn and walk away.
“I think Panama thought there was a bull’s-eye on his back, and they went after him from minute 1 all the way through,” U.S. coach Bruce Arena said. “He has to learn that, that if the referee is not going protect him he’s got to deal with it, and I think he did well.”
Howard put it even more bluntly.
“When you play against top, top defenders in Europe, they recognize the talent and they defend properly,” the 38-year-old goalkeeper said. “In CONCACAF, they don’t defend properly, they just come steaming through you.”
After an 0-2 start led the U.S. Soccer Federation to fire Jurgen Klinsmann and bring back Arena, the Americans have climbed to fourth in the final round of the North and Central American and Caribbean region. Mexico leads 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.
El Tri won 1-0 at Trinidad and Costa Rica rallied for a 1-1 tie at Honduras. 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.
“Sometimes it’s not always about soccer in these games,” Pulisic said. “You’ve got to really stay focused and physical out there.”
The U.S. goal came after Pulisic played the ball by Jermaine Jones and won it from Panama captain Felipe Baloy at the edge of the penalty area and broke in on goal. Pulisic stopped, stepped on the ball with his right foot as defender Roman Torres spun, played the ball from his right foot to his left and cut it back to Dempsey.
The 34-year-old returned to the national team with a hat trick Friday after missing nine months because of an irregular heartbeat, and Pulisic assisted on two of them. The pair combined again, with Dempsey scoring with a right-footed shot from 6 yards while sliding on his backside.
Panama tied it on Gomez’s 12th international goal, the first against the U.S. in four games under Arena. Adolfo Machado’s throw-in bounced off a scrum, and Gomez beat Tim Ream and Jorge Villafana to the loose ball for the open shot from 4 yards that went past Howard inside the far post.
Howard thwarted Tejada with a between-the-legs stop in the 59th minute.
“On the goal, I thought I was in a good position. He just overpowered me,” Howard said. “It was a similar play, a swivel and a hit, and I was just lucky to get in the way.”
Fans, almost all in Panama red, filled about three-quarters of 32,000-capacity Estadio Rommel Fernandez, a two-deck oval with a track. A renovation in 2009 added about 7,000 seats, luxury suites and a fan gathering area above one end.
A large red banner with white block letters was draped over the front of the stands behind a goal: “¡AQUI SE NOS RESPETA! (HERE WE ARE RESPECTED!)” Another banner, in Russian, fluttered atop the stadium and appeared to say: “Our dream … to go to the championship.” Next year’s World Cup will be held in Russia.
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.
“We made a lot of progress and somehow managed to get through an unusual amount of injuries,” Arena said.
Notes: Mexico beat Trinidad on Diego Reyes’ 58th-minute goal. … Antony Lozano put host Honduras ahead of Costa Rica in the 35th and Kendall Waston got the Ticos’ goal in the 68th. … Defender Geoff Cameron was out with a muscle strain.