Clint Dempsey scored his 56th international goal for the USA. (Andy Mead/YCJ Photo)
PANAMA CITY, Panama — It hardly came close to its dominating performance Friday night, but the United States took the point and walked out of Estadio Rommel Fernandez with a World Cup qualifying mission accomplished Tuesday.
In dead last in the CONCACAF hexagonal entering the Games Three and Four of the competition, the Americans earned four points in those encounters, the second match a 1-1 draw with Panama.
The result kept the Red, White and Blue in fourth place in the six-team group, behind Mexico (3-0-1, 10 points), Costa Rica (2-1-1, 7) and Los Canaleros (1-1-2, 5). The top three teams earn an automatic berth to the 2018 World Cup in Russia, with the fourth-place side advancing to an inter-confederation playoffs.
There are six games left in the hex.
“It wasn’t two points lost. We wanted to get a point,” U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “If we got six points we’d be on top of the world. Four is good. We look forward now to June.”
U.S. head coach Bruce Arena liked where his team was positioned after the past two matches with Trinidad & Tobago at home and Mexico away on tap in June.
“We’re obviously in better shape with four points in two games. We’re fourth, so we’ve made progress obviously every game in qualifying,” he said. “The remaining six games are going to be critical for every team. Every team is in there. Mexico is on top of the group with  points. They got a jump on everyone. It’s going to be a battle for the second, third and fourth spots. We made a lot of progress and somehow managed to get through an unusual amount of injuries and those type of things. I give our players a lot of credit.”
It was a physical affair, but referee César Arturo Ramos Palazuelos never pulled out either of his cards.
“They’re a physical team,” Howard said. “This is probably the most athletic team in CONCACAF. So it’s hard to match them. I thought we did a good job.”
Added Arena: “They had a very aggressive posture, were very physical and that’s the way the game played out. the referee didn’t blow his whistle too much and that’s the way the game looked for 90 minutes.
“It was a slugfest for 90 minutes.”
Arena made three changes from Friday’s 6-0 demolition of Honduras, two on defense. He replaced right back Geoff Cameron with Graham Zusi, former Red Bulls center back Tim Ream took over for John Brooks and Jermaine Jones slotted in for the injured Sebastian Lletget.
Despite having a back four with not much qualifying experience, Arena was happy with its performance.
“They did a good job,” he said. “They never played together before. For the most part they were pretty solid.”
The U.S. was outplayed in the opening half, but managed to walk off the field with a 1-1 deadlock.
The combination of Christian Pulisic and Clint Dempsey, which was so devastating in the demolition of Honduras, clicked again in the 39th minute as the Central American side surrendered only its second goal of the hex.
Pulisic looked more like an 18-year-old veteran and not an 18-year-midfielder on that scoring sequence.
On the right side of the penalty area, the Borussia Dortmund player first beat Felipe Baloy and then Seattle Sounders center back Roman Torres with some nifty moves to work himself free. He beat Baloy high in the box and then Torres at the edge of the six-yard box before sending Dempsey a short feed. The Sounders striker slotted the ball past goalkeeper Jaime Penedo for the lead. Dempsey’s goal was his 56th international as he moved one behind all-time U.S. leader Landon Donovan.
The Americans wanted to get out of the half with the lead, but the Panamanians had other things in mind four minutes later. Defender Adolfo Machado started the play with a long throw-in from the right side that went into a scrum of players inside the box. Gabriel Gomez managed to head the ball past goalkeeper Tim Howard for a 1-1 tie.
The goal snapped a 291-minute scoreless streak for the home team.
“We were a little sloppy in the goal that we conceded,” Arena said.
Gomez has been a thorn in the Americans’ sides through the years, having scored the game-winning goal in a 2-1 Panama triumph over their rivals in the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup. It was the first defeat the U.S. had suffered on home soil in the competition.
There were a handful of chances in the final half. Baloy managed to head a Pulisic close-range shot over the goal line for a corner kick in the 51st minute.
Eight minutes later, Howard, with the ball between his legs, managed to deny Luis Tejada.
All in all, though, Arena was more pleased than anything else.
“I’ve been very encouraged by what I’ve seen over the last 10 days,” he said. “Our veteran leadership is exceptional.”