PANAMA CITY — Christian Pulisic made an outstanding individual move to steal the ball, spin a defender and feed Clint Dempsey for his 56th international goal, and the United States hung on for an important 1-1 draw against Panama on Tuesday night 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 the lead did not last long. Gabriel Gomez tied the score four minutes later following a throw-in.
Tim Howard thwarted Luis Tejada with a between-the-legs stop in the 59th minute, at 38 providing another top night in goal.
The U.S. was reeling after its first two games in the final round of the North and Central American and Caribbean region, 0-2 and last in the hexagonal.
Jurgen Klinsmann was fired in November and replaced by Bruce Arena, the U.S. coach from 1998-2006, and the Americans accomplished their immediate goal by getting back into contention with Friday’s 6-0 home rout of Honduras and a valuable point on the road.
“This is probably the most athletic team in CONCACAF, so it’s hard to match them,” Howard said. “The objective was to get four points. If we got six points we’d be on top of the world. Four is good. We look forward now to June.”
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.
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 qualify for next year’s World Cup in Russia, and the No. 4 team advances to a playoff against Asia’s fifth-place nation.
Pulisic, an 18-year-old who made his international debut on March 29 last year, is quickly establishing himself as the top American player with rare skill.
“I think Panama thought there was a bull’s-eye on his back and went after him from minute 1,” Arena said.
Pulisic stole the ball from Panama captain Felipe Baloy at the edge of the penalty area and broke in on goal. He 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 the score 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.
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.
“This is tough, away from home in qualifying,” Howard said. “We have to get a point. We took care of home field this time, we got three points Friday. We’ll go again in June. ... It’s what we’ve come to expect away from home with all the elements. It’s tough to criticize anyone in particular, but we’re always swimming upstream away from home.”
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.
Music blared for more than four hours before kickoff. Fans booed “The Star-Spangled Banner” only a little and let loose a flare during Panama’s anthem that left smoke above the field when the match began.
Mexico’s Cesar Ramos was the referee in place of countryman Roberto Garcia, who was injured according to CONCACAF deputy general secretary Ted Howard.
The temperature had cooled to 81 degrees by the 9:05 p.m. start, but humidity remained high.
Arena made three changes to his starting lineup, inserting Ream and Graham Zusi on the back line, and midfielder Jermaine Jones. Midfielder Sebastian Lletget injured his left foot in Friday’s 6-0 home win over Honduras and will be sidelined four to six months. Defender John Brooks left with a sinus infection and defender Geoff Cameron was substituted early in the second half.
The U.S. already was missing three projected starters because of injuries: midfielder Fabian Johnson, right back DeAndre Yedlin and forward Bobby Wood.
“We made a lot of progress and managed to get through an unusual amount of injuries,” Arena said.
Zusi received some extra lusty boos. His injury time goal four years ago for the already qualified U.S. eliminated Panama from advancing to a playoff against New Zealand.
Notes: Mexico won on Diego Reyes’ 58th-minute goal. ... Antony Lozano put host Honduras ahead in the 35th and Kendall Waston got the Ticos’ goal in the 68th. ... Defender Geoff Cameron was out with a muscle strain.