Christian Pulisic leads USA past Panama and on edge of World Cup

The United States men’s soccer team is not yet in the World Cup. There is still one last trip to make, one last job to do, one last gam...

The United States men’s soccer team is not yet in the World Cup. There is still one last trip to make, one last job to do, one last game to play.

It would, however, be difficult for any team to prevent the Americans from going to Qatar now. And it would be almost impossible to persuade them, or anyone else, that after all they don’t belong to the brightest scene in football.

It was the biggest news to emerge from the United States’ 5-1 win over Panama on Sunday night in Orlando, Florida. Bigger than the four goals they scored in the first half against the overwhelmed Panamanians. Bigger than Christian Pulisic’s hat trick and rested legs, bigger than the padding they added to their goal differential that made Wednesday’s trip to Costa Rica far less terrifying than it could have to be.

What remains to be done? Americans head to Costa Rica knowing they don’t even need to win to qualify for the World Cup. Simply avoiding a heavy loss – a loss by six or more goals – will guarantee the Americans finish with one of the automatic qualifying spots in their region, North and Central America and the Caribbean.

Canada became the first team from the region to qualify on Sunday, with a 4-0 home win over Jamaica, with only Mexico and Costa Rica remaining in contention for the other two. (Panama were eliminated with their loss on Sunday night.)

The United States have a much better goal difference than Mexico and Costa Rica, however, and that reality – in the event of a tie for the automatic places after the final matches on Wednesday – was its own kind of solace in light of Sunday’s rout. What this effectively means is that even a historic defeat for the Americans in Costa Rica would come with a lifeline: a playoff against the Oceania champions in June for a last-minute berth in Qatar.

That backdoor was the least of anyone’s concerns after a performance in Orlando ranked as the Americans’ best of the seven-month qualifying campaign.

“We want to go out there and win the game,” United States coach Gregg Berhalter said. “Just like I said in the first two games: we go into every game preparing to win.”

The tension the Americans carried away in Sunday’s game – a mix of injuries, illnesses and suspensions merging with the lingering angst of a failed qualifying run in 2017 – dissipated in a flurry of early goals.

Pulisic, a veteran of that last campaign, which ended with him in tears on a wet ground in Trinidad, opened the scoring by converting a 17th-minute penalty. Six minutes later the lead was two, courtesy of a header from Paul Arriola, and four minutes later it was 3-0 after a surprise starter Jesús Ferreira came down.

Pulisic made it 4-0 in first-half stoppage time, converting a second penalty, and he completed his first national team hat-trick with an effortless – for him – finish at the 65th minute. Firing a cross with silky control into the Panamanian penalty area, he spun through traffic and slid past two defenders to score his third goal.

“Christian is a guy who’s been through this before,” Berhalter said later, and anyone who lived through 2017 knew what he meant. Pulisic had worn the captain’s armband on Sunday and played like the leader Berhalter needs if the Americans are to close the deal on Wednesday.

His only mistake against Panama, it seems, was a clumsy breakdance attempt after his second penalty and a yellow card for arguing moments before Berhalter came on for him. Other key players were also quickly replaced, with the Americans resting with tired legs who had delivered a tie in Mexico and a big win in the space of four days, and still had one game to play.

A big goal difference – the Americans now have plus-13, against Costa Rica’s plus-3 – will help.

“We knew we had to come out on the right foot and scoring that early goal set the tone for the whole game,” defender Walker Zimmerman said of the lopsided victory. “These goals add up and they are huge for us.”

But a late consolation goal from Panamanian defender Aníbal Godoy, who was at fault for conceding both penalties in the first half, served as a reminder of how badly things can still go wrong if Zimmerman and his teammates aren’t careful.

In 2017, the Americans also beat Panama in Orlando in their penultimate game. All the team had to do after that was go to Trinidad and Tobago, which had already been eliminated, and avoid a loss.

Instead, the United States I have it all wrong, losing by 2-1 as other results in the region went against them. In two mind-blowing hours, they went from definitive entry to shocking definitive exit from the World Cup. The margin was narrower then, but the lesson stayed with the current squad, most of whom – with the notable exception of Pulisic – weren’t in the squad at the time.

“The goal has obviously always been to qualify for the World Cup, and this is just another step in the right direction,” said midfielder Tyler Adams. “But at the end of the day we still have another game to play. We haven’t picked up yet.

It is a message he will surely repeat over the next three days, until the job is done, until the ticket is punched, until the United States finally officially returns to world Cup.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Christian Pulisic leads USA past Panama and on edge of World Cup
Christian Pulisic leads USA past Panama and on edge of World Cup
Newsrust - US Top News
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