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The United States men’s national team entered its most momentous World Cup qualifier in 28 years with one objective: Win. There was no need for further discussion. No need to consider other scenarios. No need to confront nerves.
And on Friday night in Orlando, the Americans did exactly what they said they would do.
They won in emphatic, dominant and comfortable fashion, beating Panama 4-0 and putting themselves in fantastic position to qualify for the 2018 World Cup as if there was never any doubt.
There was doubt, of course. There was more than doubt. There was worry and anxiety. But as Tim Howard had prophetically said days earlier: “Ultimately, when we punch our ticket to Russia, none of this will matter.”
And he was right. Probably.
The doubt morphed into excitement when the U.S. pressed forward with intent straight from kickoff, and it was erased by an unrelenting first-half attacking performance. It was erased by Christian Pulisic – of course it was – and then disappeared for good thanks to Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood. The front three combined as well as they ever have, on a night when the Yanks needed goals as much as they ever did. They got four, and those four put them on the verge of Russia.
Because of the margin, the U.S. not only leads Panama by two points with one match to play, but also by seven goals. That goal differential gap means a draw in Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday would almost surely be enough for at least fourth place. And unless Honduras beats both Costa Rica and Mexico, it would be enough for third. A win will certainly be enough for third, and for a spot at the World Cup.
And it’s a spot that, based on their performance in their biggest World Cup qualifier in 28 years, the Yanks fully deserve.
The U.S. nearly engineered a dream start two minutes in. Pulisic, playing behind Altidore and Wood in a 4-1-2-1-2, skipped by two Panamanian defenders and bore down on a third. His pass to a free Altidore was underhit, and Altidore’s shot was blocked. But the early break was telling. There were holes in Panama’s defense. Soon enough, they were exploited.
In the eighth minute, Tim Howard’s goal kick was flicked on by an energetic Wood, then tapped into the path of Pulisic by Altidore. The 19-year-old’s first touch was simply magnificent. His second was just as vital. His third took him around goalkeeper Jaime Penedo, and his fourth gave the U.S. an early lead:
All four were world-class, and especially the finish, which didn’t even require a glance at the net. The kid is special. And when he ran to the corner flag like a madman, he knew what a special moment he had just conjured up.
“All the emotions just came out of me,” Pulisic told ESPN after the game.
Oh, but he wasn’t done.
Panama was unfathomably open and vulnerable at the back, and in the 19th minute, Pulisic ran into the acres of space the Panamanians left free behind their defensive line. The young American danced on the ball, drove toward the end line after a step-over, and put a pinpoint cross right in between center back and goalkeeper that an active Altidore touched home:
The front three replicated that sequence, or similar ones, several times, and it was a wonder the Americans weren’t 3-0 up earlier than they eventually were. Altidore’s connections with Pulisic sent the U.S. on multiple rampages toward and through an outnumbered Panama defense. On one occasion, Pulisic took a few too many touches.
On another, Paul Arriola slid a through ball to a bursting Wood, who was one-on-one with Penedo. But the Panamanian goalkeeper stood tall to keep out a third goal in 25 minutes.
Penedo could do nothing, though, when Wood somehow wove his way into the box and was dragged down from behind for a penalty late in the first half. Altidore stepped up, and with all the confidence in the world, Panenka’d the U.S. into a 3-0 lead:
For a 15-minute period in between the second and third goals, the U.S. seemed susceptible itself. A lineup designed to attack was far too open and didn’t adjust to its two-goal lead. And Panama had stabilized itself after a 26th-minute tactical substitution. USMNT manager Bruce Arena didn’t appear to be too pleased at halftime, despite the 3-0 lead.
But the early substitution was a quite remarkable indication of just how dominant the U.S. had been early on in a game that was expected to be tight and physical. It went right at the heart of a defense that had given up just five goals in eight games during the final round of qualifying. And it went right through it with Pulisic floating all over the field.
“Christian was superb,” Altidore told ESPN after the game. “His ability to play in between the lines, he causes so much trouble.”
The game turned physical, and at times ugly, early in the second half, with the Panamanians seemingly targeting Pulisic. Arena pulled his best player off via substitution before the hour-mark to preclude any real injury.
Dax McCarty replaced him, and shored up the midfield to hold Panama at bay. Meanwhile, the U.S. attack continued to create chances. Wood got the U.S.’s fourth — a goal his performance absolutely merited.
[More FC Yahoo: Jozy Altidore’s brilliance was about more than just goals]
With Honduras’ match in Costa Rica rescheduled for Saturday (6 p.m. ET, BeIN Sports) due to tropical storm Nate, the U.S. will have to wait to find out exactly what it needs on Tuesday. All three teams in contention for that final World Cup berth will play simultaneous games at 8 p.m. ET. The U.S. is at Trinidad and Tobago. Panama plays at home against Costa Rica. Honduras gets an already-qualified Mexico at home.
But a lot would have to go wrong now for the U.S. to slip back into danger of elimination. Here’s what the table looks like after its win, but before the other two penultimate-round games Friday and Saturday:
Mexico — 18 | +8
Costa Rica — 15 | +7
United States — 12 | +5
Panama — 10 | -2
Honduras — 9 | -7
Trinidad and Tobago — 3 | -11
A fourth-place finish would send the Americans to a playoff with either Syria or Australia. But that shouldn’t be necessary. It won’t be necessary with a win over already-eliminated T&T. It likely won’t be with a draw. And it’s the safety net in case of a loss.
The U.S. will still need at least a point to feel comfortable, independent of other results. But after the Yanks told us not to doubt them, and then followed through on their confidence with a performance like Friday’s, is there even any point in entertaining the possibility of disappointment?
The answer will come Tuesday. But Wood’s persistence, Altidore’s precision and Pulisic’s brilliance should suffice for now.
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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.