ORLANDO, Fla. — The U.S. responded to the threat of missing World Cup 2018 by unleashing one of its best performances in recent memory on Friday night, thrashing Panama 4-0 in a World Cup qualifier the Americans were desperate to win.
Emerging U.S. star Christian Pulisic had a game to remember, scoring a brilliantly poised goal in the eighth minute and assisting on Jozy Altidore’s strike 11 minutes later to give the Americans a cushion they would not relinquish. Altidore added another goal from the penalty spot, followed by a Bobby Wood insurance goal in the second half.
The victory vaulted the U.S. (12 points) past Panama (10) into third place in the World Cup qualifying Hexagonal with one game left. The top three teams will qualify automatically for Russia, while the fourth-place team will face Australia or Syria in a two-game playoff in November for a World Cup berth.
The four-goal margin of victory was also helpful for the U.S.—it left the Americans with a plus-5 goal difference and Panama at minus-two. That means the U.S. would almost certainly have the tie-breaker over Panama as long as the U.S. can tie at Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday.
Here are three thoughts on the game:
Pulisic had his biggest game in a U.S. jersey
The 19-year-old has played in important games in front of 80,000 fans for his club, Borussia Dortmund, against opponents like Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, but Friday was a defining moment for Pulisic in a U.S. jersey.
His eighth-minute goal was a masterclass of skill, athleticism and speed of thought. He followed his first touch—a mind-bending reach-back to corral Altidore’s pass—by torching Román Torres, cutting wide to evade goalkeeper Jaime Penedo and finishing at a perilously acute angle at dizzying speed. How many attackers anywhere would have had the poise to pull that off? Just 11 minutes later, Pulisic skinned Michael Murillo on a textbook cutback out wide before delivering a pinpoint cross to Altidore for the goal. Pulisic had a ton of pressure on his shoulders Friday, and he delivered. He has now been directly involved in eight of the U.S.’s 15 goals in the nine games of the Hexagonal so far.
Yedlin and Arriola were welcome starters
The right back position got a big upgrade with the return of DeAndre Yedlin, who hadn’t played in any qualifiers since June due to injury. Yedlin’s speed allowed him to push up in the U.S. attack, and his work with Rafa Benítez at Newcastle United has turned him into a much more astute defender with more tactical awareness. The 24-year-old Yedlin made a series of good defensive plays and reminded everyone that he can make a difference.
As for Paul Arriola, his motor ran non-stop on Friday, creating space and chances for the U.S. and putting the Panamanians on their back foot. Arriola can still add some nuance to his game, but his energy is infectious. He’ll deserve to get more starts moving forward.
The vibe around this U.S. team changed in an instant
All week long we heard stories asking what it would mean if the U.S. missed its first World Cup since 1986. And while that talk would return if the U.S. lost on Tuesday at Trinidad and Tobago, the talking points changed dramatically on Friday night.
How good can Pulisic end up being? How impressive was the understanding between Pulisic and Altidore—who scored twice and showed remarkable poise on his Panenka penalty? And wasn’t it refreshing to see the U.S. score early and then continue to drop the hammer instead of letting the opponent back in the game?
On Tuesday the Americans will have a chance to string together their first consecutive wins in this entire angst-ridden Hexagonal. It would be the perfect time to do it—and seal a berth in World Cup 2018 on a high note.