ORLANDO, Fla. – These have been restless times around the U.S. soccer community, what with the men's national team in danger of missing the World Cup for the first time in some three decades and mounting burden to win the final two qualifiers in a sprint to the finish.
With Christian Pulisic in electrifying form and Jozy Altidore pocketing two goals, the Americans strengthened their standing in the six-nation scramble Friday with a 4-0 victory over Panama before a sellout crowd of 25,303 at Orlando City Stadium.
The United States (3-3-3, 12 points) overtook Panama (2-3-4, 10) for the third and final automatic World Cup berth from the CONCACAF region. In all likelihood, Bruce Arena's rejuvenated squad will need only a draw at last-place Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday to secure passage to Russia next summer and an eighth consecutive trip to soccer's quadrennial party.
"We needed a win," Pulisic said, "but the job is not done."
The lopsided result also provided a cozy cushion in the first tiebreaker (goal differential), leaving both Panama and Honduras (2-3-3) needing to win their final matches by inconceivable margins. The United States is plus-5, Panama is minus-2 and Honduras, which visits Costa Rica on Saturday, is minus-7.
Mexico already clinched, while Costa Rica is on the verge.
For the Americans, a victory Friday was essential. They wouldn't have been eliminated with a draw or defeat, but they would've lost their ability to control the fate Tuesday.
"The response was really strong," captain Michael Bradley said. "It was exactly what I expected. On a night where so much was on the line – maybe everything – we played in a way from the get-go that gave no doubt as to who was going to win the game."
Pulisic, the 19-year-old wonder from Hershey, Pa., made sure his team didn't fall into deeper peril. He scored in the eighth minute and assisted Altidore's goal in the 19th.
Altidore added a penalty kick just before intermission to settle the outcome. Bobby Wood scored in the second half against a Panama team that had conceded five goals in the previous eight matches.
With a comfortable lead, Pulisic and Altidore left to standing ovations in the second half.
The early-arriving crowd at the new downtown stadium buzzed with excitement, but below the surface, there was high-level anxiety after a home defeat and away draw last month.
Panama, meantime, was poised to move to the brink of its first World Cup berth after U.S.-inflicted heartbreak four years ago. Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela was in attendance Friday, as were a large contingent of compatriots.
The Americans crackled with energy and ambition at the start. After two genuine U.S. threats – as well as one good look by Panama – Pulisic shattered the deadlock.
It began with Howard's long goal kick. Wood won the header near midfield, directing the ball ahead to Altidore. The big striker squared the ball with a one-timer in tight space to the accelerating Pulisic, who nimbly reached back with his left foot to flick the ball forward.
He dodged Roman Torres's sliding challenge. Goalkeeper Jaime Penedo came off his line. Pulisic left Penedo in his wake and, from an acute angle, slid the 6-yard shot into the vacant net as he tumbled to the wet grass. It was his eighth goal in 19 international matches and sixth in this World Cup qualifying cycle.
From end to end, it had taken 11 seconds.
"It was a great response from the team," Pulisic said. "We needed a result and we came out flying right from the beginning."
The second goal also originated in the U.S. end, a counterattack in which Darlington Nagbe liberated Pulisic on the left wing. Pulisic took on Michael Murillo and, as Altidore created a pocket of space by juking the central defenders, the young midfielder delivered a low cross to his unmarked teammate for a simple finish.
The Americans were not out of danger, though, because Bradley found himself overloaded in midfield and the back line was stretched.
They did not have to pay for their sins and, before intermission, Altidore added the third goal on a 43rd-minute penalty kick. Wood surged past three players and drew Armando Cooper's foul in the box. Instead of blasting the attempt into a corner, Altidore used a cheeky chip down the middle for his 41st career goal.
Panama Coach Hernan Dario Gomez said, "They were superior in every way."
With Pulisic absorbing wicked tackles, Arena got him out of the one-sided match. "He's been getting beat up in these games in CONCACAF," Arena said. "That's the way it is. I don't think it's going to change."
In the second half, Wood scored a well-deserved goal in the 63rd minute, collecting Paul Arriola's pass and firing a 14-yard shot into the low left corner for his 10th international goal.
All attention now turns to Trinidad and Tobago.