The United States men’s national team won’t be able to qualify for the World Cup until their last Concacaf Octagonal match, but they’ve done everything they can to assure that it would take an exceptional disaster—yes, even given what occurred the last cycle—to prevent a trip to Qatar in November.
Christian Pulisic’s first international hat trick led the United States to a 5–1 victory against Panama in Orlando, Fla. With Costa Rica defeating El Salvador 2–1 earlier in the day, the United States understood that a win would not be enough to guarantee a trip to Qatar.
Regardless, a win against Panama rendered the US very certain to qualify for the World Cup, and it was important to guarantee that qualification didn’t come down to a favorable result in Costa Rica, where the US is winless in World Cup qualifying all-time. Pulisic, Paul Arriola, and Jess Ferreira each scored three goals in the first 27 minutes, putting the game out of reach early on.
Pulisic added two more goals to boost the United States’ goal difference, which will be crucial heading into the final in San José. With the US 10 goals ahead of Costa Rica in that category, a six-goal defeat (or worse) would be required to miss the World Cup.
The United States has been in this situation before, having hosted Panama in Orlando in the second-to-last match of qualifying in the previous round, and it went well.
The US had been in an ideal position to qualify after a 4–0 win in which the then-19-year-old Pulisic scored the opening goal, only for the wheels to come off in Trinidad & Tobago (and simultaneous matches elsewhere that worked against the US).
Now, a big win at the very least widens the margin of error—and assures the US can’t finish lower than fourth and face Oceania’s qualifying champion in a playoff.
Panama’s World Cup dream has come to an end as it was knocked out of contention for a top-four finish.
The United States was significantly short-staffed on Sunday. Sergio Dest, Weston McKennie, and Matt Turner were all injured, Tim Weah and DeAndre Yedlin were suspended for card accumulation, and Reggie Cannon was suspended after testing positive for COVID-19 in Mexico.
As a result, the United States was forced to rely on its fourth-choice right back, Gold Cup winner Shaq Moore, who arrived in Florida as a late substitute. Moore’s most recent qualification performance was in Panama in October, as Los Canaleros defeated the United States 1–0.
It was the first time Panama had ever defeated the United States in World Cup qualification, and it was only the Central American country’s third victory overall, with the other two coming in the Gold Cup.
Moore joined Arriola, Luca de la Torre, and Ferreira in the starting lineup right away, as coach Gregg Berhalter made three changes from Mexico.
According to Fox Sports, a few US players, including Gio Reyna, caught a stomach virus following the 0–0 tie on Thursday. Reyna, on the other hand, is accessible off the bench.
Panama, knowing that a loss would remove them from contention, came out pressuring the Americans high, and it took a few minutes for the hosts to regain control of the ball.
In the first half of the match, Panama continued to look the better of the two sides, and Houston Dynamo midfielder Adalberto Carrasquilla nearly opened the scoring in spectacular fashion, with a clearance attempt falling right to him 30 yards from goal, where he attempted a volley that whizzed over the bar.
That appeared to jolt the US into action. Pulisic, on the other hand, had the Americans’ first threatening moment when his half-chance just inside the Panama box was blocked.
Moore got a foul in a dangerous location after Ferreira found him racing down the right flank with a deft touch. Pulisic’s ensuing free-kick, which took a deflection off the top of the Panama wall, went over the bar.
Following a VAR review, Walker Zimmerman received a nasty push to the face from Anibal Godoy on one of the two corner kicks that followed, and a penalty was awarded following the pause.
Pulisic took a stride forward and slammed the penalty in, giving the United States an early lead.
Panama came close to tying the game soon after. With a cross barely touched but mainly missed by Zack Steffen in the US goal, Antonee Robinson’s mistake in the back gave the visitors an opportunity.
The United States eventually steered the ball to safety without conceding on the frantic sequence as Zimmerman had a little touch on the ground to eliminate the immediate threat.
With Pulisic down but the advantage still in play, Robinson provided a cross for Arriola, who grabbed some significant air on heading in the United States’ second goal of the night.
There was no let-up from the United States. Arriola set up his FC Dallas colleague, Ferreira, for a close-range finish and a 3–0 advantage.
With goal difference likely a big influence in the final on Wednesday, the US did well to expand its total in that area.
It was the first goal scored by a center forward for the United States since Ricardo Pepi’s strike against Jamaica in October.
Panama was punished for another penalty late into stoppage time, just when it believed it might leave the first half with a 3–0 deficit.
In an attempt to win a bouncing ball after a failed clearing, Godoy slammed his arm into Miles Robinson’s face.
Pulisic took the PK for the United States once more, and despite Luis Mejia reading right, Pulisic’s take had enough force and placement to make it 4–0.
The sixth arrived far too soon for the United States. Pulisic, who had already scored on two penalty kicks, went head-to-head with Panama’s defense in the third, completing his first career USMNT hat trick in dramatic manner to increase the advantage.
With the game won, Berhalter decided to take Pulisic and Adams off in the 71st minute to give his players some more rest, but Panama managed to spoil the clean sheet late.
Godoy made up for one of the conceded penalties by heading in a free-kick to make it 5–1 on the night, reducing the United States’ goal disparity somewhat but not enough to dampen the hope that a return to the World Cup is within grasp.