ORLANDO, Fla. — To a number of fans, the ease with which the United States Men’s National Team defeated Panama on Friday night was supposed to reflect a microcosm of how their final-round qualification was going to unfold, with a World Cup berth in Russia secure well before the last qualifying game.
Well, better late than never. Christian Pulisic put the United States on the board after eight minutes, while strikers Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood each hit the target as the U.S. dispatched Panama 4-0 in the team’s final World Cup Qualifying home game, putting themselves in great position to clinch a place in the FIFA World Cup in Tuesday’s qualifying finale. The win vaults the U.S. (12 points) ahead of Panama (10 points) into third place in the “Hex” with one game remaining – at last-place Trinidad and Tobago. The top three teams at the end qualify automatically for Russia, while the fourth-place team will face Australia or Syria in a two-legged confederation playoff next month for a spot in the World Cup.
After last month’s humiliating 2-0 loss at home to Costa Rica, followed by a lackluster 1-1 draw in Honduras four days later, the team faced more questions – and pressure from fans expecting more from the unit – than it had in some time, as it stared the unfathomable yet very real possibility of missing out on the FIFA World Cup for the first time since 1986. A win at home tonight was needed. A convincing win would have been ideal.
They got both.
The U.S. was in the ascendancy from the off and, just five minutes in, Wood had a great chance to put the team ahead with a left-footed shot at the top of the box that just missed the Panama goalkeeper at his far post. Another chance came quickly, however, and the United States pounced on it.
Wood headed down a pass for Altidore, who quickly fed a streaking Pulisic in the middle of the field. The 19-year-old Borussia Dortmund star, who reached back deftly with his left leg to control Altidore’s pass, stepped around a hard-charging Jaime Penedo in the Panama goal, then scored from an acute angle to lift the American supporters in Orlando onto their feet in exultation.
Just over 10 minutes later, Pulisic went from scorer to provider – with Altidore switching roles as well. Pulisic made a dashing run down the left flank, darting past Panama defender Michael Murillo as if he was a stationary target. He then fed Altidore, who tapped in past a diving Penedo for a 2-0 lead in the 19th minute. Altidore, third in national team history in goals scored, notched his 40th career goal in international play with that tally.
No. 41 came later in the half, as Wood bulled his way into the penalty box before being taken down by midfielder Armando Cooper, resulting in a penalty. Alitdore stepped to take the spot kick, and cheekily scored with the “Panenca” chip down the middle of the goal, sending the keeper the wrong way for a 3-0 lead in the 43rd minute.
For all of the hard work Wood put in as he helped to create chance after chance, he was rewarded in the second half, as he took a pass from Paul Arriola at the top of the box, spun quickly and then inleased a thumping left-footed drive past Penedo and into the net in the 63rd minute for a 4-0 lead.
It was everything men’s national team coach Bruce Arena would have dreamed, especially seeing his three biggest goal-scoring threats – Pulisic, Altidore and Wood – all scoring while being a menace to the Panama midfield and back line all game.
The U.S. team also got a boost from the return of right back DeAndre Yedlin, who adds a blistering level of pace on the flank. The 24-year old, who was a regular selection under previous manager Jürgen Klinsmann, played in his first qualifier for the U.S. since June, as he suffered a hamstring injury in August while playing for his club team, Newcastle United (England), and missed the games against Costa Rica and Honduras last month.
All that stands between the U.S. and a berth in Russia is an away match against the bottom team in the group, Trinidad and Tobago, who lost on the road in Mexico 3-1 tonight. A win would secure the United States’ place in Russia, though if Honduras (9 points) were to not win tomorrow on the road against Costa Rica (15 points, assured at least of a confederation playoff spot), all the US would really need is a draw due to its superior goal difference over Honduras and Panama.