2017-10-06 23:08:03
World Cup Qualifying | U.S. 4, Panama 0: With Christian Pulisic Driving, United States Steers Closer to World Cup

23:08, October 06 219 0

ORLANDO, Fla. — The goal the United States national team needed arrived after only eight minutes. Soon there was another. And another.

By halftime, the whispered pregame fears about the unthinkable — that the United States might stumble and bumble its way right out of a place in next summer’s World Cup in Russia — were long forgotten. By the final whistle — after the United States had polished off an encouragingly comprehensive 4-0 dismantling of Panama on Friday night — there were only cheers, and relief, and the acknowledgment that while there was still one more important step toward Russia, the job was nearly done.

The result moved the United States back into third place in its six-team regional qualifying group. That is the final automatic qualification spot — Mexico won the first weeks ago, and Costa Rica entered Friday poised to claim the second. Now, the United States needs only a victory or a tie in its final game, at Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday night, to punch its ticket to Russia 2018, and to extend its streak of consecutive World Cup appearances to eight.

Salvation arrived, as it so often has this year, off the foot of Christian Pulisic, the 19-year-old sensation who has quickly become the centerpiece of the American team. Pulisic has scored or assisted on 11 of the 16 goals the United States has scored in the final round of qualifying, and so it came as little surprise when he had a hand in the first two on Friday.

First, he sliced Panama open in the eighth minute, taking a deft touch from Jozy Altidore in midfield and hurdling Panama center back Román Torres like a speed bump before rounding goalkeeper Jaime Penedo. Pulisic’s finish, from an awkward, wildly obtuse angle to the right of goal, skimmed into the net. The roar that greeted it was both exultant and cathartic. The Americans had the lead.

When Pulisic tore open the left side of the Panama defense 11 minutes later, slotting a cross that Altidore simply poked into the net, the game — 19 minutes old — seemed over. The cherry on top — an Altidore penalty kick, on a nervy chip after Bobby Wood had been cut down on a run into the area in the 42nd minute — erased all doubt.

The day had been saved.

When Wood added a fourth in the 63rd minute, the worries, the fears of the past few days, and the past few months, were gone. The only concern then was for Pulisic, battered several times and then, finally, so badly that he required treatment after a particularly rough foul at midfield just after halftime.

Coach Bruce Arena, realizing his unique value, had seen enough, and subbed him off six minutes later. He had done enough, and, anyway, Arena still needs him.

The decisive 90 minutes will come on Tuesday, when the United States faces Trinidad and Tobago on the road. The Soca Warriors sit last in the group; their hopes long dashed and coming off a game at the group leader Mexico later Thursday night, they would seem to have little motivation at this point other than to play spoiler.

That can be an attractive bit of motivation for small Concacaf teams, however, especially when there is a chance to ding the mighty United States. The Americans know that, and they know the stakes, though.

And if they have learned anything on their long qualifying road — one that began with two losses and the firing of their former coach, Jurgen Klinsmann — it is that nothing is certain, and that even a country accustomed to a quadrennial World Cup trip has to earn its place on the field before it can pack its bags.