The U.S. national team played a game it couldn't afford to lose Friday. And it didn't, overwhelming Panama 4-0 to move a big step closer to an eighth consecutive World Cup appearance next summer.
Christian Pulisic, who seemed unstoppable for much of the first half, and Jozy Altidore did most of the heavy lifting, with Altidore scoring two first-half goals while Pulisic scored one and assisted on another.
But a game was all the U.S. won and there is work that remains to be done to assure the Americans' safe passage to Russia.
With Friday's victory the U.S. vaults over Panama into third place in a six-team CONCACAF qualifying tournament that will qualify three nations for the World Cup. The Americans can secure their trip to Russia by beating Trinidad and Tobago in their final qualifier next week.
A draw likely will be enough to see the U.S. through as well because it would leave Panama needing to both beat Costa Rica at home and overcome a seven-goal margin in goal differential to overtake the Americans.
Playing before a rain-splattered sellout crowd of 25,303 at Orlando City Stadium, the U.S. was dangerous from the start, playing its most complete game of the tournament.
The Americans went in front to stay in the eighth minute on a spectacular goal from Pulisic. After taking a deft right-footed touch from Altidore, Pulisic split two defenders on his way into the penalty area, rounded keeper Jaime Penedo at the edge of the six-yard box and pushed a right-footed shot in from a difficult angle for his fifth goal of the year.
Pulisic, who turned a somersault after taking the shot, quickly climbed to his feet and dashed to the corner flag, where he was engulfed by his teammates.
The Panamanian defense, which pounded Pulisic in a 1-1 draw in a March qualifier, had no answer for the teenage playmaker Friday. Eleven after scoring, he set up Altidore for the second goal. The play started with Pulisic eluding Michael Murillo on the left wing and sending a low left-footed pass to the front of goal for Altidore, who redirected it in.
The assist gave Pulisic a hand in 11 of the last 13 U.S. goals in qualifying.
Altidore then made it 3-0 just before the half, chipping in a penalty kick after Bobby Wood was taken down by Armando Cooper in the 18-yard box. Wood then closed the scoring 18 minutes into the second half, taking a short pass from Paul Arriola with his back to the net, spinning and sending a right-footed shot by a pair of stationary defenders and into the back of the net.
The four goals marked the most Panama has given up in a World Cup qualifier since a 6-0 loss to the U.S. in October 2004 while for the U.S. the four scores equaled its total output in its previous four qualifiers. The result also ended Panama's four-game unbeaten streak against the Americans.
The U.S. didn't get out of the game unscathed, however, with Pulisic limping off the field briefly early in the second half favoring his right ankle after a strong tackle by Anibal Godoy. After a few short sprints on the sideline, he was allowed to stay in briefly before being replaced by Dax McCarty in the 57th minute.
But while Friday's win greatly improved the Americans' chances of reaching the World Cup, it didn't clinch a berth. A U.S. loss in Trinidad combined with a Panama win next week would leave the Americans no better than fourth in the standings, sending them into a two-leg intercontinental playoff against either Syria or Australia with the final World Cup berth at stake. That's the route Mexico followed to the 2014 tournament in Brazil.
And Honduras could complicate even that scenario because if the U.S. doesn't win its final game, the Central Americans could pass it by beating Costa Rica on Saturday and Mexico next week in its last two qualifiers. That could drop the U.S. as low as fifth in the standings, leaving it with no way to qualify for Russia.
But for now the Americans, who haven't gone into the final day of qualifying with their World Cup status in doubt since 1989, control their own destiny. Win and they're in; anything short of that and there's a chance they could be watching the World Cup on television.
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