With all due respect to Disney’s marketing department, the most magical place on earth was a few miles northeast of the Orlando theme parks on Sunday night.
That’s how Exploria Stadium must have felt for USA and their exuberant fans, at least, as a Christian Pulisic hat-trick helped deliver a 5-1 thrashing that brought Gregg Berhalter’s men to the brink of Qatar 2022. A delicate and sometimes tortuous qualification The campaign is now almost certain to have a happy ending.
Of course, USA know from agonizing experience that strange things can happen on the final night of Concacaf Qualifiers after an easy win over Panama in Orlando City, but in all likelihood it won’t be. not a case of history repeating itself. in 2017, the United States can afford a defeat in their last game, away to Costa Rica on Wednesday. In fact, they can afford a big loss. Even a five-goal loss wouldn’t be fatal given the goal difference gap between them and fourth-placed Costa Rica.
The result knocked fifth-placed Panama out of the competition, meaning the United States cannot finish below fourth place, the standings that imply an intercontinental playoff in Qatar in June, likely against New Zealand. .
Only the most pedantic mathematician would pay attention to that scenario. The United States are second, ahead of Mexico on goal difference and behind Canada, who qualified earlier on Sunday with a 4-0 win over Jamaica.
“I think on a night when we needed to get a resounding win, we did it. We helped our goal difference,” a hoarse Berhalter said on Fox Sports.
The final whistle sounded in Costa Rica’s 2-1 away win over El Salvador shortly before kick-off in Florida, adding to the need for Berhalter’s side to grab all three points. Pulisic – a teenager in 2017, captain of his country and Premier League star in 2022 – leads by example with two penalties and a great rotation and calm finish for his third.
An evening that highlighted the evolution of the team between World Cup cycles, from a team of veterans in decline to a team defined by youngsters on the rise, was also an evening to highlight personal development of the biggest name in American football.
Admittedly, there were a few careless passes from a Panamanian veteran based in the United States to soothe the nerves. Midfielder Anibal Godoy shoved Nashville teammate Walker Zimmerman in the face and the defender fell to the ground. After a VAR review, the referee, Ivan Barton, awarded a penalty which Pulisic converted in the 17th minute.
“It’s huge. We knew we had to get off to a really good start, take the lead, score the first goal and go from there,” Zimmerman said after the game.
Fueled by desperation, Panama might have equalized less than five minutes later after a giveaway from Antonee Robinson caused a pinball in the American penalty area. The FC Dallas winger scored with a header in the second, then Jesus Ferreira settled the game in the 27th minute with a tap-in after a clever move down the right and a deflected touch from Arriola. It was the first goal by an American centre-forward. since October.
Panama, who needed to win to avoid elimination, had enough ball possession and enough attacking flair to cause problems in the American back line, with Zack Steffen unsure in front of goal at times.
Godoy, arms whirling like a wind turbine in a hurricane, was penalized for another foul inside the penalty area in the first half. On this occasion, it was a sweet reward; the end product was the same, another Pulisic goal. He celebrated, oddly, with a breakdance move from Worm. The Chelsea striker, in pugnacious form all evening, was in the middle of a scrum moments later as tempers flared.
USA’s previous game was last Thursday’s goalless draw against Mexico at the Azteca, where the Americans have never won a qualifier. Given the risk of fatigue, injury and suspension ahead of Sunday’s more crucial match, it was a bold move by Berhalter to pick a solid XI for this game. their regional rivals three times last year and that the Mexican team is uncharacteristically tasteless.
As it turned out, with the game pretty much over at the break, fatigue was not a concern. in the 65th minute of an open and spirited second half with a neat turn and a neat finish.
“It wasn’t even our best performance,” midfielder Tyler Adams told Fox Sports.
Godoy capped off his eventful night with a fine header that made it 5-1 with four minutes left, but that didn’t dampen the noise in the stands. Costa Rica have won five of their last six games and the Americans’ record in the country is On that evidence, the defense could use some tweaking in the next two days.
But it was a night to savor the goals, admire Pulisic and prepare for a party. As they waved to cheering fans after the game, some of the American players briefly and prematurely held up a banner reading ‘Qualified’ . quickly packed and put away. They must have understood the message: not quite yet, not quite officially. It surely won’t be long.