USMNT thrashes Panama to reach the brink of World Cup qualification

ORLANDO — The U.S. men’s national team knew before Sunday’s World Cup qualifier kicked off that there would be no celebration on this night for clinching a place in the World Cup, but that didn’t stop the Americans from ensuring that the timing of that eventual celebration is a ‘when’ rather than an ‘if’.

Four first-half goals, including a pair of Christian Pulisic penalty kicks and finishes from FC Dallas teammates Jesus Ferreira and Paul Arriola, helped put the game out of reach before halftime.

Pulisic added the goal of the night in the second half to provide some icing on the cake of an eventual 5-1 romp at Exploria Stadium.

The Americans can now secure their place in Qatar with a win or a draw on Wednesday in Costa Rica, or a loss by 5-0 or fewer. The USMNT is also guaranteed at least a fourth-place finish in the Octagonal, which would mean playing the winner of the Oceania region if the Americans wind up finishing in fourth place.

Costa Rica’s 2-1 win over El Salvador earlier on Sunday ensured that the USMNT could not qualify automatically on Sunday, and it also put pressure on Panama to avoid a defeat that would eliminate them from World Cup qualifying.

It was the Americans who responded well to that pressure, dominating the proceedings all night.

The USMNT struck first in the 17th minute after a VAR review caught Panama’s Anibal Godoy fouling his Nashville SC teammate Walker Zimmerman in the penalty area. Pulisic blasted the penalty home to help set the early tone.

Pulisic played a part in the second American goal just six minutes later when he settled a long ball in the penalty area and passed it back to a wide-open Antonee Robinson, who delivered a perfect cross in to the six-yard box, where Arriola elevated to head it home to make the score 2-0

Arriola played provider on the third USMNT goal, setting up Ferreira in an all-FC Dallas goal in the 27th minute, capping off a 20-pass sequence with the Ferreira finish.

The Americans appeared content to go into halftime with a three-goal cushion before Godoy gave the USMNT another gift when he was whistled for a foul in the penalty area on Miles Robinson that drew an immediate penalty call. Pulisic stepped up to the spot once again and hit another blast to make the score 4-0.

The second half was more about managing minutes, avoiding and staying away from yellow cards that could lead to suspensions and the USMNT managed all three as Gregg Berhalter used all five subs, and removed Pulisic and Tyler Adams so the two stars will be available to face Costa Rica.

Panama scored a consolation goal in the 86th minute via a Godoy header, but that finish was a formality since it doesn’t change the margin of victory Costa Rica will need on Wednesday to surpass the USMNT for the final World Cup qualification spot.

The Americans will now head to Costa Rica in search of their first World Cup qualifying victory in the Central American country, knowing a win, draw or defeat by fewer than six goals will secure their return to the World Cup.