Jozy Altidore maintained his torrid scoring pace with a 36th-minute goal and Eddie Johnson, from MLS’s Seattle Sounders, stretched the lead early in the second half before 40,847 at CenturyLink Field.
“I thought the entire game, we were in control of it,” U.S. Coach Juergen Klinsmann said. “Overall, a complete performance.”
In extending its qualifying unbeaten streak to four, the U.S. squad (3-1-1, 10 points) moved two points ahead of Mexico (1-0-5) and Costa Rica (2-1-2). Three teams will earn automatic berths in the World Cup, which will begin June 12, 2014.
The Americans can put themselves in supreme position to secure passage next Tuesday when they face Honduras (2-2-1, seven points) at Rio Tinto Stadium near Salt Lake City. Panama (1-1-3, six) slipped to fifth place after topping the group through the first three games.
Graham Zusi’s yellow card suspension and Jermaine Jones’s concussion mandated two lineup changes. Leading to the game, Klinsmann suggested several moving parts to compensate for the absences, but in the end, he made straight-up moves: Geoff Cameron for Jones in deep midfield partnering with Michael Bradley and Eddie Johnson in place of Zusi on the right flank.
Both came with concerns. Cameron is more comfortable on the backline and Johnson does not have Zusi’s crossing ability.
Zusi supplied Altidore for goals in each of the previous two matches — a friendly against Germany on June 2 in Washington and a victory at Jamaica on Friday.
Panama arrived without top scoring threat Blas Perez, who did not travel because of stomach problems.
Motivated by the raucous partisan crowd, the Americans created two mild chances in the opening moments before being thwarted in the 22nd minute — by their own player. On its way to the lower left corner, Bradley’s shot struck Clint Dempsey.
The Panamanians went after right back Brad Evans, and although they didn’t break through, they did cause tense moments.
After his pleas for a penalty were ignored in the 34th minute, Altidore converted. Bradley made a confident charge through midfield and sprayed the ball wide left to Fabian Johnson, whose exceptional cross met Altidore on the back side for an angled, one-time finish. Scoreless for 19 months in U.S. games, Altidore has posted goals in three consecutive appearances over 10 days — each in the first half to provide a lead. The 23-year-old forward has scored 16 times in 59 appearances.
The Americans endured a scare just before intermission when Luis Tejada’s goal was nullified by a close — but accurate — offside call.
Eddie Johnson doubled the lead in the 53rd minute, timing his run to the micro-second in order to remain onside on Cameron’s long ball past left back Carlos Rodriguez. Johnson brought down the ball with his right foot and, as goalkeeper Jaime Penedo charged, finished with his left for his 15th international goal.
The few threats mounted by Panama were woefully off target. In the 79th minute, U.S. left back DaMarcus Beasley made a 60-yard run to collect Altidore’s set-up but nicked the left post.