There weren't many reasons to believe that the U.S. national soccer team would have an easy time with Panama last night at RFK Stadium. After all, the Americans had sputtered on the attack in this semifinal round of qualifying for the 2006 World Cup and had been fortunate to steal a pair of ties on the road.
A goal, maybe two, was probably all that could be expected.
The United States gets three from Eddie Johnson, above, and two from Landon Donovan as it crushes Panama, 6-0, to advance to the final round of World Cup qualifying.
(Joel Richardson - The Washington Post)
Landon Donovan scored the first two goals, Eddie Johnson added the next three in a 17-minute span of the second half and an own goal put the finishing touches on the Americans' resounding 6-0 victory before 19,793.
The win sent the United States (3-0-2) into the final round of qualifying, which begins in February, in its quest to advance to the World Cup in Germany. Mexico and Guatemala also will be in the six-team final stage, but the other slots won't be determined until next month.
"You see when we play well what happens," Donovan said. "When everyone plays well, we're pretty good."
That's an understatement. The Americans, who were fortunate to escape Panama City with a 1-1 tie last month, ran circles around the Panamanians (1-2-2) from the very start and didn't relent. Donovan scored in the 21st and 57th minutes, and Johnson, a 20-year-old forward for the Dallas Burn who made his U.S. debut last weekend, struck in the 70th, 84th and 87th minutes to become the first player in program history to record a hat trick after entering as a reserve.
The Americans stretched their unbeaten streak to 12 games, the longest in program history, and increased their unbeaten run against regional opponents to 28 games. They'll close out group play Nov. 17 against Jamaica in Columbus, Ohio, but last night's victory rendered that match meaningless.
"To be qualified in the fifth game is simply fantastic," said Coach Bruce Arena. Four years ago in this round, the U.S. team had to beat Barbados in its final game to advance.
The crowd filled most of RFK's lower bowl, with several hundred Panamanians dressed in red occupying the northeast corner. But the American fans enjoyed themselves considerably more in the first half as the U.S. attack asserted itself right away and created several early opportunities.
In the second minute, Eddie Lewis's free kick skipped through traffic and hopped fractionally wide of the left post. Three minutes later, Donovan's free kick found Brian McBride, who headed the ball across the six-yard box to Gregg Berhalter. With a defender draped over him, Berhalter nodded it narrowly wide of the left post.
In the 15th minute, Lewis's clever one-touch set up McBride, who ripped a 12-yard shot into the side-netting on the near side. But the Americans' persistence paid off six minutes later as Josh Wolff found space on the left side and crossed deep into the box. Donovan dashed into the clear and neatly stabbed at the ball, sending an eight-yard one-timer into the lower left corner.
The intermission didn't interrupt the U.S. team's rhythm. Six minutes into the second half, McBride's pass split the Panamanian defense and found Wolff, who dashed in alone but had his shot blocked by advancing goalkeeper Donald Gonzalez. Five minutes later, Donovan's free kick deep into the box was headed by Carlos Bocanegra to the back post, where McBride narrowly missed nodding it into the corner.
But Donovan's brilliance resurfaced shortly thereafter, this time with emphatic results. The sequence was set up by Kerry Zavagnin, who sliced a pass through the Panamanian defense to Donovan. The San Jose Earthquakes star wheeled around the desperate Gonzalez and got off a sliding shot just before Luis Moreno and Victor Miranda arrived for his third goal in this round of qualifying.
"I felt if we got the second goal, Panama would have to open up and they were going to be in trouble," Arena said, "and obviously that was the case."
Panama finally began to stir midway through the half. Dely Valdes's header off Medina's corner kick skimmed off the top of the crossbar and Alberto Blanco's 35-yard free kick was calmly tipped over the bar by goalkeeper Kasey Keller.
However, the Americans quickly regrouped and put the match out of reach. Bocanegra crossed from deep on the left. Johnson, who had entered four minutes earlier, shook away from Carlos Rivera and directed a header back across the six-yard box. Johnson scored in his U.S. debut four days ago in San Salvador, and once again he did it four minutes after entering.
Johnson added another goal in the 84th minute on a short header after consecutive touches by Lewis, McBride and Bocanegra deep in the box.
"We were pretty dominating," Wolff said. "We fought hard to get the first goal, had the patience and stuck with it to get the second, and at that point the game certainly opened up."
U.S. Notes: Defender Oguchi Onyewu, from Olney, made his U.S. debut in the 86th minute and had the last American touch on the ball before Jose Anthony Torres's own goal in the 90th minute.