United States 3, Panama 0
Coach Bruce Arena won't dare say it and the players are too careful to make premature declarations.
But what began as a long, grueling odyssey to reach the 2006 World Cup in Germany is quickly turning into a runaway.
On a sweltering evening in front of a rambunctious, red-clad crowd, the U.S. national soccer team scored three goals before halftime and raced away from Panama, 3-0, Wednesday to record its third consecutive shutout in qualifying play and move a giant step closer to a fifth consecutive World Cup berth.
Only Mexico (4-0-1) stands ahead of the United States (4-1-0) at the midway point of this six-team final round and, with a triumph in August against Trinidad and Tobago in Hartford, Conn., the Americans could all but clinch one of the region's three automatic slots.
"We've really put ourselves in a good position," goalkeeper Kasey Keller said. "We know we've still got a little bit of work to do. We're looking forward to the next game. It's a shame it doesn't come next weekend."
Carlos Bocanegra and Landon Donovan scored on headers in the sixth and 20th minutes, respectively, and Brian McBride connected late in the half to hand last-place Panama (0-3-2) its first loss in seven home qualifiers since last summer.
"As critical as we are sometimes of our performances, getting a result like that is exceptional when no one else has been able to do it," Arena said.
Despite their team's disappointing 2-0 loss at Trinidad and Tobago four days earlier, a crowd of 17,000 fans provided a deafening welcome on a stifling, humid night on the outskirts of this vibrant capital city.
Panama, traditionally a baseball and boxing country, has never come close to qualifying for a World Cup. With the team at a critical point in its efforts, nearly everyone showed their unconditional support by dressing in fiery red shirts and smacking inflatable noisemakers. Seemingly every last soul bellowed the national anthem.
With only two home games remaining after Wednesday, the Panamanian team understood the importance of this match and the urgency to dictate an aggressive game plan.
However, after the hosts' initial threat, the Americans began to set the pace. The crowd fell eerily silent as Donovan placed a corner kick to the edge of the six-yard box. Bocanegra rose above his marker and struck a powerful header that glanced off goalkeeper Donaldo Gonzalez's hands and kissed the underside of the crossbar before dropping into the net for his sixth international goal.
The Panamanians tried to regain their early momentum, but repeated offside violations disrupted their pressing efforts.
The fans' frustration quickly turned into resignation. From the right side, midfielder Steve Ralston crossed sharply into the box. Donovan, cutting toward the ball, angled a 10-yard header beyond the desperately diving Gonzalez and into the far corner. It was his 22nd goal -- fourth on the U.S. all-time list -- and marked the 12th time in the last 13 qualifiers that he has recorded a goal or an assist.
But Panama wouldn't go away, forcing Keller to make three sensational saves in rapid succession -- on a pair of headers by Roberto Brown and a volley by Felipe Baloy. Moments later, Jose Garces's 22-yard bid crashed into the left post.
The Americans countered with another goal, this one by McBride. Donovan's free kick was cleared out of the box to Frankie Hejduk, whose long attempt was stopped by Baloy. But in a critical misstep, the defender left the ball for McBride, who scored easily from 10 yards for his 28th career goal and ninth in qualifying play (tied for first).
Four shots, three goals.
As the game began to deteriorate in the second half, so did the fans' behavior. Objects began flying toward the field and one fan charged onto the field. An ugly night for Panama, a beautiful one for the Americans.
U.S. Notes: Eddie Pope picked up his second yellow card of the round, which means he'll miss the next qualifier. . . . Defenders Oguchi Onyewu and Greg Vanney and midfielder John O'Brien were game-time scratches.