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USMNT pours it on to pound Panama, move to cusp of World Cup berth

United States 5, Panama 1

Christian Pulisic celebrates the first of his three goals against Panama on Sunday night in Orlando. (Chandan Khanna/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)
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ORLANDO — Because of circumstances beyond its control, the U.S. men’s national soccer team could not clinch a World Cup berth Sunday night. It was going to require one more charter flight to Central America and another 90 minutes to accomplish what the program failed to do four-plus years ago.

But by pummeling Panama, 5-1, the Americans moved to the cusp of securing a ticket to Qatar in November. Christian Pulisic recorded his first U.S. hat trick and Paul Arriola and Jesús Ferreira added a goal apiece as the Americans roared to a 4-0 halftime lead and posted their biggest victory of the qualifying competition.

“We made a big step toward our goal of qualifying for the World Cup,” Coach Gregg Berhalter said. “We know we’re not there yet. We still have a game to go, and it’s a difficult game.”

Anything other than a six-goal defeat in Costa Rica on Wednesday, though, would earn one of the Concacaf region’s three automatic spots in the World Cup. The Americans (7-2-4, 25 points) have no victories and one draw in qualifiers in Costa Rica, but they don’t need to accomplish either result Wednesday.

Winning alone would not be enough for Costa Rica (6-3-4, 22 points), which would pull level on points but needs to make up a massive gap in the first tiebreaker (goal differential). The Americans have scored 13 more goals than their opponents, Costa Rica three.

A 5-0 victory also wouldn’t be enough for Costa Rica because it would lose the second tiebreaker, goals scored, in which the Americans have a 21-11 advantage.

Fourth-place Costa Rica kept alive its slim hopes of catching the United States or third-place Mexico (7-2-4, 25 points) by winning in El Salvador, 2-1, earlier Sunday. Also, Canada (8-1-4, 28 points) clinched its first World Cup berth in 36 years with a 4-0 rout of Jamaica in Toronto.

Despite being almost certain of qualifying, the U.S. players aren’t taking anything for granted.

“I’m not celebrating anything,” said Arriola, one of four holdovers from the previous cycle, when the United States lost to last-place Trinidad and Tobago in the final qualifier. “I was in this exact position, or a very similar position, four years ago, and we know how that qualification ended. It’s about maintaining focus, understanding we still have work to do and anything is possible.”

Barring an extraordinary result Wednesday, Costa Rica will finish fourth and advance to an intercontinental playoff in June in Qatar against the Oceania champion (probably New Zealand).

Pulisic got things going in the 17th minute Sunday with the first of his two penalty kicks, awarded after video review caught Aníbal Godoy getting his hands on Walker Zimmerman’s throat.

Six minutes later, Pulisic slipped a pass back to Antonee Robinson for a cross that Arriola neatly put away with a glancing header to the far side.

The goals continued to flow. A 20-pass sequence that began in the U.S. end ended with Ferreira’s goal from in close. Shaq Moore crossed to Arriola, who spun deep in the box and set up the 21-year-old for his third career goal.

With the striker position up for grabs, Ferreira, Arriola’s FC Dallas teammate, made his claim.

“Everybody is going to be used. Everybody brings something different,” he said of the striker pool. “I knew this was my opportunity to show what I can bring.”

The Spain-based Moore was a last-minute call-up to start at right back because of an injury (Sergiño Dest), a yellow-card suspension (DeAndre Yedlin) and a positive coronavirus test (Reggie Cannon). Aside from the United States missing seven regulars Sunday, a stomach bug affected about 20 members of the delegation, said Berhalter, who declined to specify how the illnesses affected his lineup decisions.

Pulisic stretched the lead to 4-0 just before halftime with another penalty kick. Again, Godoy was the culprit with a forearm to Miles Robinson’s throat.

Pulisic saved his best for last 19 minutes into the second half, collecting Antonee Robinson’s pass, turning in the box and using two clever touches to beat two defenders before sliding a low shot into the right side for his 21st goal in 47 international matches. In the 71st minute, he left to a standing ovation from the sellout crowd of 25,022 at Exploria Stadium.

Godoy scored for Panama (5-5-3, 18 points) in the 86th minute, but the defeat ended its hopes of remaining in contention for a World Cup reprise after qualifying for the first time in 2018.

After the final whistle, as “U-S-A!” chants echoed around the arena, the players displayed a banner saying, “Thank You, Fans.” Next time they are stateside, they almost surely will be not just the national team but a World Cup team.

“We needed the three points bad to put us in a really good spot to qualify, and we’re really happy with the performance,” Pulisic said. “It feels great to get a hat trick, of course, but more importantly just to help the team win and put us in a good spot with one game left. We can enjoy tonight, but the job’s not done yet.”