ORLANDO — One more win would clinch a World Cup place for the United States after Jozy Altidore and Christian Pulisic spearheaded a vital 4-0 victory over Panama at Orlando City Stadium on Friday night.
Pulisic, just 19 but already the team’s most exciting and accomplished player, eased U.S. nerves with a rapid burst forward followed by a clinical finish in the eighth minute, then set up Altidore for the second 11 minutes later. Altidore added a third with a cheeky chipped penalty just before halftime, while Bobby Wood iced it with a comfortable finish after finding space in the box on 63 minutes.
Defeat would have left the U.S. on the brink of elimination and even a tie would have raised serious concerns that its streak of seven straight World Cup appearance could come to an end.
Instead, three points against Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday will guarantee head coach Bruce Arena’s side one of the three automatic qualifying spots offered by the CONCACAF region.
Arena was understandably upbeat and described his team as "well positioned now hopefully to get the third spot."
"It was great," Arena added. "The first goal in this game was going to be important. To get it early and put Panama under pressure ... got us into the game."
Pulisic was the mastermind behind most of the United States' dangerous attacks and wasted no time in making his impact felt. The opening score came when he collected an Altidore pass and charged goalwards, rounded Panama goalkeeper Jaime Penedo and slotted the ball home from a tight angle.
The Borussia Dortmund youngster’s horizontal pass to Altidore for the second was inch perfect, and then Wood started to also make his mark. Wood, whose late equalizer in Honduras last month saved the team from an even more nervous plight, won the penalty for the third goal, then smashed home the fourth with effortless composure.
The U.S. was in such control that Arena pulled off Pulisic in the 57th minute, resting him for Tuesday. Altidore also made way with 20 minutes left, to be replaced by Clint Dempsey, by which point the crowd was rocking, the scoreboard and the points table both told a happy message, and the World Cup was suddenly within reach once more.