The U.S. national team played a game it couldn't afford to lose Friday. And it didn't, overwhelming Panama, 4-0, to move a big step closer to an eighth consecutive World Cup appearance next summer.
Christian Pulisic, who seemed unstoppable for much of the first half, and Jozy Altidore did most of the heavy lifting, with Altidore scoring two first-half goals while Pulisic scored one and assisted on another.
But a game was all the U.S. won Friday and much work remains to be done to assure the Americans safe passage to Russia.
With the victory, the U.S. (3-3-3) vaults over Panama (2-3-4) into third place in a six-team CONCACAF qualifying tournament that will send three nations to the World Cup. The Americans can secure their trip to Russia by beating Trinidad and Tobago in their final qualifier next week.
A draw would likely be enough to see the U.S. through as well because it would leave Panama needing to both beat Costa Rica at home and overcome a seven-goal margin in goal differential to overtake the Americans.
"On a night where so much was on the line — maybe everything — we played in a way from the get-go that gave no doubt as to who was going to win the game," said captain Michael Bradley, whose team would have seen its path to an automatic World Cup berth close with a loss.
"Across the board we had guys ready for a big game. And come through in a huge way," added Bradley of a U.S. team that gave its most complete effort of the qualifying tournament, putting eight shots on goal while giving up just two. "But the job isn't quite done yet."
Playing before a rain-splattered sellout crowd of 25,303 at Orlando City Stadium, Pulisic, Altidore and Bobby Wood carved up Panama from the start, opening huge holes in its defense and going in front to stay in the eighth minute on a spectacular goal from Pulisic.
After taking a deft right-footed feed from Altidore, Pulisic split two defenders on his way into the penalty area, rounded keeper Jaime Penedo at the edge of the six-yard box and pushed a right-footed shot in from a difficult angle for his fifth goal of the year.
Panama, which pounded Pulisic in a 1-1 draw in a March qualifier, attacked him again Friday but it did little to slow the teenage playmaker and 11 minutes after scoring, he set up Altidore for the second goal. The play started with Pulisic eluding Michael Murillo on the left wing and sending a low left-footed pass to the front of goal for Altidore, who redirected it in.
"From the first minute we put them under a lot of pressure," Altidore said. "I don't think they were able to deal with it."
Altidore then made it 3-0 just before the half, chipping in a penalty kick for his 41st international goal. Wood, who set up that score when he was taken down by Armando Cooper in the 18-yard box, closed the scoring 18 minutes into the second half, accepting a short pass from Paul Arriola with his back to the net, spinning and sending a soft shot by a pair of stationary defenders and into the back of the net.
The four goals marked the most Panama has given up in a World Cup qualifier since a 6-0 loss to the U.S. in October 2004 — and was one short of the five goals it had allowed in its eight previous games in this cycle combined.
"We faced a team that was immensely better than us. Superior in every way," Panama coach Hernan Dario Gomez said in Spanish. "It was ugly….we could have given up 10 goals."
The U.S. didn't get out of the game unscathed, however, with Pulisic limping off the field briefly early in the second half after a strong tackle by Anibal Godoy. He was allowed to stay in briefly before being replaced by Dax McCarty in the 57th minute, then walked gingerly to the locker room after the game.
"I got kicked a few times tonight, but I'll be fine," Pulisic said. "We needed a win but the job's not done. We definitely need a result Tuesday."
"There's still a way where we can't be in this World Cup," he said. "So for us the job is, on Tuesday, to get a result."