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U.S. men’s soccer on brink of qualifying for World Cup after dominating Panama

U.S. forward Christian Pulisic celebrates with his teammates after scoring on a penalty kick.
U.S. forward Christian Pulisic, center, celebrates with his teammates after scoring on a penalty kick in the first half of a 5-1 victory over Panama in World Cup qualifying Sunday.
(Julio Cortez / Associated Press)
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The U.S. couldn’t be any closer to the World Cup without actually being in it.

With Christian Pulisic scoring three times in a 5-1 rout of Panama at a sold-out Exploria Stadium on Sunday, about the only thing the Americans have to do is show up in Costa Rica for their final qualifying match Wednesday and they’re through to Qatar this fall.

“We made a big step towards 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 in Costa Rica.”

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Oh sure, the statisticians — and the coach — will say there is still a mathematical chance the U.S. won’t make it. Reality and commonsense say otherwise.

The USMNT moved a step closer to World Cup qualifying by stealing a point at Mexican fortress Estadio Azteca, while El Tri avoided a catastrophic loss.

With Sunday’s win, which matched the Americans’ most one-sided victory in a World Cup qualifier over the last five years, the U.S. (7-2-4) remained second in the eight-team CONCACAF qualifying table, tied with Mexico at 25 points and three points head of Costa Rica (6-3-4). Only the top three teams are assured spots in Qatar.

But if the U.S. did little more than stand its ground in the standings, the lopsided win swelled its advantage in goal differential. Even if Costa Rica wins Wednesday, it would have to make up a 10-score deficit in the tiebreaker to pass the Americans and take their World Cup spot.

Done deal, right?

Don’t tell that to U.S. forward Paul Arriola. He was on the U.S. team that won its penultimate qualifier — over Panama, by four goals, in Orlando — five years ago to virtually lock up a spot in the 2018 World Cup.

Four days later that was snatched away in a stunning loss to Trinidad and Tobago.

“I’m not celebrating anything. I was in this exact position, or a very similar position, [five] years ago. And we know how that qualification ended,” he said.

“To an extent, there is a personal mission. It isn’t done yet. When it is, I’ll celebrate.”

The U.S. took the field knowing Canada had punched its own ticket to Qatar with a win in Toronto, and that Costa Rica had also won, denying the Americans a chance to clinch their World Cup berth at home as well.

But if the Americans couldn’t completely close the deal, they could still score a bunch of goals, making it harder for Costa Rica to catch them. They did just that, scoring three times during a 10-minute span midway through the first half to put Panama — and, most likely, Costa Rica — away.

The first came on a Pulisic penalty kick in the 17th minute, after Panamanian captain Anibal Godoy assaulted American defender Walker Zimmerman in the box on a corner kick. Salvadoran referee Iván Barton did not call the penalty initially, but after consulting a VAR review during the next stoppage in play, he reversed himself.

Pulisic then stepped to the spot and sent his right-footed shot into the roof of the net for a 1-0 lead.

The score didn’t stay that way for long. Six minutes later, an Arriola header off a long Antonee Robinson cross from the left wing doubled the advantage and four minutes after that Jesús Ferreira made it 3-0, right-footing a shot past Panamanian keeper Luis Mejía at the end of a 20-pass sequence.

Another Pulisic penalty following another Godoy foul, this one on Miles Robinson, made it 4-0 in first-half stoppage time.

Panama's Edgar Barcenas controls the ball in front of the United States' Tyler Adams.
Panama’s Edgar Barcenas, center, controls the ball in front of the United States’ Tyler Adams during Sunday’s World Cup qualifier.
(John Raoux / Associated Press)

Seconds later, a frustrated Michael Murillo of Panama shoved Pulisic during a stoppage in play. Pulisic shoved back 20 minutes into the second half, taking a pass from Antonee Robinson in the box, spinning away from two defenders and right-footing a shot inside the far post to complete the first hat trick of his international career.

“There’s something special about Christian,” Arriola said.

But there was little special about his post-goal “worm” celebration which teammates, including Arriola, panned.

“I met someone really special yesterday. His name was Mason and his one request was that if I scored, he wanted to see a worm celebration,” Pulisic said. “That’s what that was for.”

That was the only celebration the U.S. captain did, however. He was on that same team with Arriola five years ago, so he’s not booking his trip to Qatar until the dust has completely settled.

Panama's Andres Andrade, left, clears the ball away from the United States' Jesus Ferreira during the second half Sunday.
(John Raoux / Associated Press)

“Obviously, a huge result. We needed the three points bad to put us in a really good spot to qualify,” he said. “We can enjoy tonight but the job’s not done yet.

“We have one more really important game and we’re taking it very seriously. We need to go in and get the job done.”

The busy Godoy finally got Panama on the board with a header in the 86th minute, the second goal the U.S. has allowed in its last six home qualifiers and the first it has allowed at home since mid-October. That was of little consolation to Panama — or Costa Rica, who still has a chance, even if it’s mostly a mathematical one.

“We still have work to do in Costa Rica,” Berhalter repeated.

“This group has never won a qualifier in San Jose. And the guys are hungry for that. So we’ll put a lineup on the field that is going to go for the win.”

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