Kristijan Pulišić leads the USA after Panama and to the edge of the World Cup

The men’s soccer team of the United States is not at the World Cup, not yet. There remains one last journey, the last work to be done, the last game to be played.

However, it would be difficult for the team to prevent the Americans from going to Qatar now. And it would be almost impossible to convince them, or anyone else, that – finally – they do not belong to the brightest football stage.

That was the biggest news that came from the United States ’5-1 victory over Panama on Sunday night in Orlando, Florida. Bigger than four goals in the first half, which they scored against the superior Panamanians. Bigger than Kristijan Pulišić’s hat-trick and resting legs, bigger than the addition they added to their goal difference, which made the trip to Costa Rica on Wednesday far less intimidating than it could be.

What is left to do? The Americans are going to Costa Rica knowing they don’t even have to win to qualify for the World Cup. Just avoiding a heavy defeat – a defeat of six goals or more – will ensure the Americans end up with one of the automatic qualifiers from their region, North and Central America and the Caribbean.

Canada became the first team from the region to qualify on Sunday, thanks to a 4-0 home win over Jamaica, with only Mexico and Costa Rica remaining in competition for the other two. (Panama was eliminated by a loss on Sunday night.)

However, the U.S. has a much better goal difference than Mexico and Costa Rica, and that reality – in the event of a tie for automatic places after Wednesday’s final games – was their kind of consolation in the splendor of Sunday’s defeat. What this actually means is that even a historic defeat for the Americans from Costa Rica would be a lifeline: a playoff against the Oceanian champions in June for last place in Qatar.

That back door was the least of any worries after a performance in Orlando that was the best for the Americans in the seven-month qualifying campaign.

“We want to go out there and win the game,” said United States coach Gregg Berhalter. “Just like I said in the first two games: We enter every game in preparation for victory.”

The tensions the Americans brought into Sunday’s game – a mix of injuries, illness and suspension that melted away along with long-standing anxiety over a failed 2017 qualifier set – dissipated in a rush of early goals.

Pulišić, a veteran of that last campaign, which ended with him in tears on the muddy field in Trinidad, opened the goal with a penalty kick in the 17th minute. Six minutes later, the lead was two, thanks to a header by Paul Arriola, and four minutes later it was 3-0 after a breakthrough by surprising starter Jesús Ferreira.

Pulisic scored 4-0 during the compensation of the first half, he scored the second penalty, and he scored his first national team hat trick effortlessly – for him – with a finish in the 65th minute. Pulling a cross shot with a silky control in the Panama penalty area, he turned in traffic and slipped two defensive players to score his third goal.

“Christian is a guy who has already been through this,” Berhalter said later, and everyone who experienced 2017 knew what he meant. Pulisic wore the captain’s armband on Sunday and played the way leader Berhalter needed it if the Americans want to conclude an agreement on Wednesday.

His only mistake against Panama seemed to be an awkward breakdance attempt after the second penalty and a yellow card for an argument just moments before Berhalter kicked him out. Other key players were soon eliminated, the Americans rested their tired legs, which brought Mexico an equalizer and a great victory in the span of four days, and they had one more game until the end.

A thick goal difference – the Americans now have a plus-13, compared to Costa Rica’s plus-3 – will help.

“We knew we had to come out on top and scoring that goal early set the tone for the whole match,” defender Walker Zimmerman said of the unconscious victory. “Those goals add up and are big for us.”

But a late consolation goal by Panama defender Anibal Godoy, who was guilty of receiving both penalties in the first half, served as a reminder that things could still go wrong if Zimmerman and his teammates are not careful.

In 2017, the Americans smashed Panama in Orlando in their penultimate game. All the team had to do after that was go to Trinidad and Tobago, which has already been eliminated, and avoid defeat.

Instead, the United States made a mistake, losing 2-1 as other results across the region went against them. In two amazing hours, they went from a safe to a definite and shocking departure from the World Cup. The difference was smaller then, but the lesson remained with the current team, most of whom – with the significant exception of Pulisic – were not in the squad at the time.

“Obviously the goal has always been to qualify for the World Cup, and this is just another step in the right direction,” midfielder Tyler Adams said. “But at the end of the day we have another game to play. We haven’t fought yet. “

It is a message that will surely be repeated in the next three days, until the job is done, until the map is broken, until the United States finally, officially, returns to the World Cup.

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