USA overrun Panama 4-0 to boost 2018 qualification chances

The USMNT Can't Afford To Lose

So this Christian Pulisic kid might be pretty good.

The United States took a massive step toward qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russian Federation with a 4-0 victory over Panama on Friday night at Orlando City Stadium in Florida. From the opening whistle, the aggressive USA attack set the tempo and the tone for the match.

Pulisic went on to set up the second goal, placing a ball through the Panamanian box past the keeper and on a silver platter for Jozy Altidore to tap into the net.

But it isn't just Friday night that showed how important Pulisic has become to this squad. A similar showing next week should be enough to punch their ticket to the World Cup after some uncertain moments during the qualifying run.

The U.S. national team played a game it couldn't afford to lose Friday.

With a comfortable lead, Pulisic and Altidore left to standing ovations in the second half. By the looks of his celebration, it's clear Pulisic was dying to get this goal.

After Altidore earned the assist on the first goal, Pulisic returned the favor in the 19th minute. He substituted for Pulisic a few minutes later. A bit of cheeky footwork played him around the defender and put him in great position for a cross.

Pulisic - one of the most highly-rated youngsters in world football now plying his trade with Bundesliga outfit Borussia Dortmund - was at the peak of his powers against Panama, ghosting past the keeper before tapping in on the stretch for the USA opener. Panama looked unsafe on the left. With Deandre Yedlin and (to a lesser extent) Jorge Villafana providing width on the flanks, the likes of Paul Arriola and Darlington Nagbe are free to either "squeeze" inside the center of the field or get wide in space. However, the possibility of that seems pretty minimal as well, firstly due to the fact that their final two matches are up against Mexico and US and secondly, having a very low goal difference of -11.

He put the USMNT up 1-0 five minutes later with this goal, in which he almost breaks the sound barrier by scampering past four defenders faster than can be easily comprehended on first viewing, then rounds the keeper and scores.

Altidore stepped up to take the ensuing kick from the spot, and converted coolly with a panenka that fooled Penedo.

Wood had problems on the night, but he was undoubtedly a positive force. But he finally got his due with a goal in the 63th minute to give the match its final 4-0 score. Playing in the biggest game of his young worldwide career, Pulisic chewed up the pressure like a chocolate bar from his hometown of Hershey, Pennsylvania, and did it with the swagger of a player who absolutely expects to do the magical things he can do at such a young age.

The lopsided result provided a cozy cushion in the first tiebreaker (goal differential), leaving both Panama and Honduras (2-3-3) to win their final matches by inconceivable margins. It finally came to a head when Pulisic was tripped shortly after the beginning of the second half. "We could have scored a lot more goals".

CONCACAF's top three teams - Mexico, Costa Rica and now the United States - stand to automatically qualify for the showpiece event in Russian Federation, with the fourth-placed heading to the play-off. Trinidad and Tobago have no chance of qualifying directly but they can still qualify via the inter-confederation play-off against either Syria or Australia.

Honduras' inferior goal difference of -7 has put them in such a position that if they are to qualify directly, then they should win both their matches against Costa Rica and Mexico by considerable margins and hope that U.S. and Panama do not win both their matches. That's big. As things stand, the US could still tie with Panama on points if the Panamanians beat Costa Rica and the USA draws with Trinidad. You could certainly make a case for Altidore for the night's man of the match honors, but the way Pulisic took control of the game early on was a sight to behold. All that, of course, will be avoided with a simple victory in Trinidad. Pulisic, an attacker for Borussia Dortmund, linked up especially well with Altidore.

The four-goal margin of victory was also helpful for the USA -it left the Americans with a plus-5 goal difference and Panama at minus-two. When the team has needed to make a statement in this World Cup cycle, the scoreline has done all the talking. On Friday, after the team lineups were announced, it became clear that Arena had made a decision to end his winger experiment with Pulisic and instead start him in the middle of the field, in a playmaker role, just behind the team's two forwards.

The days of taking about his potential are done. "Now we have to go down there and do the rest". He's the kind of player who Americans are blessed to be able to call their own.

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