With all due respect to the Disney marketing department, the most magical place on the planet was a few miles northeast of Orlando’s theme parks on Sunday night.
That’s how Exploria Stadium must have felt to the US and their exuberant fans, at least, as a Christian Pulisic hat-trick helped deliver a 5-1 thrashing that hoisted Gregg Berhalter’s men to the brink of Qatar 2022. A tricky and occasionally torturous qualifying campaign is now all but certain to enjoy a happy ending.
Of course, the US know from agonizing experience that weird things can happen on the final night of Concacaf qualifying, after an easy win over Panama at the home of Orlando City. But in all probability this will not be a case of history repeating. Unlike in 2017, the US can afford a loss in their final fixture, away to Costa Rica on Wednesday. In fact, they can afford a big loss. Even a five-goal defeat would not be fatal given the gap in goal difference between them and Costa Rica in fourth.
The result eliminated fifth-placed Panama from contention, meaning that the US can finish no lower than fourth, the rank that entails an intercontinental playoff in Qatar in June, probably against New Zealand.
Only the most pedantic mathematician would give any attention to that scenario. The US are second, ahead of Mexico on goal difference and behind Canada, who qualified earlier on Sunday with a 4-0 victory over Jamaica.
“I think on a night where we needed to get a resounding win we did so. We helped our goal difference,” a hoarse-sounding Berhalter said on Fox Sports.
The final whistle blew on Costa Rica’s 2-1 road win over El Salvador shortly before kick-off in Florida, adding to the need for Berhalter’s side to grab all three points. After a hesitant start, they blossomed in stunning and emphatic style, with Pulisic – a teenage tyro in 2017, his country’s captain and a Premier League star in 2022 – leading by example with two penalties and an excellent spin and calm finish for his third.
A night that underlined the team’s evolution between World Cup cycles, from a squad of declining veterans to one defined by fast-improving youngsters, was also an evening to highlight the personal development of the biggest name in American soccer.
Admittedly, there were a couple of careless assists from a US-based Panama veteran to ease any nerves. Midfielder Anibal Godoy shoved his Nashville teammate Walker Zimmerman in the face and the defender tumbled to the ground. After a VAR review the referee, Ivan Barton, awarded a penalty that Pulisic converted in the 17th minute.
“It’s huge. We knew we had to come out with a really strong start, get on the front foot, get the first goal and go from there,” said Zimmerman after the game.
Propelled by desperation, Panama might have equalized less than five minutes later after an Antonee Robinson giveaway prompted pinball in the US box. The Fulham left-back was more sure-footed in the 23rd minute, picking out the 5ft 6in Paul Arriola with a dipping cross. The FC Dallas winger headed in the second, then Jesus Ferreira settled the contest in the 27th minute with a tap-in after a slick move down the right and a deflected touch from Arriola. It was the first goal from a US center forward since October.
Panama, needing to win to stave off elimination, had ample possession and enough attacking flair to cause problems in the American back line, with Zack Steffen uncertain at times in goal. But shoddy defending was their undoing.
Godoy, arms whirling like a wind turbine in a hurricane, was penalized for another foul in the box in first-half injury time. On this occasion it was a soft award; the end product was the same, another Pulisic goal. He celebrated, curiously, with a Worm breakdance move. The Chelsea attacker, in pugnacious form all evening, was in the middle of a melee moments later as tempers flared.
The US’s previous game was last Thursday’s goalless draw with Mexico in the thin air of the Azteca, where the Americans have never won a qualifier. Given the risk of fatigue, injury and suspension ahead of Sunday’s more pivotal match, it was a bold decision by Berhalter to pick a strong XI for that game. It also carried some logic since the US beat their regional rivals three times last year and Mexico’s squad is unusually insipid.
As it transpired, with the game all but over by the break, tiredness was not a worry. Pulisic started both games – but there can be few better salves for weary legs than a 4-0 half time lead and a hat-trick, secured in the 65th minute of an open and lively second period with a neat turn and tidy finish.
“It wasn’t even our best performance,” midfielder Tyler Adams told Fox Sports.
Godoy concluded his eventful night with a fine header that made it 5-1 with four minutes left, not that it dampened the noise level in the stands. Costa Rica have won five of their past six games and the Americans’ record in the country is dismal. On this evidence, the defense could use some fine-tuning in the next two days.
But this was a night to savor the goals, to admire Pulisic, and to prepare for a party. As they hailed jubilant supporters after the match, some of the American players briefly and prematurely held a banner bearing the word “Qualified”. It was quickly wrapped up and put away. They must have got the message: not quite yet, not quite officially. Surely it won’t be long.