ORLANDO (AFP) – Christian Pulisic scored a hat-trick in the USA’s 5-1 win over Panama on Sunday to secure qualification for the 2022 World Cup.
Pulisic scored two first-half penalties – both against Panama captain Anibal Godoy – before completing his treble in the second half with a virtuoso goal and one-foot departure for the USA at this year’s finals in Qatar.
Jesus Ferreira and Paul Arriola scored the other goals for USA in a win at Orlando’s Exploria Stadium that dashed Panama’s hopes of qualifying for the CONCACAF region.
The win means the United States need only avoid a disastrous loss in their final game against Costa Rica on Wednesday to qualify automatically.
The United States have 25 points from 13 games while Costa Rica are three points behind after beating El Salvador on Sunday.
With the USA having a significantly better goal difference, Costa Rica would need to win by six goals to secure one of the three automatic qualifiers offered to teams from Central America, North America and the Caribbean.
“We did it on a night where we absolutely had to win,” said US coach Gregg Berhalter. “We improved our goal difference and the effort was enormous.
“Panama was fighting for her life and the guys did a great job.”
Sunday’s defeat banished the spirit of America’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Five years ago, a teenage Pulisic was in tears after the USA were beaten by Trinidad and Tobago in their last game to miss qualifying.
But on Sunday the US captain left the field to a standing ovation when he was substituted in the 71st minute after scoring the goals that virtually secured a World Cup spot.
“He’s part of the team’s leadership board, so it’s normal for him,” Berhalter said of Pulisic.
“Christian is a guy who’s been through this before and knows what we need and responded to that with a really good performance.”
– nervous start –
After a nervous start, US gradually took the lead and Pulisic got in early with a blocked shot.
The breakthrough came after 15 minutes when Panama captain Godoy pushed US defender Walker Zimmerman to the ground after a corner.
Play continued but VAR intervened and footage clearly showed Godoy grabbing Zimmerman around the neck before throwing the Nashville SC defender to the ground.
Pulisic stepped forward to hammer the penalty past Luis Meija and USA were on their way.
The USA doubled their tally in the 23rd minute. Pulisic moved into space before handing over to Fulham’s Antonee Robinson on the edge of the area.
Robinson’s inviting cross was answered by Arriola with a superb header header that flew into the top corner to make it 2-0.
The goals continued four minutes later with another well-crafted move. Full-back Shaq Moore crossed from the right, Arriola helped the ball through and Colombian-born FC Dallas forward Ferreira was there to thwart the finish.
A miserable first half for Panama was made even worse at half-time when Godoy conceded his second penalty.
This time the Panama captain abused Miles Robinson in the box and referee Ivan Barton didn’t hesitate to point to the point.
Pulisic reinforced again, this time firing his free-kick the other way to make it 4-0 as Panama’s bench erupted in anger.
The USA dominated early in the second half before Pulisic made it 5-0 in the 66th minute.
De La Torre and Robinson combined to feed Pulisic, whose first touch freed him from Fidel Escobar’s cover before another swipe caught Andres Andrade by surprise and the US skipper cleaned no fault to finish 5-0 .
Godoy scored a late consolation goal for Panama in the 86th minute.