With Christian Pulisic Driving, United States Steers Closer to World Cup

The goal the United States national team needed arrived after only eight minutes. Soon there was another. And another.

By halftime, the whispered pregame fears about the unthinkable — that the United States might stumble and bumble its way right out of a place in next summer’s World Cup in Russia — were long forgotten. By the final whistle — after the United States had polished off an encouragingly comprehensive 4-0 dismantling of Panama on Friday night — there were only cheers, and relief, and the acknowledgment that while there was still one more important step toward Russia, the job was nearly done.

The result moved the United States back into third place in its six-team regional qualifying group. That is the final automatic qualification spot — Mexico won the first weeks ago, and Costa Rica entered Friday poised to claim the second. Now, the United States needs only a victory or a tie in its final game, at Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday night, to punch its ticket to Russia 2018, and to extend its streak of consecutive World Cup appearances to eight.

Salvation arrived, as it so often has this year, off the foot of Christian Pulisic, the 19-year-old sensation who has quickly become the centerpiece of the American team. Pulisic has scored or assisted on 11 of the 16 goals the United States has scored in the final round of qualifying, and so it came as little surprise when he had a hand in the first two on Friday.

First, he sliced Panama open in the eighth minute, taking a deft touch from Jozy Altidore in midfield and hurdling Panama center back Román Torres like a speed bump before rounding goalkeeper Jaime Penedo. Pulisic’s finish, from an awkward, wildly obtuse angle to the right of the goal, skimmed into the net. The roar that greeted it was both exultant and cathartic. The Americans had the lead.

When Pulisic tore open the left side of the Panama defense 11 minutes later, slotting a cross that Altidore simply poked into the net, the game — 19 minutes old — seemed over. The cherry on top — an Altidore penalty kick, on a nervy chip after Bobby Wood had been cut down on a run into the area in the 42nd minute — erased all doubt.

After Wood added a fourth in the 63rd minute, the worries, the fears of the past few days, and the past few months, were gone. It had gone so well, in fact, that United States Coach Bruce Arena could even feign the tiniest bit of disappointment afterward.

The only concern of the Americans afterward, then, was for Pulisic, who was battered several times and then, finally, so badly that he required treatment after a particularly rough foul at midfield just after halftime.

Arena, realizing Pulisic’s unique value, and the fact that he may need a similar performance to close the deal on Tuesday, had seen enough. He substituted for Pulisic a few minutes later.

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