The United States men’s soccer team is not in the World Cup, not just yet. There is still one last trip to make, one last job to do, one last game to play.
It would be hard, though, for a team to keep the Americans from going to Qatar now. And it would be nearly impossible to persuade them, or anyone else, that — at last — they do not belong back on soccer’s brightest stage.
That was the biggest news to emerge from the United States’ 5-1 victory over Panama on Sunday night in Orlando, Fla. Bigger than the four first-half goals they scored against the overwhelmed Panamanians. Bigger than Christian Pulisic’s hat trick and the rested legs, bigger than the padding they’ve added to their goal differential that has made Wednesday’s trip to Costa Rica far less terrifying than it might have been.
What’s left to do? The Americans head to Costa Rica knowing they do not even have to win to qualify for the World Cup. Merely avoiding a heavy defeat — a loss by six goals or more — will ensure the Americans will finish with one of the automatic qualifying places 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 victory at home over Jamaica, and only Mexico and Costa Rica remain in contention for the other two. (Panama was eliminated with its loss on Sunday night.)
The US has a much better goal difference than both Mexico and Costa Rica, however, and that reality — in the event of a tie for the automatic places after Wednesday’s final games — was its own kind of comfort in the glow of Sunday’s rout. What it effectively means is that even a historic defeat for the Americans at Costa Rica would come with a lifeline: a playoff against the Oceania champion in June for a last-gasp place in Qatar.
That back door was the least of anyone’s concerns after a performance in Orlando that ranked as the Americans’ best of the seven-month qualifying campaign.
“We want to go there and win the game,” United States Coach Gregg Berhalter said. “Just like I’ve been saying in the first two games: We go into each game preparing to win.”
The tension that the Americans carried into Sunday’s game — a mix of injuries, illnesses and suspensions melting together with the lingering angst from a failed qualifying run in 2017 — dissipated in a flurry of early goals.
Pulisic, a veteran of that last campaign, which ended with him in tears on a muggy field in Trinidad, opened the scoring by converting a penalty kick in the 17th minute. Six minutes later, the lead was two, thanks to a Paul Arriola header, and four minutes after that it was 3-0 after a slotted finish by the surprise starter Jesús Ferreira.
Pulisic made it 4-0 during first-half stoppage time, converting a second penalty, and he completed his first national team hat trick with an effortless — for him — finish in the 65th minute. Pulling down a cross with silky control in Panama’s penalty area, he spun in traffic and slipped two defenders to slot home his third goal.
“Christian’s a guy who’s been through it before,” Berhalter said later, and anyone who has lived through 2017 knew what he meant. Pulisic had worn the captain’s armband on Sunday, and played like the leader Berhalter needs him to be if the Americans are to close the deal on Wednesday.
His only mistake against Panama, it seemed, was an awkward attempt at breakdancing after his second penalty kick and a yellow card for arguing only moments before Berhalter subbed him off. Other key players were soon subbed off, too, the Americans resting weary legs that had delivered a tie at Mexico and a big win in the span of four days, and still had one game to go.
A fat goal difference — the Americans’ is plus-13 now, compared with Costa Rica’s plus-3 — will help.
“We knew we had to come out on the front foot and getting that goal early set the tone for the whole match,” defender Walker Zimmerman said of the lopsided victory. “Those goals add up, and they’re huge for us.”
But a late consolation goal by Panama defender Aníbal Godoy, who was at fault for conceding both penalties in the first half, served as a reminder of how things can still go wrong if Zimmerman and his teammates aren’t careful.
In 2017, the Americans had also thrashed Panama in Orlando in their penultimate game. All the team needed to do after that was go to Trinidad and Tobago, which had already been eliminated, and avoid a loss.
Instead, the United States got it all wrong, losing by 2-1 as other results around the region went against them. In two stunning hours they went from assuredly in to definitively, and shockingly, out of the World Cup. The margin was more narrow then, but the lesson has stuck with the current team, most of whom—with the notable exception of Pulisic—were not part of the squad back then.
“The goal obviously 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 still have another game to play. We haven’t clinched yet.”
It is a message he will surely repeat over the next three days, until the job is done, until the ticket is punched, until the United States is finally, officially headed back to the World Cup.