The US men’s soccer team has yet to participate in the World Cup, not yet. There is still one last trip to make, one last job to do, one last game to play.
However, it will be difficult for the team to prevent the Americans from going to Qatar now. And it would be nearly impossible to convince them, or anyone else, that they are – at last – not returning to the brightest stage in football.
That was the biggest news of the United States’ 5-1 victory over Panama on Sunday night in Orlando, Florida, and it’s bigger than the four first-half goals he scored against the Panama national team. Bigger than Christian Pulisic’s hat-trick and relaxed legs, more than the padding they added to the goal difference that made Wednesday’s trip to Costa Rica a lot less intimidating than it was.
What is left to do? Americans head to Costa Rica knowing they don’t have to win even to qualify for the World Cup. Simply avoiding a heavy defeat – losing by six or more goals – will ensure that Americans will automatically finish in one of the eligible places in 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 home win over Jamaica, leaving only Mexico and Costa Rica in contention for the other two teams. (Panama was eliminated with a Sunday night loss.)
The US has a much better goal difference than both Mexico and Costa Rica, and that fact – in the event of a tie for the automatic positions after Wednesday’s last games – was a bit of a relief in Sunday’s glare. What that actually means is that even the Americans’ historic defeat in Costa Rica will bring a lifeline: a playoff against the Oceania champions in June for a last-gasp spot in Qatar.
That tailgate was the least of anyone’s concern after a performance in Orlando that ranked as the top American in the seven-month qualifier.
“We want to go out there and win the game,” said USA coach Greg Berhalter. “Like I said in the first two games: We go into every game and prepare to win.”
The tension the Americans carried into Sunday’s game – a mixture of injuries, illnesses and suspensions with the constant worry of failing to qualify for the 2017 playoffs – faded into a string of early goals.
Pulisic, a veteran of that last campaign, which ended in tears in a wet stadium in Trinidad, opened the scoring by converting a penalty in the 17th minute. Six minutes later, he was twice ahead, thanks to Paul Areola’s header, and four minutes later it was 3-0 after the end Interrupted by sudden starter Jesus Ferreira.
Pulisic made it 4-0 during first-half stoppage time, converted a second penalty, and completed his first hat-trick for his country with an easy shot – for him – in the 65th minute. He made a silk-control cross into the Panama penalty area, and rolled in a movement Traffic and two defenders retreated to score his third goal in the net.
“Christian is a man he’s been through,” Berhalter later said, and anyone who lived through 2017 knows what he means. Pulisic, who wore the captain’s armband on Sunday, played the way leader Berhalter needed if the Americans were to finish the deal on Wednesday.
His only foul against Panama, it seems, was an embarrassing break-dancing attempt after his second penalty kick and a yellow card for arguing just moments before Berhalter sent him off. Soon the other key players were replaced too, with the Americans resting on tired legs who pulled off a tie in Mexico and a big win in four days, with only one match left.
The huge difference in goals – the American is now plus 13, compared to Costa Rica plus 3 – will help.
“We knew we had to go up front and that scoring that goal so early set the tone for the whole match,” defender Walker Zimmermann said of the lopsided victory. “These goals are piling up, and they are huge for us.”
But a late consolation goal for Panama defender Anibal Godoy, who missed both penalties in the first half, served as a reminder of how things could continue to go wrong if Zimmermann and his teammates weren’t careful.
In 2017, the Americans defeated Panama in Orlando in their penultimate match. All the team needed next was to go to Trinidad and Tobago, which had already been eliminated, and avoid losing.
Instead, the United States I got it all wrong, where they lost 2-1 as other results across the region went against them. In two amazing hours, they moved on from the World Cup finals with a shocking finality. The margin was more tight at the time, but the lesson stuck with the current team, most of whom – with the notable exception of Pulisic – were not part of the team at the time.
“The goal has always been to qualify for the World Cup, and this is just another step in the right direction,” said midfielder Tyler Adams. “But at the end of the day we still have another match. We are not there yet.”
It’s 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 finally heads to the World Cup.