The US couldn’t be any closer to the World Cup without actually being in it.
With Christian Pulisic scoring three times Sunday in a 5-1 rout of Panama at a sold-out Exploria Stadium, about the only thing the Americans have to do is show up in Costa Rica for their final qualifying match Wednesday and they’re through to Qatar this fall.
Oh sure, the bookkeepers will say there is still a mathematical chance the US won’t make it. But reality and commonsense say otherwise.
With Sunday’s win, which matched the Americans’ most one-sided victory in a World Cup qualifier in five years, the US (7-2-4) remained second in the eight-team CONCACAF qualifying table, even with Mexico at 25 points and three points head of Costa Rica. Only the top three teams move on.
Sunday’s win swelled its advantage in goal differential. Even if Costa Rica wins Wednesday, it would have to make up a 10-score deficit in goal differential to pass the Americans and take their World Cup spot.
So while the job isn’t finished yet, it kind of is.
The US took the field knowing Canada had punched its own ticket for Qatar with a win in Toronto, and Costa Rica had won as well, denying the Americans their chance to qualify at home as well.
But the US could still score a bunch of goals, making it harder for Costa Rica to catch them. They did just that, scoring three times during a 10-minute span midway through the first half to put Panama — and, most likely, Costa Rica — away.
The only goal the Americans would need to win the game came on a Pulisic penalty kick in the 17th minute, a couple of minutes after Panamanian captain Anibal Godoy fouled American defender Walker Zimmerman in the box on a corner kick. Salvadoran referee Iván Barton did not call the penalty initially, but after consulting a VAR review during the next stoppage in play, he reversed himself.
Pulisic then stepped to the spot and sent his right-footed shot into the roof of the net for a 1-0 lead.
But the score didn’t stay there long. Six minutes later a Paul Arriola header off a long Antonee Robinson cross from the left wing doubled the advantage and four minutes after that Jesús Ferreira made it 3-0, right-footing a shot past Panamanian keeper Luis Mejía at the end of a 20- pass sequence.
Another Pulisic penalty following another Godoy foul, this one on Miles Robinson, made it 4-0 in first-half stoppage time. Seconds later, Panama’s Michael Murillo shoved Pulisic during a stoppage in play, and a frustrated official on the Panamanian bench threw the ball at the US captain, touching off a brief scuffle near the sideline.
Pulisic shoved back 20 minutes into the second half, taking a pass from Antonee Robinson the box, spinning away from defenders Andrés Andrade and Fidel Escobar and right-footing the ball inside the far post to complete the first hat trick of his international career.
The busy Godoy finally got Panama on the board with a header in the 86th minute but even that was of little consolation to either Panama or Costa Rica. Panama was eliminated from qualifying for the World Cup with the loss.
But if Costa Rica has little hope of passing the US on Wednesday, it can still take Mexico’s World Cup spot if El Tri loses at Azteca Estadio to El Salvador and Costa Rica beats the visiting US while making up a four-goal differential to Mexico.