ORLANDO – Christian Pulisic ran riot in Orlando to fire the United States to within touching distance of Russia 2018 with a 4-0 win over Panama.
The brilliant 19-year-old scored one and made another to cap a sensational 19-minute burst at the start of this crucial World Cup qualifier to see off a shellshocked Panama team and help Bruce Arena’s men take a firm step towards next year’s showpiece finals.
Pulisic opened the scoring on eight minutes and beautifully set up strike partner Jozy Altidore to make it two and compound a nightmare start for Panama, who now look destined to settle for a play-off match against either Syria or Australia to land a World Cup place for the first time in their history.
Honduras, whose match in Costa Rica was put back a day because of adverse weather, also remain in the mix.
For the Americans, however, a win against bottom of the hexagonal table Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday will seal their ticket for an eighth consecutive finals and even a point should be enough.
The pressure was all on the US, who came into the final games having earned just one point from their last two.
A dispiriting home defeat at the start of September to Costa Rica was followed by an edgy 1-1 draw in Honduras, an almost disastrous result salvaged by Bobby Wood’s 85th minute equalizer.
And with Panama arriving in Orlando a point ahead of the US and eyeing an historic first-ever trip to the World Cup finals, the tension was palpable.
The last four matches between the two had all ended in draws, a result which would have suited Hernan Dario Gomez’s side considering their last match next week is against a Costa Rican side who should have joined Mexico in qualifying by then.
Arena needed his side to race out of the blocks and heap pressure straight onto a Panama side who have been notoriously difficult to break down, conceding just five goals in their prior matches of the six-nation final round of qualifying.
Pulisic, who has now been involved in 11 of his side’s 14 goals in this entire qualifying run – had the kind of youthful, skillful exuberance needed to unlock the most miserly of backlines.
Wood, who was given the start ahead of veteran Clint Dempsey, led the line with Altidore.
And it was the former Sunderland striker who went close early on when his close range shot was charged down before Wood shot inches wide soon after.
Panama looked understandably nervous but Gabriel Torres’ first sight of goal on six minutes should have tested Tim Howard instead of flying harmlessly wide.
It was a decent opening and his wastefulness was to prove key as Pulisic went up the other end and produced some brilliance to settle US nerves.
Strike partner Altidore flicked the ball on and after the Dortmund star escaped the challenge of Roman Torres, he calmly rounded Jaime Penedo and slid home from a tight angle.
It was a perfect start for Arena’s side, his sixth goal in this qualifying campaign and arguably his most important.
His contribution on 19 minutes, however, was equally crucial and impressive.
Picking up the ball on the left wing, Pulisic delivered a superb cross which was gleefully tapped in by Altidore.
The US were utterly dominant and on 43 minutes the game was put to bed. Wood was tripped in the area by substitute Armando Cooper and it was Altidore who stepped up and cheekily chipped the ball down the middle for his 18th career World Cup qualifying goal – tied with Dempsey for the most in US history.
Pulisic left the field to rapturous applause on 56 minutes and the house was brought down yet again on 63 minutes as Wood capped a performance full of industry with a well taken strike to deflate Panama even further.