The United States men's national team couldn't confirm its place at this winter's World Cup after Costa Rica's win at El Salvador earlier in the day, but its 5-1 win over Panama in Orlando, Florida, on Sunday night put it on the brink of qualifying for Qatar 2022.
Christian Pulisic scored his first career hat trick with the national team, and additional goals from Paul Arriola and Jesus Ferreira saw the Americans cruise to a lopsided result that eliminated Panama from contention for a place at Qatar. With 25 points and sitting in second in CONCACAF's final qualifying table, the U.S. would need to suffer a six-goal defeat at Costa Rica on Wednesday to be denied automatic qualification and sent to a playoff with the winners of Oceania.
Despite mathematical possibility, at the end of the match, American players unfurled a red-and-blue banner with "QUALIFIED" written in bold, white letters.
"We know we're not there yet, despite what that banner might have said," U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said.
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The U.S. was awarded a penalty in the 15th minute, when Walker Zimmerman and Anibal Godoy tussled in the Panama box. After a check with VAR, it was evident that Godoy's hands struck Zimmerman's face and, after the latter tumbled to the turf, Pulisic's cross found Godoy's arm. The Chelsea talisman and U.S. captain on the night confidently converted the ensuing spot kick.
"I think because of the journey," Berhalter said of giving Pulisic the captain's armband. "You have a guy that's been there before. He was he was on the field when we didn't qualify. And this was us saying to him, this is a new group, this is a new team and you're a leader."
The hosts doubled their advantage six minutes later. Antonee Robinson swung in a teasing ball from the left flank, and the 5-foot-6 Arriola rose highest among a pair of Panamanian defenders to expertly direct a glancing header into the far corner.
The lead swelled to 3-0 by the 27th minute. A series of exchanges from Arriola, Luca de la Torre and Shaq Moore eventually led to a loose ball finding the feet of Ferreira inside the six-yard box, and the FC Dallas forward coolly smashed home the Americans' third.
Panama captain Godoy conceded a second penalty in the second minute of first-half stoppage time. The Nashville SC midfielder was adjudged to have struck Miles Robinson with an arm to the face, although contact between the pair as they jostled for position appeared minimal, and Pulisic added his second from the penalty spot before the teams headed into the dressing room.
Twenty minutes into the second half, Pulisic completed his hat trick and extend the Americans' lead to five. The U.S. No. 10 showed off some impressive close control to bamboozle a pair of Panama defenders, taking down a cross from De la Torre, before slotting past Luis Mejia.
Godoy would pull back a consolation goal for the visitors in the 86th minute, when he met Eric Davis' cross and headed beyond the reach of Zack Steffen.
The USMNT will take on the Ticos in the Costa Rican capital of San Jose on Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET.
"We honestly [will] approach it like any other game," Pulisic said. "We're going to prepare exactly the same as we would if we needed a win.
"I just really want to play in a World Cup and so does this team.
"I'm just really happy that we're able to be in a good position to go do that and finish the job off."