ORLANDO, Fla. -- Tyler Adams has been the de facto captain for the U.S. men's national team during this World Cup qualifying cycle, but when the U.S. players emerged from the tunnel on Sunday, Christian Pulisic was at the front, the armband wrapped tightly around his sleeve.
It was fitting, too. On the night the U.S. all but clinched its place in this winter's tournament, Pulisic -- one of the few links from the team that failed so spectacularly nearly five years ago -- led from the start.
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Pulisic scored twice in the first half on penalty kicks. He scored again just past the hour with the sort of balletic footwork in front of goal that gives American fans fever dreams. He had to be restrained by Gregg Berhalter when he tried to run at a mob of Panamanian players during a minor scrape near the sideline. He got a yellow card for screaming at (and charging toward) the referee after the official called a fairly benign foul in midfield, even with the U.S. fully in control.
In a game where the U.S. needed everything from its stars, Pulisic was a frothing ball of fire -- exactly what Berhalter was thinking when he turned to Pulisic to be the captain.
"I think because of the journey," Berhalter said. "You have a guy that's been there before. 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. We wanted to show that."
Nothing could ever get back what was lost in Trinidad in 2017, but this match and this performance, from a player whose ebbs and flows so often drive the feeling about American soccer in general, was as sweet and special a salve on the scar as one could have imagined.
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"It was a huge honor to be captain tonight," Pulisic said afterward. "Absolutely we can enjoy tonight, but the job's not done yet. We have one more really important game, and we're taking it very seriously."
Pulisic's restraint was understandable: There is still some work to be done. The combination of results in other matches this weekend means that the U.S. can do no worse than fourth place in this CONCACAF qualifying table, which would put them into a one-game playoff for a World Cup spot. (If the USMNT goes this route, it will face either the Solomon Islands or New Zealand in June for a berth to Qatar.) The USMNT will assure itself one of the three automatic places with a win, a draw or even a loss that's no worse than a five-goal margin against Costa Rica on Wednesday in San Jose. And while history tells us that the strangest things can (and sometimes do) happen, even by Couva standards, this would be a stretch.
Six years after making his national team debut as a 17-year-old wunderkind, Pulisic seems virtually certain to finally get the chance to represent the United States on his sport's biggest stage. In many ways, Pulisic's transformation from what he was in the last cycle to what he is now tells the story of this U.S. soccer team rebirth.
Back then, he was a diamond in the rough, one of the only fresh lights among a group of veterans trying to push for a final turn in the arena. Now, he is a relative veteran (even at 23), surrounded by a slew of rising American talent who have turned the U.S. into the sort of team that that no one would want to face in a one-off match. Berhalter, of course, deserves praise for marshalling this group -- which has perpetually put out some of the youngest starting lineups in U.S. World Cup qualifying history -- and pushing it to the brink of reaching its first goal. But the players have risen to the moment throughout this cycle whenever they needed it most, and they did it again against Panama.
Pulisic was the motor. Five years ago, in the match before the ill-fated trip to Trinidad, Pulisic scored eight minutes into a victory over Panama here, running toward the corner flag and sliding on his knees in celebration. On Sunday, facing Panama in the same stadium, he put the U.S. in front in the 17th minute, coolly stepping up to take the penalty kick after Anibal Godoy fouled Walker Zimmerman in the area. This time, his revelry took him more to the sideline where he was surrounded by his teammates as the packed stadium thrummed.
Six minutes later, Pulisic's slick pullback pass led to Antonee Robinson's perfect cross and Paul Arriola's header to put the U.S. two in front. A four-man passing sequence led to Jesus Ferreira scoring a third before a half-hour had been played. Pulisic then added his second from the spot in first-half stoppage time, after which he asked his teammates for a bit of space and dropped to the ground before attempting a (very, very) short rendition of "The Worm" dance move.
The Panamanians were out on their feet by that point. The stadium was bedlam. And Pulisic's face was one of joy and glee.
"I rate it like a solid 8," Ferreira said of Pulisic's attempt at "The Worm." "Can't give it a 10 because he didn't go back down." Arriola, while appreciating the spirit of the choice, said, "I'd probably give him a 5 just for flexibility. He could have been a little more flexible."
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In truth, the last goal of Pulisic's hat trick was the real prize. A pillowed touch and spin move around two defenders led to a lashed shot past the goalkeeper and reminded everyone that for all the pressure laid upon Pulisic -- whether playing for Chelsea or the U.S. -- there's incredible talent beneath it all. When he's in form, Pulisic's pure skill and dynamism is at the highest level.
With about 20 minutes remaining, Berhalter sent Gianluca Busio to midfield and the fourth official raised his board with Pulisic's No. 10 on it in red. Pulisic removed the captain's armband and passed it to Tyler Adams, then started a slow trot to the sideline as applause -- including from Jordan Morris, who was waiting to come into the game -- poured down.
It was an ovation for a star. For a force. For a player who may not be the team's every-day leader, but remains its face all the same. In 2017, the tears streaming from Pulisic's eyes after the final whistle in Trinidad stood in for those of so many U.S. fans.
Now, five years later, all that remains is the finish he's been dreaming about ever since.