FOOTBALL: U.S. men stomp Panama, 5-1, to close in on World Cup 2022 berth, but not clinched yet; Canada is in

American star Christian Pulisic was the difference in the U.S.'s 1-0 win over Iran in the World Cup (Photo: U.S. Soccer Federation)

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There was no doubt that the U.S. men’s National Team needed a win against Panama in front of a full house at Exploria Stadium in Orlando on Sunday to get close to a Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup berth. But more than just a win, the U.S. provided a highlight reel in a dominant, 5-1 victory.

The game started indifferently, but the U.S. gained control after 10 minutes, pressuring the Panamanian goal. In the 13th minute, a U.S. corner saw Panamanian midfielder Anibal Godoy throw down U.S. defender Walker Zimmerman in the box; nothing was called immediately, but when play stopped, a video-review was called and the U.S. was awarded a penalty.

Although U.S. striker Jesus Ferreira held the ball as if he was going to take the penalty, it was Christian Pulisic who stepped up and smashed the ball to his left as keeper Luis Mejia went to the right for a 1-0 lead in the 17th minute.

Panama rallied in the 20th minute, as the U.S. failed to clear a free kick in its zone and then Michael Murillo whacked at the ball and American keeper Zack Steffen barely got a hand on it to change its trajectory and keep it out of the net. The U.S. had a hard time clearing before Pulisic was fouled outside the box.

But the Americans got back to work immediately, with Pulisic chasing down a long pass to get control to the left of the Panamanian goal, then feeding Antonee Robinson, who sent a laser into the box that Paul Arriola headed into the goal – beating defender Eric Davis to the ball – at the far post and a 2-0 lead in the 23rd minute.

And the U.S. wasn’t done, using another long pass that ended with Arriola spinning to deliver a left-footed pass into the front of the box from the right side of goal. Ferreira was right there and used his right foot to slam it into the net for a startling 3-0 lead after 27 minutes.

The pace increased with Panama desperate to score, as it had to win this game to have a chance to qualify. Steffen, a little gimpy after some rough play in front of the U.S. goal, dropped a long shot at the left goalpost in the 28th minute, but recovered and did not allow a Panamanian tip-in for a gift goal.

The U.S. continued to pressure, and got a long lead pass into the Panamanian zone in stoppage time that ended up in a free kick. The ball went into the box, with Godoy pushing Miles Robinson to the ground and a penalty was immediately called, no review needed. Pulisic stepped up again and while Mejia guessed right, the ball rocketed over his head and into the net for a 4-0 lead in the 49th minute.

Panamanian frustration boiled over as Pulisic was pushed hard at the sideline a minute later by Murillo, and the U.S. captain pushed right back and the sideline officials stepped in between a lot of players. A ball was then kicked toward Pulisic from the Panama bench, but a melee was eventually averted.

At the half, Panama had 60% of the possession, but the U.S. had a 10-5 lead on shots in a game that had 18 fouls in the first 45 minutes.

The U.S. did not let up much to start the second half.

Ferreira missed a great chance on a cross from Reyna in the 61st minute and then Pulisic got his first U.S. hat trick in the 65th, taking a pass from the left side from Antonee Robinson in the box, splitting two defenders and punching a right-footed shot past Mejia for a 5-0 lead.

But Panama kept coming as the U.S. was mostly defending and in the 86th minute, a free kick by Davis sailed into the box and was headed in by Godoy to cut the lead to 5-1. That’s the way it ended, with Panama holding 61% of the possession, but the U.S. taking 15 shots to 10 for Panama.

The U.S. did not clinch a World Cup berth, but is awfully close; Panama is eliminated with the loss. Canada swamped Jamaica, 4-0, to clinch its first World Cup berth since 1986, and Costa Rica defeated El Salvador, 2-1, to assure itself a place in the top four in the CONCACAF qualifying standings.

Mexico finally got the lead on Honduras in the 70th minute on an Edson Alvarez goal and held on for a 1-0 win. So, with three automatic qualifiers and a fourth CONCACAF team heading to a playoff match with an Oceanian team, the “final four” are set:

1. 28 points, Canada (8-1-4; +17 goal differential)
2. 25 points, United States (7-2-4; +13)
3. 25 points, Mexico (7-2-4; +7)
4. 22 points, Costa Rica (6-3-4; +3)

The final match window is on Wednesday, with the U.S. playing Costa Rica in San Jose, where it has an 0-9-2 record all time. Canada will play at Panama (5-5-3), Jamaica (1-7-5) will host Honduras (0-9-4) and El Salvador (2-7-4) will be at Mexico.

Canada is set, Costa Rica would have to win against the U.S. to get to 25 points, but even so, is far down in the goal differential. If all three teams – Costa Rica, Mexico and the U.S. – finished with 25 points, Costa Rica would have to make up a four-goal deficit against Mexico or -10 vs. the Americans. It all gets settled Wednesday, but only a catastrophe would keep the U.S. out of the Qatar 2022 World Cup.

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