ORLANDO: Christian Pulisic fired the United States to a 4-0 win over Panama on Friday (Saturday in Manila) that saw the Americans inch closer to a 2018 World Cup berth.
The brilliant 19-year-old scored one goal and made another in a sensational early barrage that left Panama reeling.
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 hunt in the North and Central America and Caribbean region (CONCACAF).
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 do it.
“The game in Trinidad won’t be easy but we are in a good position now,” said US manager Bruce Arena. “It won’t be easy, it will be challenging. We faced challenging conditions in Honduras and Panama so we will be ready. Trinidad are out but will be a handful.”
Trinidad and Tobago seized a lead against Mexico in San Luis Potosi before the regional powerhouse roared back for a 3-1 victory.
The result left Mexico on 21 points and on course for a record haul of 24 if it can beat Honduras in San Pedro Sula on Tuesday.
Trinidad and Tobago’s Shahdon Winchester put the visitors ahead in the 66th minute. With El Tri struggling to find momentum it looked as if defeat was a possibility.
Manager Juan Carlos Osorio sent in Carlos Vela, Oribe Peralta and Hirving Lozano in the second half and Lozano grabbed an equalizer that energized Mexico. Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez put the hosts ahead before Hector Herrera added a third goal in injury time.
In Orlando, the tension was palpable as Panama arrived in Orlando a point ahead of the United States — who had earned just one point from their prior two matches.
Arena needed his side to heap early pressure 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’s youthful, skillful exuberance proved the key to unlocking the most miserly of backlines.
Bobby 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.
Pulisic settled any US nerves with a brilliant display in the eighth.
Altidore flicked the ball on and after the Dortmund star escaped the challenge of Roman Torres, and Pulisic rounded Jaime Penedo and slid home from a tight angle.
Pulisic impressed again in the 19th, picking up the ball on the left wing and firing in a cross that was tapped in by Altidore.
The outcome was sealed in the 43rd. Wood was tripped in the area by Armando Cooper and Altidore stepped up and chipped the ball down the middle.
Pulisic left the field to an ovation in the 56th — before Wood capped his industrious night with a well-taken strike.
“It was a bad night,” Gomez said. “They were totally superior, excellent. It could have been worse – it could have been 10-0.”