The United States didn’t mathematically clinch a spot in the 2022 World Cup, but the Stars & Stripes came about as close they could without officially confirming a place.
A 5-1 home win over Panama was just what the doctor ordered in the penultimate CONCACAF World Cup qualifier of the 2022 cycle. Arguably the USA’s biggest game in the Gregg Berhalter era saw a raucous Orlando crowd spur the team on and push for an emphatic victory.
Despite a 2-1 Costa Rica win over El Salvador earlier in the day that left the U.S. unable to officially qualify for the tournament in Qatar, the United States did everything it could to make Wednesday’s match nothing more than a formality.
Thanks to Christian Pulisic’s leadership and an unwillingness to bow to physicality, the U.S. produced a stunning result at the most important moment.
Has USA qualified to the World Cup 2022?
With Costa Rica keeping pace in the standings, and still just three points behind the U.S., no World Cup spot was officially clinched.
Yet, realistically, the U.S. will be going to Qatar.
With the U.S. set to play Costa Rica on the road on Wednesday, it would require a six-goal defeat to knock the U.S. from an automatic qualifying spot and drop it to the fourth-place intercontinental playoff. Even with the known struggles for the U.S. in Costa Rica over the past few cycles, that’s just not a realistic result.
While anything can happen in a game, those simply are simply not scorelines that see the USA on the losing end. That’s why fans are welcome to celebrate.
OH NO 😳
— SI Soccer (@si_soccer) March 28, 2022
Christian Pulisic is Captain America
There were more than a few surprised looks when Christian Pulisic was named the U.S. captain on the night, despite Tyler Adams’ presence in the starting lineup.
Those confused looks were put to rest very quickly. The 23-year-old grasped a leadership role, willing the United States to an emphatic victory. Pulisic buried a pair of excellent penalties in the first half, and he snagged his hat-trick midway through the second 45.
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) March 28, 2022
After halftime, Pulisic’s leadership skills were put to use in a different manner. With Panama trying to bully the U.S. around the pitch with reckless challenges and clumsy fouls, and the official happy to oblige the visitors, Pulisic was fed up.
He let the referee have it, to the point where the official showed him a yellow card for dissent, holding it aloft in the Chelsea man’s face for what felt like 30 seconds.
Pulisic was smartly substituted moments later, but his hour was influential and emphatic.
The USA won’t be pushed around
Panama came into this match looking to out-muscle the USA. While the Americans started slow, after the first 10 minutes the U.S. woke up and after a few good finishes, the game was suddenly over.
The visitors were hoping to use a physical presence to put off the USMNT and grind them down, but it didn’t work. Walker Zimmerman took two hands to his throat in the box and won a penalty, while another penalty was given late in the first half. All told, Panama was whistled for 23 fouls, and it felt like more.
The referee mostly let the teams play, which made things dangerous at times, and Tyler Adams was seen pleading with the official to call more fouls. Pulisic eventually had enough and stood up as the captain of the team.
Yet the U.S. did not bend to Panama’s will, continuing to play its brand of soccer regardless of the opponent’s physicality. In fact, the U.S. used Panama’s physicality to its advantage, winning the pair of penalties and constantly earning fouls to relieve the Panama pressure.
This is excellent news for a U.S. team that hopes to go toe-to-toe with the best teams in the world at the World Cup. There will be plenty of physicality, especially if the U.S. matches up with a CONMEBOL or CAF team known for that style of play. This team won’t be pushed around.
The U.S. attack finally finishes its chances
The USMNT has been plagued by poor finishing all World Cup qualifying, but the first 45 minutes at Exploria Stadium put that to bed. Pulisic produced a pair of thumping penalties to go along with very good finishes by Paul Arriola and Jesus Ferreira from open play.
Pulisic even got in on the party with a great second-half finish, collecting the ball with his back to goal on a silky touch before turning and firing into the back of the net.
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) March 28, 2022
Striker questions remain as Ferreira missed a good chance in the second half, but Arriola’s finish was of the highest quality. A header redirected inside the far post, it proved that it’s not just strikers that are needed to put home chances.
Ultimately, the U.S. got five goals with five shots on target. That’s how you draw it up.
🇺🇸United States 5-1 Panama🇵🇦
Five shots on target, five goals, one foot in the door. pic.twitter.com/FQHoMnh670
— The Analyst (@OptaAnalyst) March 28, 2022