Orlando, Fla. — Christian Pulisic burst up the field, scoring with a brilliant touch to complete an 11-second, breakneck, field-length attack just eight minutes in.
Then his cross found Jozy Altidore’s right foot like an arrow striking a bull’s-eye , leading to a two-goal lead in the 19th minute.
Exhale, U.S. fans.
Altidore converted a penalty kick with a chip in the 43rd after Bobby Wood was fouled, Wood added a goal in the 63rd and the United States routed Panama, 4-0, on Friday night to put the Americans back on track to reach next year’s World Cup.
“We needed a win, but the job’s not done,” Pulisic said.
The U.S. ended a three-match winless streak in qualifying and with 12 points moved two ahead of Panama into third place — the last automatic berth — in the North and Central American and Caribbean region. Honduras has nine points going into its match Saturday at Costa Rica, which is second with 15,
Goal difference means the Americans put themselves in great shape to reach an eighth straight World Cup, almost certainly with a win Tuesday in their finale at already eliminated Trinidad and Tobago and likely with a draw against the Soca Warriors if Honduras fails to win Saturday. The U.S. is plus-five to minus-two for Panama and minus-seven for Honduras.
“We’re well positioned to hopefully qualify for Russia. The game in Trinidad is not going to be an easy one,” said coach Bruce Arena, who led the U.S. at the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, then returned after the Americans opened the hexagonal last fall with two losses under Jurgen Klinsmann.
“This team went from 0-2 in November with a minus-five goal differential, we’re now at plus-what, five, right?” Arena said. “I know everyone thought we were going to qualify in whatever, six games in 2017. It doesn’t happen that way. So I think we’re moving along well. We’ve advanced from sixth to third position with goal differential. Now we have to finish it off on Tuesday in Trinidad.”
Playing his first international match since he turned 19 last month, Pulisic was moved to central midfield from the flanks and sparked the attack from the opening whistle with pace and ball control seldom seen from an American.
“He was able to just disrupt them in so many ways, and you saw the difference he can make in the middle of the park, being able to go each way and just being so dynamic,” Altidore said. “I hate to kind of pour too much praise on him. I know he’s a young kid. He’s got a lot of work to do. But you can’t help not see the difference he makes when he’s on the field, especially when he’s in the middle of everything.”
Tension built after last month’s 2-0 loss to Costa Rica in New Jersey and a 1-1 tie at Honduras. The Americans dropped to fourth, which earns a playoff next month against Australia or Syria, and were in danger of finishing fifth and missing the World Cup for the first time since 1986.
A defeat would have meant the U.S. could finish no better than fourth.
“Of course there was pressure,” defender Matt Besler said. “We all felt it and felt a big responsibility for the team and for our country.”
Arena started five attacking players, with Pulisic flanked by Darlington Nagbe and Paul Arriola, and Altidore and Wood up top. Panama coach Hernan Dario Gomez said the U.S. was “superior in total” and the score could have been 10-0 at halftime.
“On a night where so much was on line, maybe everything, we played in a way from the get-go that gave no doubt as to who was going to win the game,” U.S. captain Michael Bradley said.
Pulisic fed an open Altidore for a good opportunity in the third minute, Arriola shot wide in the fourth and Wood in the fifth.
After Gabriel Gomez broke free from Omar Gonzalez and shot wide from 19 yards, Tim Howard’s goal kick was headed forward by Wood about 10 yards past midfield.
Altidore one-timed the ball square to a sprinting Pulisic, and the midfielder reached back with his left leg to flick the ball ahead. Pulisic jumped to avoid defender Roman Torres’ challenge and used the outside of his right foot to play the ball forward.
As goalkeeper Jaime Penedo came off his line, Pulisic used the outside of his right foot again to tap the ball wide and jumped over Penedo’s outstretched arm. At the edge of the 6-yard box and just 2 yards from the endline, Pulisic reached with his right foot to slot the ball in, completing a 112-yard U.S. move. Pulisic tumbled over as the ball rolled in for his eighth goal in 19 international appearances, his fourth in the hex.
“Jozy just laid it off to me and I was just gone, I guess,” Pulisic said.
Pulisic created the second goal when he played the ball between his feet and faked Michael Murillo on the left flank. Pulisic broke free and fed Altidore, who split the center backs and redirected the ball in from 5 yards for his first goal of the hexagonal — the 11th of 14 U.S. goals in the hex that Pulisic played a part in.
Wood drew the penalty kick after he exchanged passes with Paul Arriola along a flank, broke past Felipe Baloy, spurted diagonally into the penalty area and was pushed down by Armando Cooper. As Pinedo dived to his left, Altidore chipped the ball down the center for his 41st international goal.
Hacked down several times by Panamanians, Pulisic was removed in the 57th minute and walked off to a standing ovation from the sellout crowd of 25,303 at Orlando City Stadium, which opened in February, Wood added his 10th international goal off a pass from Arriola.
“The job isn’t quite done yet,” Bradley said. “We’ve got enjoy this, use it for confidence and spirit and make sure that come Tuesday we’re ready to finish the job.”