Deep breath everyone, the US got it done. With a loss, the US would have had no way to automatically qualify for the World Cup. The stakes were incredibly high and the tension all day was palpable. We all know how brutally cruel the soccer gods can be, so from pundits to fans, everyone was just a little bit nervous prior to this game kicking off.
First Half Highlights:
The present and future of US soccer, Christian Pulisic, didn’t waste any time in bringing peace to our weary souls. In the 8th minute with the confidence and composure of a veteran’, he played himself into space with a delicious heel flick, rounded the keeper, and drove the ball home from a very tight angle.
What more can you say about our man of the match? At 19 years old he has scored 8 goals in 19 caps and has become the creative fulcrum of US soccer. He wasn’t done yet either when only 11 minutes later he freed himself up along the left flank and played in a perfectly weighted cross to the onrushing Jozy Altidore. In 19 minutes time, Pulisic delivered the game winning goal, and the insurance assist. Pulisic has now either scored or assisted on 11 of the US’s 15 goals in the Hexagonal. Dominate.
Hot take coming in, after the Russia World Cup Pulisic will take over the reigns of captain from the veteran Michael Bradley.
The US wasn’t done there, leaving nothing to chance, the US continued to play open and attacking football. In the first half they bested Panama in every meaningful statistical category. They out possessed Panama 61% to 39%, out shot them 9 to 4, and out passed them 201-125 with an 83% to 77% pass accuracy. Panama looked frustrated and dejected as they grasped at ways to slow down the US attack, often times resorting to kicking the US players as frequently as they seemed to kick the ball.
All that kicking and shoving paid off for the US in the 42nd minute when Bobby Wood made a slashing run into the Panamanian box. There, a frustrated Armando Cooper yanked Wood to the ground earning the US a penalty right before the halftime whistle. Jozy Altidore stepped up with the courage that comes from having a 2-0 lead and buried a well executed “Panenka” to give the US a commanding 3-0 lead and Altidore a brace heading into the break.
With the US flying high, the second half became about protecting the lead and player health. Christian Pulisic suffered repeated late challenges and blatant kicks to the shins and calfs right from the second half whistle. With a win all but ensured, the US opted to sub him out in the 57th minute to bring on some additional defensive prowess in Dax McCarty.
Bobby Wood, who put in a very strong workman like effort of his own gave the US one more feather in their cap when he received a pass into the box. With his back to goal, he quickly turned and slotted home the 4th and final goal of the night. This only further helped the US’s chances of qualification by putting even more distance between themselves and Panama on goal differential.
By securing all 3 points tonight, the US is now the master of its own fate. It has leap frogged Panama into the 3rd and final automatic qualifying position with one game to go. Now, with a win or a tie the US is effectively into the World Cup. There is a scenario where the US could still finish 4th even with a tie, but it is such a long shot due to the 7 goal spread between the US and Panama.
The US will play the bottom dwellers of the Hex in Trinidad & Tobago on Tuesday night while Panama heads home to play second place Costa Rica in a must win game. If Panama can finish ahead of Honduras, and assuming that the US wins or draws against T&T, Panama would face either Syria or Australia in a playoff game for the final spot into World Cup 2018.
Thanks to tonight’s result, the US now has a 93% chance of qualifying according to ESPN’s Soccer Power Index and has us feeling astronomically better than we did when we woke up this morning.