60 Minutes on Sunday, eight minutes on Friday. That’s all the time Christian Pulisic needed to put the United States ahead over Panama, as he and Jozy Altidore led the U.S. to a 4-0 win in front of an electric crowd of 25,303 at Orlando City Stadium.
Pulisic scored and assisted, as Altidore bagged a pair goals to deliver all three points for the U.S. Men’s National Team, which now holds the third guaranteed qualifying spot in CONCACAF Hexagonal with one game remaining. Bobby Wood added the fourth and final goal in the second half.
“Massive win for us, for the team,” midfielder Dax McCarty said after the match. “Obviously it was very needed, not just the three points but I just think the performance and the goal difference, scoring goals, attacking, playing well. I thought we were never troubled from the opening whistle to the last one.”
It was a scene unlike any other witnessed in the young history of this stadium, as the U.S. jumped out of the gates hot. An early opportunity saw Altidore with a blocked shot from the top of the penalty area. Moments later, Bobby Wood received the ball in the middle of the box and slipped a shot just wide of the goal.
Then in the eighth minute, Pulisic opened the scoring with his sixth goal of this qualifying cycle when he broke in to step around the goalkeeper and slot home a wide angle shot from the right side, putting the United States up 1-0 and sending the home crowd into a frenzy.
Eleven minutes later, in the 19th, Pulisic flipped the script, running in towards the touchline before sending in a perfectly placed ground across the box to Altidore, who was wide open near the far post to easily tap it in past goalkeeper Jaime Penedo, making it a 2-0 game.
The United States was running wild all over Panama’s defense, exposing them on the counter attack countless times, with Pulisic finding space to run and glide through the defense with ease. Wood had a 1-v-1 denied by Penedo in the 22nd, then Altidore pushed a shot wide off a feed from Pulisic, who was subbed off from the match in the 57th minute for hometown boy Dax McCarty
“They smell blood from the beginning,” Tim Howard said of the Altidore, Wood, and Pulisic. “Every time they got the ball, it was either a yellow card foul or some sort of breakaway. We spoke about being aggressive, not just being up against them and kicking them aggressive, but getting the ball, playing it forward, putting them on their heels. We stuck to the game plan.”
As confident as they were on the attack, the U.S. struggled at times to cleanly and confidently keep Panama from applying pressure and setting up dangerous chances in and around Tim Howard’s penalty area.
The Americans stretched their lead to 3-0 in the 43rd minute after Wood went down in the box, drawing a penalty from the Mexican referee. Altidore took the penalty kick, chipping a ball down the center of the goal to beat Penedo, who went left.
Wood put the game out of reach for Panama in the 63rd minute when he picked up a loose ball from a Paul Arriola run, then turned and fired to make it a 4-0 game. It was a deserved goal for Wood, who came close on a number of opportunities throughout the game.
For Orlando, this was a statement game. The crowd, announced as a sellout of 25,303 (section 119 of the stadium was turned into a press box, taking the sellout threshold down a tad), was intense, unmatched, and undoubtedly pro-American to the fullest.
“A very strong, supportive crowd on our side. Once in a while it happens that we don’t have that. Having a home field advantage is huge. Every time we create a setting that supports our team a tremendous amount like tonight, it helps us,” Arena said of the crowd.
“From what I saw, I would come back to Orlando (in the next World Cup cycle).”
With the win, the United States can clinch a spot in next summer’s World Cup with a win over Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday night, but they can also do so with a draw as long as the other results don’t go completely against them.
“We’ve had a great year despite what some people think, and we’ve come a long way and we’re well-positioned to earn a spot in Russia,” Arena said. “The game in Trinidad is not going to be easy and we have to have our team ready to go.”