The U.S. men's national team's back was against the wall in World Cup qualifying, but it entered Friday with a chance to seize control of its own destiny when hosting Panama at Orlando City Stadium in Florida, and it took that opportunity well.
Christian Pulisic scored early and set up Jozy Altidore for another goal, before Altidore capped a dominant first half with a penalty kick to give the USA a 3-0 edge in a must-have match. Bobby Wood's insurance goal in the second half ensured the three valuable points went the USA's way in a dominant 4-0 victory.
The USA entered the day in fourth place in CONCACAF's World Cup qualifying table, with the top three assured berths in Russia 2018 and fourth place sent to an intercontinental playoff against either Australia or Syria. In order to avoid the latter–or worse, miss out altogether–Bruce Arena's side had to bounce back at home, where it previously dropped two qualifiers during the Hex. It did so in a big way and now sits in third place, with the scenarios in its favor with one game to go.
Pulisic sparked an early moment of promise for the United States, nutmegging a defender in the center of the park before spraying it left for Altidore, but the forward's chance from 18 yards was blocked in the third minute.
The USA maintained its early pressure and nearly went ahead through Bobby Wood, the late-game hero of the previous qualifier against Honduras. After a corner kick, Darlington Nagbe found Wood in the center of the box with a cross from the left, but the Hamburg forward pulled his hurried chance just wide of the right post in the sixth minute.
Pulisic made that early pressure pay off soon after following a goal kick, scoring a vital early opener in the eighth minute. Tim Howard's kick down the field was flicked-on by Wood. Altidore then touched it to Pulisic, who rounded goalkeeper Jaime Penedo and finished from a tight angle.
Pulisic continued the pressure immediately after, taking off on a lengthy run, but opting not to play Wood on the overlap, instead winning another corner.
Pulisic didn't stop there. The Borussia Dortmund playmaker delivered a pinpoint cross to the goalmouth for Altidore, who redirected it home in the 19th minute to make it 2-0 and ease any remaining early nerves.
Wood should've made it 3-0 in the 22nd minute, with Arriola springing him free on a breakaway, only for Penedo to stone him from point-blank range.
Panama's first chance on frame came at the half-hour mark, when Gabriel Torres was given a free look from the right channel. Howard was up to the challenge, though, coming up with an acrobatic save to parry it away for a corner.
Penedo came up with another point-blank stop on Altidore in the 40th minute. With the USA playing the advantage, Wood nutmegged a defender to slide a pass to his left for Altidore, but Penedo raced off his line to block the angle.
Altidore got his revenge soon after. Wood drew a penalty, and Altidore took the spot kick. He opted for the Panenka, chipping it down the center, while Penedo moved to his left, giving the USA a 3-0 lead before halftime.
With his two goals, Altidore joined just Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey (57) as U.S. players to crack the 40-goal barrier in international play.
Panama employed a physical strategy in the second half, especially with Pulisic. After the midfielder was fouled a few times, Arena substituted him off, with the result seemingly in hand. Dax McCarty, an Orlando-area native, came on in the 57th minute for the substitution, with Pulisic's damage already done.
With Pulisic out, the USA's attack didn't relent. Wood tried to take on the whole Panama defense, and he sprung himself free for a left-footed chance, only to put it wide in the 62nd minute.
Wood got his goal on his next chance. Arriola laid it off for him in the center of the box, where Wood turned and finished to beat Penedo and make it 4-0.
With the match in control and fans chanting for Dempsey's substitution, Arena obliged, bringing on the veteran Texan in the 70th minute, replacing Altidore.
It was Arriola who came closest next to scoring for the USA, with McCarty playing him forward into a breakaway, only for a sliding Penedo to come off his line and make the block to prevent further damage in the 80th minute.
The USA will head to Trinidad & Tobago for Tuesday's Hex finale, knowing a win will cement a berth in an eighth straight World Cup–and based on other results, a draw or loss could suffice as well.
Here is who is started in Orlando:
Stay tuned here for updates and highlights of goals and key plays from this vital match.
Here are the rosters for both teams:
GOALKEEPERS: Brad Guzan (Atlanta United FC), Tim Howard (Colorado Rapids), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
DEFENDERS: DaMarcus Beasley (Houston Dynamo), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca), Michael Orozco (Club Tijuana), Tim Ream (Fulham), Jorge Villafaña (Santos Laguna), DeAndre Yedlin (Newcastle United), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)
MIDFIELDERS: Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Juan Agudelo (New England Revolution), Paul Arriola (D.C. United), Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Benny Feilhaber (Sporting Kansas City), Dax McCarty (Chicago Fire), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers), Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund)
FORWARDS: Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders FC), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes), Bobby Wood (Hamburg)
GOALKEEPERS: José Calderón (Marathón), Jaime Penedo (Dynamo Bucharest)
DEFENDERS: Felipe Baloy (Municipal), Érick Davis (Dunajská Streda), Fidel Escobar (New York Red Bulls), Adolfo Machado (Houston Dynamo), Michael Murillo (New York Red Bulls), Luis Ovalle (Deportes Tolima), Román Torres (Seattle Sounders FC), Jan Carlos Vargas (Tauro)
MIDFIELDERS: Édgar Bárcenas (Tapachula), Ricardo Buitrago (Juan Aurich), Armando Cooper (Toronto FC), Aníbal Godoy (San Jose Earthquakes), Gabriel Gòmez (Atlético Bucaramanga), José González (Árabe Unido), Alberto Quintero (Universitario)
FORWARDS: Abdiel Arroyo (Danubio), Roberto Nurse (Zacatecas), Blas Pérez (Municipal), Luis Tejada (Universitario), Gabriel Torres (Lausanna-Sport)