United States men’s national team supporters can nearly exhale.
The objective this entire cycle has been clear: qualify for the 2022 FIFA men’s World Cup. On Sunday in a packed Exploria Stadium in Orlando, Gregg Berhalter’s squad took a giant leap in that direction with a 5-1 rout of Panama.
They didn’t officially clinch a spot in Qatar due to Costa Rica’s 2-1 victory in El Salvador, but at this point it’ll take a catastrophe even bigger than five years ago for them to not to qualify, thanks to a massive goal difference. The USMNT did clinch a top-four spot in the CONCACAF standings, which guarantees at least a berth in the inter-confederation playoffs this June, where they would face the top team from the weak Oceania region.
That’s not what they want, though. They’re gunning to punch their ticket directly, and the energy shown in Orlando made that evident. The opening 10 minutes weren’t great, but the USMNT settled into a four-goal rampage from there before the halftime whistle.
Christian Pulisic came up huge with a pair of goals from the penalty spot, and later put his stamp on the victory with a bit of magic in the 65th minute to complete his hat trick.
But the 71 minutes Pulisic played were a showcase of the captain at his best — roaming in free space, creating chances and even showing a different level of intensity towards players, refs or anyone in his way.
It was Pulisic as charged up as he could be, and why not? The sour taste of Trinidad and Tobago from 2017 is all too familiar to him. His worm goal celebration? There’s work to be done there, but it’s a good problem when that was the worst thing you could say about his performance.
While USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter is often criticized for, among many things, his heavy inclusion of MLS players in his rosters, those players had a huge impact on Sunday. FC Dallas winger Paul Arriola, who stands just 5-foot-6, leaped in the air and scored off an uncharacteristic header in the 23rd minute, on a play that was started by a sensational long ball from Nashville SC defender Walker Zimmerman.
Four minutes later Arriola connected with his FC Dallas teammate Jesus Ferreira in the box for another goal.
The second half, which was just a formality at that point, was a reminder to Berhalter of the depth he has available as he was able to sub on players like Gio Reyna, Kellyn Acosta and Jordan Morris. And that’s even with key pieces like Weston McKennie, Sergiño Dest and others missing. But Berhalter’s approach with this young squad has always been that everyone is a contributor regardless of the situation, and he’s gotten the first two games of this final qualifying window mostly right.
So fans can lob all the criticism, ideal lineup choices and other what-ifs all they want. In many ways, Sunday was the culmination of a new era for U.S. men’s soccer, and like Berhalter or not, he’s at the helm of a team that (unlike Italy) will not miss its second consecutive World Cup.
It’ll take a six-goal loss in Costa Rica on Wednesday for that nightmare to even be in play. Surely that’s not happening, right?
The job isn’t quite finished yet, but it’s as close to done as possible.