U.S. rout of Panama brings new beginning, reignites World Cup hopes
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Just a few hundred yards from Orlando City Stadium, near the intersection of West Church Street and South Lee Avenue, there is a squat, beige, anonymous office building. Thousands of soccer fans who filled the stands here Friday walked past it, and most surely paid it no mind as they banged on their drums, drank from their bottles or sang.
The building belongs to the Florida Department of Health. And if you look on one side, it has a sign that says, in black capital letters, what can be found inside: BIRTH & DEATH CERTIFICATES.
Friday night was always going to end up with one or the other for the United States men's national team, wasn't it?
With its stopgap coach, maddening flow and inconsistent finishing, the team could have seen its chances of making the World Cup next summer in Russia all but expire against Panama. It could have ended. It could have collapsed.
Instead, it felt like a new start. And faced with the possibility of becoming the first American team to miss the World Cup since 1985, the players delivered a result -- a comprehensive 4-0 rout -- that not only put them in position to achieve qualification in Tuesday's final game against Trinidad and Tobago, but also gave rise to something that had gone missing from the minds of so many both inside and outside the team in recent months: faith.
Now, understand: That doesn't mean faith that the United States will win the World Cup. This was Panama, after all, in Florida on a hot night in October. The U.S. should win this game and should be able to assert its dominance in the region the way it has on so many occasions in the past.
But the way the U.S. played -- the way the attack thrummed, the defense steadied and the ball was pinged around with pace, speed and urgency -- made it possible to see the promise of something better. Something more. Something different from what the United States produced against Costa Rica or Mexico.
"On a night when so much was on the line -- maybe everything -- we played in a way where we gave no doubt," Michael Bradley said when it was over. And they did.
The U.S. started quickly, prodding at the holes in the Panama formation. Christian Pulisic was everywhere, cutting and weaving, unafraid to take on one or two or even three defenders by himself. Jozy Altidore played off Pulisic; Bobby Wood skipped around; Paul Arriola's motor ran longer than an overnight train's.
After just seven minutes, Panama blasted a shot wide and U.S. keeper Tim Howard prepared for a goal kick, crushing it down the field. Wood flicked a header, and Altidore played Pulisic in on goal, the fans suddenly rising as the teenager raised his head.
Never losing stride, he jumped to his right, rounded the keeper and kept his pulse low enough to coolly slide the ball into the net from a sharp angle. The stadium went crazy. Pulisic ran toward the corner flag and slid on his knees in celebration. The Americans were off and running.
"Jozy laid it off for me, and I was just gone, I guess," said Pulisic,.
He and his teammates never looked back. Altidore scored 11 minutes later, finishing a glorious move and cross by Pulisic on the wing. Wood drew a penalty just before halftime and Altidore converted, dinking a Panenka-style shot down the middle that was cheeky and brash -- and just the sort of confident play everyone wanted to see. The rout was on.
The fourth, scored by Wood, came just after the hour. By then, Pulisic had left. Coach Bruce Arena pulled the 19-year-old star to spare him further abuse at the hands (or, really, at the feet) of the Panamanian players, who took to kicking Pulisic since they could not catch him.
"He's our wonder boy," Howard said of Pulisic. "Everyone in CONCACAF knows it."
That doesn't figure to change anytime soon, and to a man, the Americans said they know the job isn't done. A draw in Trinidad feels like the minimum, and a victory would be much better, but even with a game yet to play, it was impossible not to come away from Friday night feeling like you had awoke from a pleasant dream instead of the nightmares that had lingered the past few months.
If Pulisic keeps playing as he has, if Altidore is incisive, if players such as DeAndre Yedlin and Arriola churn with ferocity, then maybe -- just maybe -- this entire World Cup cycle might turn out the way everyone hoped.
Some paperwork was getting filed here Friday, that much was sure. All you had to do was read the sign to know it could have gone one of two ways. It could have been a death note, could have been tragic, could have been the end.
But it wasn't. It was a new beginning instead.
Sam Borden is a Global Sports Correspondent for ESPN, also covering soccer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamBorden.