USA back on track for World Cup, Pulisic leads rout of Panama

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Friday night, the United States takes on Panama in Orlando in what can only be described as a massive contest.

Let's go back to October of 2013 when Panama was in a similar situation as the in now.

The United States may have a population that's 80 times the size of Panama's, but the two countries have an equal chance of moving closer to a place in next year's World Cup when they meet Friday in Orlando, Florida.

Now, understand: That doesn't mean faith that the United States will win the World Cup.

The USA went from minus-1 against Panama to plus-7 with each goal adding two goals in its favor.

In Europe, three teams have already ensured their place in the competition through qualifying, which excludes hosts Russian Federation being the fourth nation. And if it happened, the U.S. would take fourth place. With 15 points and goal difference 12-5, the Costa Rican team takes 2nd place in the group and is already preparing for the trip to Russian Federation.

Pulisic, who was the target of some hard fouls by the Panamanian team, was substituted early in the second half for Dax McCarty with the USA chasing a fourth.

The second goal also originated in the USA end, a counterattack in which Nagbe liberated Pulisic on the left wing. With soccer still being a new sport in America, they need to grab the attention of people before the rapid rise of soccer loses momentum.

If Pulisic keeps playing as he has, if Altidore is incisive, if players like DeAndre Yedlin and Arriola churn with ferocity and drive, then maybe - just maybe - this entire World Cup cycle might turn out the way everyone hoped.

Will Christian Pulisic play on the wing or in the middle? The results, however, had been uneven.

"For our team, obviously it was very needed", said midfielder Dax McCarty.

Pulisic finally responded in the eighth minute. Panama worked the ball well from left to right before Gabriel Torres rifled a shot that the veteran netminder pushed away.

How good can Pulisic end up being? The ball fell to Altidore, who sent a one-touch pass into the path of the surging Pulisic. Wood earned the penalty when he was tackled in the box on a run. After a quick feint, in which he stepped with his right foot over the ball, he used his left foot, nearly in the same motion, to tap the ball toward the end line. As Pinedo dived to his left, Altidore chipped the ball down the center for his 41st worldwide goal. The US are 2-0-1 in those encounters, with both wins coming by a combined score of 6-0.

Altidore made it 3-0 from the penalty spot to lead 3-0 inside the first half, before Bobby Wood made it 4-0 in the second stanza to seal a huge win.

It mattered little though as Wood earned a penalty moments later and Altidore stepped up to convert two minutes before half-time, taking his tally to 41 global goals, third behind Dempsey and Landon Donovan.

In the 19th minute, Pulisic, who was deployed centrally to wonderful effect, drifted to the left of the pitch, where he took on a Panamanian fullback.

Heading into his first global match since turning 19 in September, Pulisic has developed into the top American player since making his debut in the Bundesliga in January 2016. With the game well in hand, Arena wanted to protect his precocious star.

Afterward, Pulisic was limping as he made his way back to the locker room, a reminder of the fragility of the United States' soccer aspirations and the ever-growing weight of expectations, now resting so heavily on his slight shoulders.