ORLANDO, Fla. — Christian Pulisic scored his first international hat trick, leading the United States to the brink of returning to the World Cup with a 5-1 rout of Panama on Sunday night.
Pulisic converted two penalty kicks during a four-goal burst in the first half that also saw Paul Arriola and Jesús Ferreira score, then boosted the lead to 5-0 on memorable goal with two brilliant touches that evaded a pair of defenders.
With fans still fretting after the Americans' failure to reach the 2018 World Cup, the U.S. assumed a commanding position to qualify for the November tournament in Qatar.
Only a loss of six or more goals Wednesday night in the qualifying finale at Costa Rica would cause the Americans not to finish among the top three nations in North and Central America and the Caribbean and claim an automatic berth.
Pulisic, a 23-year-old who last year with Chelsea became the first American to play and win a Champions League final, increased his total to 21 international goals, including 12 in World Cup qualifying. He scored in the 17th minute and fourth minute of first-half stoppage time, both after fouls by Aníbal Godoy, improving to 6-for-6 on penalty kicks in his U.S. career.
His 65th-minute goal was an exquisite finish. After Luca de la Torre and Antonee Robinson twice exchanged passes, Robinson crossed. With his back to the goal, a spinning Pulisic took a touch with his left leg, spun around Fidel Escobar, dummied the ball through his own legs, poked the ball with his right foot through the legs of Andrés Andrade and slotted the ball over the left leg of sliding goalkeeper of Luis Mejía.
Pulisic’s only previous hat trick was in the Premier League for Chelsea against Burnley in October 2019.
Godoy scored Panama's goal in the 86th with a header from 11 Éric Davis' free kick that beat Zack Steffen.
Canada has 28 points and clinched its first berth since 1986 with a 4-0 win over Jamaica, the U.S. is second with 25 points ahead of Mexico on goal difference and Costa Rica is fourth with 22 points.
While the U.S. has never won at Costa Rica, goal difference is the first tiebreaker, and the Americans are plus-13 to the Ticos’ plus-three. The U.S. also has the second tiebreaker of total goals, 21 to 11.
Fourth place advances to a playoff in June against the Oceania champion, likely New Zealand.
After reaching the World Cup for the first time in 2018, Panama was eliminated.
The U.S. learned during the national anthems that Costa Rica had won 2-1 at El Salvador, denying the Americans a chance to clinch against Panama. The U.S. then scored four goals in the opening half of a qualifier for the first time since a 5-2 win over Cuba in 1949.
Salvadoran referee Iván Barton awarded the first penalty after checking with Mexican video assistant referee Marco Ortiz, and video showed Godoy had shoved Walker Zimmerman, his Nashville teammate, in the face.
Pulisic helped set up the second goal in the 23rd minute, running down a long ball from Zimmerman and dishing to Antonee Robinson, who crossed. Arriola, all of 5-foot-6, outjumped the 5-foot-11 Davis for his ninth international goal — just the second goal on a header in his professional career.
Ferreira, who last weekend became at 21 the second-youngest American to score a hat trick in Major League Soccer, made it 3-0 in the 29th minute with a 4-yard right foot shot that beat goalkeeper Luis Mejía goalkeeper. Ferreira's third international goal capped a flowing buildup that involved Shaq Moore (four touches), Yunus Musah and Arriola (two touches each) and Luca de la Torre.
Moore was a late addition as the fourth-choice right back after Sergiño Dest hurt a thigh, DeAndre Yedlin was suspended for yellow-card accumuation and Reggie Cannon tested positive for COVID-19.
Godoy's second penalty was caused by a soft shove of Miles Robinson. Ferreira initially grabbed the ball ahead of both penalties but was faking both times and laughed as he handed the ball to Pulisic, the U.S. captain.
Luis Mejía dived left, and Pulisic went to the keeper's upper right with the first kick. Mejía correctly guessed left on the second, but Pulisic's drive was too hard and too close to the post for the keeper to reach. After his second goal, Pulisic celebrated with a pair of pushups.