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Pulisic treble as US rout Panama to all-but seal World Cup berth

ORLANDO (AFP) – Christian Pulisic scored a hat trick as the United States (US) thrashed Panama 5-1 on Sunday to all-but guarantee their qualification for the 2022 World Cup.

Pulisic scored a pair of first-half penalties – both given against Panama captain Anibal Godoy – before completing his treble with a virtuoso goal in the second half to leave the US with one foot in this year’s finals in Qatar.

Jesus Ferreira and Paul Arriola scored the other goals for the US in a victory at Orlando’s Exploria Stadium that ended Panama’s hopes of qualifying from the CONCACAF region.

The win means the US need only avoid a catastrophically heavy defeat in their final game against Costa Rica tomorrow to qualify automatically.

The US have 25 points from 13 matches, while Costa Rica are three points behind following their win over El Salvador earlier on Sunday.

With the US possessing a vastly superior goal difference, Costa Rica would need to win by six goals to snatch one of the three automatic qualifying berths on offer for teams from Central America, North America and the Caribbean.

“On a night where we needed to get a resounding win, we did so,” US coach Gregg Berhalter said. “We helped our goal difference and the effort was tremendous. Panama were fighting for their lives and the guys did a great job.”

Sunday’s rout exorcised the ghost of the US’ failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup finals.

Five years ago, a teenage Pulisic had been left in tears after the US were beaten by Trinidad and Tobago in their final game to miss out on qualification.

But on Sunday, the US captain left the field to a standing ovation as he was substituted in the 71st minute after scoring the goals that virtually guarantee a World Cup place.

“He’s part of the leadership council of the team, so it’s normal for him,” Berhalter said of Pulisic.

“Christian’s a guy who has been through it before and knows what we need and responded with a really good performance.”

After a nervy start, the US gradually started to get on top and Pulisic went close early on with a blocked shot.

The breakthrough came after a quarter of an hour when Panama skipper Godoy shoved US defender Walker Zimmerman to the ground as they contested a corner.

Play continued but VAR intervened and footage clearly showed Godoy grabbing Zimmerman around the neck before bundling the Nashville SC defender to the floor.