OK, technically the job isn’t done yet. After beating Panama 5–1 on Sunday night, the USMNT still has work to do to ensure passage directly into the World Cup. Specifically, the Americans need to avoid losing to Costa Rica by six or more goals in the CONCACAF qualifying finale on Wednesday, or else they could find themselves in an inter-confederation playoff against either New Zealand or Solomon Islands.
And while we’re focusing on the negative, it’s worth pointing out that the U.S. didn’t play nearly as well against Panama as the four-goal margin of victory might imply. The home team was wholly incapable of imposing any kind of order on the match, and was forced to play at the tempo of the one entity that exercised total control over the match’s feel and pace: the baying Orlando crowd, in a performance as impressive and influential as you’ll see from an audience. This atmosphere created a game bursting with energy but light on precision and composure. From the outset both teams looked overwhelmed by the demands of the match, the seismic importance of a victory for both teams’ chances for World Cup qualification, and the delirious energy with which the crowd imbued the night. Even this under-talented Panama side could have found itself with a goal or two in the early goings with just a little more luck or poise, and there’s no telling how the already nervous USMNT would’ve responded to the pressure of adversity.
But none of that actually matters—not the U.S.’s inability to tame the game into something more manageable, not its unexceptional performance everywhere outside the Panamanian penalty box, and not even the fact that qualification is not yet mathematically secured. What matters is that in the biggest match of this USMNT generation’s existence, the team came up huge. What matters is that, even though the team couldn’t control the match, it could dominate Panama nonetheless by matching the crowd’s energy and riding the wave expertly. What matters is that the team never let its nerves turn into fear, fashioning from the match’s tension inspiration and determination rather than anxiety and indecision.
What matters is that four years after the nightmare in Trinidad, Christian Pulisic—who, along with Paul Arriola, was one of only two players to start that infamous match in Couva as well as Sunday’s in Orlando—could bear the captain’s armband and score a hat trick in the biggest match of his career. (With all due respect to Chelsea’s run in the Champions League last season, Pulisic has a much more central role, and thus bears much more responsibility, with the U.S. than he does with Chelsea.) What matters is that the U.S. possesses a talent like Gio Reyna, who once again pulled off a couple touches the quality and elegance of which we’ve probably never seen from an American international. What matters is that the team that had done so much to earn the fans’ devotion and trust, as demonstrated by the awesome energy in Orlando, paid off that devotion and trust with a performance to remember. What matters is that the team got what it deserved. What matters is that, barring a frankly impossible meltdown, the United States of America will once again be present on the world’s biggest stage, the World Cup.
I don’t care that the match wasn’t perfect or pretty or anything like that. A match like that requires greatness first and foremost, and greatness is what the players and fans delivered. And there’s plenty of reason to expect more where that came from on Wednesday, and come November in Qatar, and beyond, as the players, coaches, and fans lift the USMNT, the sport of soccer in this country, and each other to new heights.