ORLANDO — Christian Pulisic hugged his parents at the front of the stands, all three euphoric after his first international hat trick.
Out on the field, American players unfurled a red-and-blue banner with “QUALIFIED” in bold, white letters.
Not quite. But close.
“We know we’re not there yet, despite what that banner might have said,” U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter maintained Sunday night after a 5-1 rout of Panama.
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 a memorable goal with two brilliant touches that evaded a pair of defenders.
With fans 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 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. They can finish no worse than fourth, which earns a June playoff, likely against New Zealand.
In October 2017, the U.S. defeated Panama 4-0 in Orlando and needed only a draw at Trinidad four days later but flopped to a 2-1 loss. Pulisic and Arriola were the only holdovers from that night.
“I’m not celebrating anything,” Arriola said. “I was in this exact position or very similar position four years ago, and we know how that qualification ended.”
Pulisic left the stadium without speaking with reporters, and the U.S. Soccer Federation distributed anodyne quotes under his name.
Berhalter gave him the captain’s armband over Tyler Adams.
“I think because of the journey,” Berhalter said “You have a guy that’s been there before. He was he was on the field when we didn’t qualify. And this was us saying to him, this is a new group, this is a new team and you’re a leader.”
Pulisic has 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 exquisite. 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 and dummied the ball through his own legs. Pulisic poked the ball with the outside of his right foot through the legs of Andrés Andrade and slotted over the a leg of sliding goalkeeper of Luis Mejía with his right foot from 8 yards.
Pulisic’s only previous hat trick was in the Premier League for Chelsea against Burnley in October 2019. The U.S. had not scored twice on penalty kicks in one match in the modern era.