Christian Pulisic had a dream game, Anibal Godoy a nightmare match. (Jeremy Reper-USA TODAY Sports)

By Michael Lewis

FrontRowSoccer.com Editor

ORLANDO – Barring a major collapse in Costa Rica on Wednesday night, the U.S. Men’s National Team should be going to Qatar this November.

Sparked by Christian Pulisic’s first international hat-trick, the Americans rolled to a 5-1 triumph over Panama in the penultimate game of World Cup qualifying on Sunday night, assuring themselves of a top four finish in the Concacaf Octagonal.

The second-place U.S. (7-2-4, 25 points) can book a spot in Qatar this November as long as it doesn’t lose at fourth-place Costa Rica (6-3-4, 22) by more than six goals, due to superior goal differential over the Ticos and third-place Mexico (6-2-4, 22), which played at Honduras later Sunday night.

At worst, the USA will meet the Oceania winner in an intercontinental playoff for a spot in Qatar on June 13-14. That would happen if the team pulled off a major collapse

The Americans hoped to clinch one of those three berths to Qatar, if Costa Rica tied or lost at El Salvador. But the Ticos spoiled their plans with a 2-1 win.

Paul Arriola and Jesus Ferreira added goals as the USA eliminated fifth-place Panama (5-5-4, 19) from the competition with their largest goal explosion of this qualifying run before a sellout crowd of 25,022 at Exploria Stadium.

The intensity of the first half and the level that we’re playing was really impressive,” USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter said, adding that it great to see “what the guys took on and their motivation to get back to the World Cup.”

“We scored five goals in the game. I think we could have had more, but we made a big step towards our goal of qualifying for the World Cup. We know we’re not there yet. We know we still have a game to go and it’s a difficult game in Costa Rica. So our job right now is to recover, do regeneration and then the get healthy guys fit guys get him on the field and go compete in San Jose.”

Pulisic echoed Berhalter’s thoughts.

“Obviously a huge result,” he said. “We needed the three points bad to put us in a really good spot to qualify and we’re really happy with the performance. It feels great to get a hat-trick, of course … but more importantly just to help the team to win and put us in a good spot with one game left. Absolutely we can enjoy tonight, but the job’s not done yet. We have one more really important game and we’re taking it very seriously. We need to go in and get the job done.”

Pulisic had an international game of a lifetime, stepping up big time, especially after missing two big scoring opportunities in Thursday night’s scoreless draw in Mexico.

“The important thing was he did his his role,” Berhalter said. “His role involves making special plays and scoring some goals. But there’s a whole other other a bunch of things that come with it. And that’s what you saw tonight. His work rate,. His defensive work, his duels, his second balls, his challenges, passing, dribbling, you name it. He did it. He got the coaches man in the match for an obvious reason but really strong performance by Cristian. Glad to see that.”

Buoyed by three goals within a 10-minute period, the Americans rolled to a 4-0 halftime lead.

In a penalty kick sequence that took four minutes to complete, Pulisic converted from the spot to start the rout.

It began when Abibal Godoy elbowed Nashville SC teammate and center back Walker Zimmerman in the face in the box in the 13th minute, although referee Ivan Barton (El Salvador) originally did not call anything. However, Video Assistant Referee officials notified him of a possible infraction a minute later. After watching a replay of the action, Barton awarded the USA a penalty kick.

Ferreira walked the ball to the spot, but eventually Pulisic took the kick and converted to the left tside past goalkeeper Luis Mejia in the 17th minute.

Arriola headed home a left-wing cross from defender Antonee Robinson in the 23rd minute.

A number of USMNT fans have questioned whether Arriola should be part of the squad.

Asked if  the goal was vindication, Arriola replied, “I was I was super happy with the goal and obviously to help the team you know, as an attacking player. It’s always important to try and make your mark and be productive in the final third. Secondly, look, there’s always there’s always going to be people that hate and that have their own opinions. I just tried to try and stay focused on myself. You know how valuable I am and how valuable how I can be this team.”

Ferreira tapped in an Arriola feed from close range four minutes later for a 3-0 advantage. It was his third international goal and first during qualifying.

“I’m happy that I can help the team,” Ferreira said. “It’s the first of many.”

After Godoy slammed Miles Robinson in the throat in the box, the midfielder was whistled for his second penalty of the half. Pulisic connected on his second goal, drilling a shot to the right side that Meija could not stop.

Meija also could not stop Pulisic from the run of play in the 65th minute as the Chelsea forward deposited the ball into the back of the net after making some nice moves to maneuver around the Panamanian backline to score from seven yards.

Godoy spoiled goalkeeper Zack Steffen’s shutout bid with a header goal in the 86th minute.