After getting just one point in two September qualifiers, a loss to Panama on Friday night would have left the U.S. with one more chance to reach next year's World Cup: by winning a playoff against the fifth-place nation in Asia. And the Americans weren't even assured of that.
"We still knew that everything was in our hands. It still is," defender Matt Besler said after Friday night's 4-0 rout of the Panamanians lifted the United States back into third place - the last automatic berth in the North and Central American and Caribbean region.
The Americans have overcome an 0-2 start and head into their final game of the hexagonal on Tuesday at Trinidad and Tobago with 12 points, two ahead of Panama and three ahead of Honduras, which plays Saturday at Costa Rica.
A win would put the U.S. in its eighth straight World Cup as long as Honduras does not defeat the Ticos and Mexico while overcoming its goal difference against the U.S., currently 12.
A draw at Trinidad would be sufficient unless Honduras wins its last two matches and Panama does not beat Costa Rica by eight goals (or seven if Panama somehow overcomes its deficit in total goals vs. the U.S., currently nine).
Retired goalkeeper Kasey Keller, now an ESPN analyst, said the reality of the situation hit the Americans after the 2-0 loss to Costa Rica in New Jersey and the 1-1 draw at Honduras.
"Oh, boy. We don't have any time. We have to put it right," Keller said of the thought process. "So much of the rhetoric before the game was there had to be a start to this match that kind of emphasized the poor results from September, and I think you saw that. You needed stars to show up, and the U.S.'s biggest star showed up and scored the first, created the second."
Christian Pulisic, the 19-year-old from Hershey, Pennsylvania, who is a rising star with Germany's Borussia Dortmund, helped energize the U.S. when he was shifted to central midfield from the flanks. He scored with a brilliant touch in the eighth minute and passed to Jozy Altidore, who doubled the lead in the 19th.Altidore converted a penalty kick in the 43rd and Bobby Wood got the final goal in the 63rd.
"It was exactly what I expected," U.S. captain Michael Bradley said, "and now we've got to make sure that in a few days' time were ready to go to Trinidad and after 15 games of qualifying make sure that we finish things off in the right way."
A playoff against Syria would raise the issue of whether President Donald Trump's administration would allow opposing players to enter the U.S. for the first leg. Syria is among the nations in the administration's current travel ban. A playoff against either team would include wearying travel, especially for American players based in Europe who would return home for the first leg, travel to Malaysia or Australia for the second, then return to Europe for matches with their clubs.
But if the Americans clinch, next month's games likely would be a pair of exhibitions in Europe.
In the days leading up to the Panama match, American players spoke with seriousness. After the big win, they could admit the burden they had felt.
"Of course there was pressure," Besler said. "We all felt it and felt a big responsibility for the team and for our country."
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