ORLANDO, Fla. — Christian Pulisic looked like he had been lifted off his shoulders by the weight of millions of American football fans.
The first American to play in and win a Champions League final, Pulisic struggled in January, was played out of position by Chelsea and was even benched for a World Cup qualifier against Barcelona. Honduras.
Now he has propelled the United States on the cusp of a World Cup comeback with the first international hat-trick of his career. He had fired up his team, celebrated by doing the worm dance for a fan, earned a yellow card for dissent and capped off the night by sharing the victory with his mother and father.
“The reason tonight meant so much is because we want to be on the biggest stage, playing the World Cup,” he said on Sunday after leading the United States against Panama 5-1.
On the same pitch 4½ years ago, Pulisic scored the first goal and netted another in a 4-0 win over the Panamanians. Four days later, he crouched on a pitch in Trinidad, his World Cup dream shattered by a 2-1 loss that upset the USA Soccer Federation from presidency to the national team and the lineup, where 114 players rode their bikes. Pulisic, who scored the American goal that night, buried his face in his hands at the final whistle.
Now, all the United States needs to do to qualify for November’s tournament in Qatar is not to lose by six goals in Costa Rica on Wednesday night. The United States have nine losses, a draw and no qualifying victories in Costa Rica, but they have not lost by six goals anywhere since a 1979 friendly against France, and not in a competitive game since 1957 in Mexico.
Pulisic, a 23-year-old from Hershey, Pennsylvania, was among four survivors of the squad that died on that last night of the Clint Dempsey-Tim Howard generation, joined by Paul Arriola, DeAndre Yedlin and Kellyn Acosta. Arriola was the only other on the pitch against Panama, scoring and assisting as part of the 17-point stretch capped by Jesus Ferreira’s goal.
Pulisic converted a pair of shots on goal in the first half, and his strike in the 65th minute was exquisite. With his back to goal, a spinning Pulisic took a touch with his left leg, circled Fidel Escobar and faked the ball between his own legs. Pulisic pushed the ball with the outside of his right foot through Andrés Andrade’s legs and slid over a sliding goalkeeper Luis Mejía’s leg with his right foot from 8 yards out.