American players unfurled a red-and-blue banner with "QUALIFIED" in bold, white letters, when Christian Pulisic realized what was going on.
"The guys didn’t know at all what it said. It was just hand handed to them," the U.S. star said. "Once we realized — there's no need to show that off because we still have a job to do."
Pulisic's first international hat trick led the U.S. over Panama 5-1 on Sunday night and moved the Americans to the brink of qualifying for the World Cup for the first time since 2014.
Only a loss of six or more goals in Wednesday night’s finale at Costa Rica would cause the Americans not to get one of three automatic berths from North and Central America and the Caribbean. They can finish no worse than fourth, which earns a June playoff, likely against New Zealand.
"We honestly approach it like any other game," Pulisic said. "We’re going to prepare exactly the same as we would if we needed a win."
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.
Canada (28 points) secured its first berth since 1986 with a 4-0 win over Jamaica. The U.S. (25) is second ahead of Mexico on goal difference and Costa Rica (22) is fourth.
While the U.S. has never won at Costa Rica, goal difference is the first tiebreaker, and the Americans are plus-13 to the Ticos’ plus-three. The U.S. also has the second tiebreaker of total goals, 21 to 11.
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's 21 international goals include 12 in World Cup qualifying. Wearing the captain's armband, he scored in the 17th minute and fourth minute of first-half stoppage time, both after fouls by Aníbal Godoy. Pulisic is 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.
"I just really want to play in a World Cup and so does this team," Pulisic said. "I’m just really happy that we’re able to be in a good position to go do that and finish the job off."
Pulisic’s fire showed during a shoving confrontation with Michael Amir Murillo, and the 23-year-old winger was given a yellow card for dissent in the 69th minute.
"His role involves making special plays and scoring some goals," Berhalter said. "His defensive work rate, his duels, his second balls, his challenges passing, dribbling, you name it, he did it tonight."
After reaching the World Cup for the first time in 2018, Panama was eliminated. Godoy scored Panama's goal in the 86th with a header from Éric Davis' free kick that beat Zack Steffen.
Salvadoran referee Iván Barton awarded the first penalty after a video review, concluding Godoy shoved the face of Walker Zimmerman, his Nashville teammatee.
Pulisic helped set up the second goal in the 23rd minute, running down a long ball from Zimmerman and dishing to Antonee Robinson, who crossed. Arriola, all of 5-foot-6, outjumped the 5-foot-11 Davis for his ninth international goal — just the second goal on a header in his professional career.
Fans who repeatedly denigrate Major League Soccer players in online forums have criticized Berhalter for selecting Arriola.
"There’s always going to be people that hate and that have their own opinions, and I just try and stay focused on myself," a beaming Arriola said. "I know how valuable I am and how valuable I can be to this team."
Ferreira made it 3-0 in the 29th minute with a 4-yard right foot shot that beat goalkeeper Luis Mejía goalkeeper. Ferreira's third international goal capped a 17-touch sequence that involved Arriola (four touches), Yunus Musah (four), Luca de La Torre (two), Pulisic, Tyler Adams and Shaq Moore (four).
Moore was a late addition as the fourth-choice right back after Sergiño Dest hurt a thigh, DeAndre Yedlin was suspended for yellow-card accumuation and Reggie Cannon tested positive for COVID-19. Seven regulars were missing, and about 20 members of the U.S. traveling party had gotten a stomach bug in Mexico.
Godoy's second penalty was for shoving Miles Robinson. Luis Mejía dived left, and Pulisic went to the keeper's upper right with the first kick. Mejía correctly guessed left on the second, but Pulisic's drive was too hard and too close to the post for the keeper to reach. The U.S. scored four goals in the opening half of a qualifier for the first time since a 5-2 win over Cuba in 1949.
After his second goal, Pulisic celebrated with a worm dance. His parents were in the sellout crowd of 25,022 and he shared the victory with them at the front of the stands after the final whistle.
"They just told me they were proud," Pulisic said, his voice filled with emotion. "They’ve been everything for me in my life. So it was just a nice moment."
Notes: Costa Rica won 2-1 at El Salvador on goals by Anthony Contreras on a bicycle kick in the 30th minute and Joel Campbell in the first minute of first-half stoppage time around Christian Gil's score in the 31st. ... Mexico won 1-0 at Honduras on Edson Álvarez's 70th-minute goal.