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Qatar is calling! Pulisic hat-trick has USMNT within touching distance of World Cup after Panama blowout

The similarities are almost uncanny.

On October 6, 2017, the U.S. men's national team battered Panama 4-0 in Orlando, moving one step closer to qualifying for the World Cup. It would take a perfect storm of nonsense for the U.S. to miss out on a trip to Russia.

Well, we all know what happened next.

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Much has changed in the four-and-a-half years since, but not the result. On Sunday night in Orlando, the USMNT battered Panama 5-1 in Orlando, moving one step closer to qualifying for the World Cup. But this time around, surely, there will be no perfect storm, no nonsense, no program-defining collapse at the last possible moment.

Because, on Sunday night, the USMNT effectively booked their spot in Qatar. They sealed, at worst, the chance to qualify via a playoff even if things go very, very wrong later this week.

And, on Sunday night, the USMNT proved once again why they deserve to be at the World Cup, that they truly belong on the biggest stage once again.

They've been proving that for the last six months, mind you, despite the typical CONCACAF-related bumps. But there would be none of those tonight as Gregg Berhalter's side was absolutely ruthless from the opening whistle.

That may be short-changing it, too. Ruthless, merciless, fierce, all fitting terms. The point is, the U.S. did not come to Orlando to mess around. This was a business trip, and business was taken care of.

It started a little slow as Panama were energetic from the start, but that all changed by the 15th minute. From the moment Panama veteran Anibal Godoy put his hands on Walker Zimmerman's face, handing the USMNT a penalty, there was no doubt about where this game would go.

Christian Pulisic buried that penalty, with Jesus Ferreira providing a bit of CONCACAF distraction tactics in the lead-up by holding the ball as a decoy. Pulisic's goal allowed the USMNT to exhale, to get rid of any thought of what could happen if things went wrong.

The Chelsea star added another from the spot just before the half, too, with Godoy the culprit yet again for another foul in the box. By that point, the game was well and truly over and out of hand.

In between Pulisic's goals, you saw the USMNT at their free-flowing best. Even without stars like Gio Reyna, Brenden Aaronson, Weston McKennie and Sergino Dest on the field, the U.S. attacked with style, crushing Panama in emphatic fashion.

There was Paul Arriola's header in the 23rd minute to make it 2-0 as the FC Dallas winger, far from the tallest player on the field, headed home an Antonee Robinson cross.

And there was Ferreira's close-range tap-in, with Arriola turning provider in a goal that looked a whole lot like a perfect encapsulation of Berhalter Ball.

By the time the halftime whistle blew, the only fight left in Panama was of the physical variety as Pulisic was nearly dragged into a melee. But, with the help of Tyler Adams, cooler heads prevailed and the USMNT were back on their way.

Pulisic made sure the USMNT onslaught continued, just for good measure. But that onslaught also had a purpose, as every goal moved the USMNT one step closer to qualifying.

His first two may have come from the spot, but Pulisic's third was far and away the best of the bunch. A dazzling turn and a picture-perfect finish, that was Pulisic at his best.

He's had his difficult moments for the USMNT and he's spent the better part of the last year trying to understand exactly who he is and what he needs to be for this team. Pulisic is starting to figure it out: he can be the USMNT's star, sure, but the easiest way to do that is to accept that he doesn't have to be.

Four-and-a-half years ago, Pulisic and the U.S. watched their World Cup dreams fall apart against Trinidad & Tobago as they were punished just days after what could have been, should have been, a win over Panama that all but sealed their World Cup spot.

This time around, that final game comes in Costa Rica, who kept some semblance of pressure on the U.S. with their own win over El Salvador.

Going into that game, the U.S. knows the stakes. Win or draw, they're in. Lose by anything less than five goals, they're in. Even if they do lose by more than five, a World Cup playoff looms, giving them a mulligan if somehow, someway, lightning strikes twice and the world falls out from under them.

But that can't happen, not to this team. Not with stars like Pulisic and Reyna finding themselves. Not with leaders like Adams taking control. Not with rising stars like Antonee Robinson and Yunus Musah coming into their own.

It's not official, not yet locked up. There's still one more trip to make, one more game to play. A spot in Qatar will have to wait, at least for a few more days.

But that light at the end of the tunnel is looking very, very bright. Qatar is closer than ever for the USMNT.