When Pulisic tore open the left side of the Panama defense 11 minutes later, slotting a cross that Altidore simply poked into the net, the game — 19 minutes old — seemed over. The cherry on top — an Altidore penalty kick, on a nervy chip after Bobby Wood had been cut down on a run into the area in the 42nd minute — erased all doubt.
The day had been saved.
When Wood added a fourth in the 63rd minute, the worries, the fears of the past few days, and the past few months, were gone. The only concern then was for Pulisic, battered several times and then, finally, so badly that he required treatment after a particularly rough foul at midfield just after halftime.
Coach Bruce Arena, realizing his unique value, had seen enough, and subbed him off six minutes later. He had done enough, and, anyway, Arena still needs him.
The decisive 90 minutes will come on Tuesday, when the United States faces Trinidad and Tobago on the road. The Soca Warriors sit last in the group; their hopes long dashed and coming off a game at the group leader Mexico later Thursday night, they would seem to have little motivation at this point other than to play spoiler.
That can be an attractive bit of motivation for small Concacaf teams, however, especially when there is a chance to ding the mighty United States. The Americans know that, and they know the stakes, though.
And if they have learned anything on their long qualifying road — one that began with two losses and the firing of their former coach, Jurgen Klinsmann — it is that nothing is certain, and that even a country accustomed to a quadrennial World Cup trip has to earn its place on the field before it can pack its bags.