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America pummels Panama

WASHINGTON — Established star Landon Donovan and rising sensation Eddie Johnson carried the United States into the regional qualifying finals for the 2006 World Cup in emphatic fashion Wednesday night.

Donovan scored the first two goals, then Johnson, a second-half substitute, got three in a row in a 6-0 rout of Panama. It was the first U.S. hat trick in World Cup qualifying since 1968 and only the third ever.

The Americans' biggest victory since beating Barbados 7-0 in 2000 moved them one huge step closer to Germany '06. They clinched a spot in the CONCACAF regional finals, where the top three of six teams automatically make the World Cup field.

And they did it with an unrelenting attack that extended their longest unbeaten streak to 12 games. Only a 1-0 loss to the Netherlands in February blemishes the record. They are 3-0-2 in qualifying.

Johnson, in just his second national team game, became the first American sub ever to score three times in a game. The rangy 20-year-old forward connected in the 70th, 84th and 87th minutes.

By then, Donovan had established U.S. superiority, with plenty of help from his teammates, whose creative passing and speed dominated play. On both of his goals, he received pinpoint passes. Donovan's first goal, his 18th for the national team and first as captain, was a precision combination play with Josh Wolff. With Wolff charging into the penalty area from the left wing, Donovan headed for the goal and perfectly timed his right-footed deflection of Wolff's pass. The ball sailed beyond diving goalkeeper Donald Gonzalez in the 21st minute.

The Americans probably should have had two goals before that. Gregg Berhalter barely headed wide in the fifth minute off a header feed from Brian McBride. Then McBride, set free on left wing after a brilliant run by DaMarcus Beasley, just knocked a right-footed shot wide of the post.

Donovan made it 2-0 by breaking free behind the defense off a pass from Kerry Zavagnin. Donovan cut across the penalty area and, just before being sandwiched by two defenders, placed a shot into the top of the net.

Panama, which to its credit did not stack the defense and play an ultraconservative game — as many visiting teams might have — rarely challenged goalie Kasey Keller in the first hour. In the 65th minute, though, Panama captain Julio Dely Valdes wasted two good chances.

Valdes broke free on right wing, but never got a shot off before the defense caught up. Then, off a corner kick, his header skimmed off the crossbar.

Two minutes later, Keller had to climb high to tip Alberto Blancas's free kick over the bar.

Just 3 minutes after Keller's splendid save, the Americans clinched passage into the CONCACAF finals. Johnson, who came in just 3 minutes earlier for Wolff, soared high and headed home yet another superb feed, this one a cross by Carlos Bocanegra.

He connected again off a corner kick after two teammates played the ball, and finished the hat trick with a sliding shot off a cross from Eddie Lewis.

The Americans are 8-1-5 this season. Their final semifinal round game, in Columbus, Ohio next month against Jamaica, was rendered meaningless for the United States by this rout.

Panama still is alive with a 1-2-2 record.