(Sports Network) - Chants of "We are going to Brazil!" rang out around CenturyLink Field in Seattle Tuesday night from American soccer fans shortly after Eddie Johnson's 53rd-minute goal.
And while U.S. supporters may be a bit premature with that statement, it is hard to blame them for their exuberance.
Tuesday's 2-0 win over Panama in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying not only vaulted Jurgen Klinsmann's team to the top of the group, but it also marked the most complete performance from the side in qualification to date.
In what has certainly become the most competitive final round of qualifying in the history of CONCACAF, the Americans have separated themselves just a bit from the rest of the field with Tuesday's outing.
Along with the United States, Mexico is usually the other top dog in the region. But El Tri has struggled mightily to date, earning just eight points from its first six games, including three successive 0-0 draws at home in the team's famed Azteca Stadium.
The first half of the qualifying schedule was the more difficult of the two for the United States, so the fact it sits atop the group is the reason many fans are scrambling to make arrangements for next summer's World Cup in Brazil.
It now seems as though it is a matter of when, not if, the Americans will qualify for the showpiece event next summer, but that certainty didn't always exist.
The U.S. squad didn't secure a place in the final round of qualifying until its last match in the semifinal stage, a 3-1 win over Guatemala.
And the Hexagonal round got off to a poor start with a 2-1 loss at Honduras which heaped pressure on the team ahead of a pair of crucial March qualifiers against Costa Rica and Mexico.
That week began with anonymous quotes from players about dissension in the team, and it looked as though things might be on the verge of coming undone.
But with four points from those two games, the Americans steadied the ship and now have put themselves in prime position to claim one of three automatic qualifying places in Brazil.
Here are five of the reasons for the turnaround:
ALTIDORE GETS ACQUAINTED WITH THE NET
Forward Jozy Altidore went nearly two years without scoring a goal for the national team in open play, which simply isn't acceptable when he is the man who more often than not is leading the line. But after tallying 31 goals in all competitions for Dutch club AZ Alkmaar this past season, the hope was he would carry that form onto the field for the U.S. squad. And after scoring the first goal in Tuesday's 2-0 win over Panama, Altidore has delivered with goals in three straight games for the first time in his international career. Altidore's form has certainly improved from the past two years, but he also is seeing much better service and getting more support up top instead of being left alone on an island, which was the case in recent U.S. outings as well. The team has done a much better job of getting players forward in support and Altidore is making his chances count.
BEASLEY FINDS A HOME AT LEFT BACK
DaMarcus Beasley established himself as a regular with the national team after a breakout performance at the 2002 World Cup, when he earned rave reviews for his work as a speedy winger. Beasley stayed in the national team picture for the next seven years, but injuries and a lack of playing time at the club level threatened his place in the team. After making just one appearance at the 2010 World Cup, Beasley fell out of favor and played in only four games for the national team over the next 2 1/2 years. But the 31-year-old has suddenly found a home at left back after being recalled to the team in March, and his play has solidified a big question mark for Klinsmann. Since Beasley's arrival at his new position, the United States has yielded just one goal in four qualifiers. His previous years as a winger also have added to his value as he has shown an ability to get forward and contribute in attack as well.
DEMPSEY TAKES OVER AS CAPTAIN AMERICA
He has officially held the title for just a few months, but already you get the sense that Clint Dempsey's appointment as the U.S. captain is having a positive effect on both him and the rest of the team. Previous captain Carlos Bocanegra lost his place in the side this year, and with Landon Donovan enjoying a self-imposed sabbatical, there was a clear void that needed to be filled. Players like goalkeeper Tim Howard or midfielder Michael Bradley might have been more obvious choices to succeed Bocanegra, but Dempsey's appointment has had nothing but positive results. The 30-year-old doesn't have that naturally vocal leadership style, instead choosing to lead by example. As one of the team's biggest offensive threats, Dempsey has tallied five goals in five matches for the team in 2013. His hard-working, no-frills approach to the game also figures to have a positive impact on the team going forward.
NEW FACES EMERGING
Bocanegra and Donovan were both fixtures in the team for years, so it was natural it would take some time to replace that kind of continuity. No one player has stepped up to take on those duties, it has instead been a group effort. Bocanegra's departure left a number of questions in the back, but we are slowly starting to get answers. Beasley's play at left back has solidified that area, while the tandem of Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler seems to be settling in nicely in the middle. And it hasn't been until the past few games that Brad Evans has thrown his name into the mix at right back, which would bring a bit of continuity to a group that only figures to get better the more they play together. Fabian Johnson was originally a left back, but he has looked good playing further up the field, including an assist on Altidore's opening goal on Tuesday. Dempsey has certainly taken charge of things in behind Altidore, but Graham Zusi also has shown an ability to pick up the slack for Donovan's absence with his playmaking skills on the wing. Even Geoff Cameron, who served as a defender earlier this year, looked comfortable as a replacement for the injured Jermaine Jones in midfield on Tuesday as he assisted on Johnson's second-half goal, giving Klinsmann some versatility in his team.
PROTECTING HOME TURF
With life on the road in CONCACAF becoming tougher and tougher, the importance of winning games at home has increased even more. Mexico used to dominate teams at the Azteca and only needed to collect a point on the road here and there to be assured of qualification. But with three 0-0 draws this round, the team has left itself with some real work still to do, while the United States has continued its run of dominance on home soil. In its last 24 World Cup qualifiers at home, the U.S. team has posted a 22-0-2 mark, which bodes well for the second half of this stage. Three of the final five qualifiers for the Americans will be played at home, so if that form continues, those chants of "We are going to Brazil!" that were heard on Tuesday will become a reality sooner rather than later.