The United States cut through Panama's defense like the canal that divides the isthmus. Carlos Bocanegra, Landon Donovan and Brian McBride...

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PANAMA CITY, Panama — The United States cut through Panama’s defense like the canal that divides the isthmus.

Carlos Bocanegra, Landon Donovan and Brian McBride overwhelmed Panama with first-half goals, and the Americans won last night’s qualifier 3-0 to move into commanding position to secure their fifth straight World Cup berth.

“This was a golden opportunity and we took advantage of it,” Donovan said.

Bocanegra scored off Donovan’s corner kick in the sixth minute, Donovan got his third goal in two games in the 20th and McBride took advantage of a defensive mistake in the 40th. Kasey Keller of Lacey made the lead stand up with his second straight strong performance in goal, getting his 39th career shutout in 81 games.

“Getting the result like that is exceptional when nobody else has been able to do it,” U.S. coach Bruce Arena said, noting that Panama rarely loses at home.

The Americans (4-1) are second at the midpoint of the final round of the North and Central American region with 12 points, one behind Mexico (4-0-1), which beat visiting Trinidad and Tobago 2-0.

Costa Rica (2-2-1) beat Guatemala 3-2 (1-3-1). Trinidad and Tobago is 1-3-1. Panama (0-3-2) is virtually out of contention with two points.

The top three nations qualify for next year’s tournament, and the No. 4 team meets Bahrain, Kuwait or Uzbekistan in a home-and-home playoff for another berth. The Americans have three home games left, including matchups with T&T and Panama, the two weakest teams in the group.

Donovan’s 22nd goal in 64 international appearances moved him past Bruce Murray for sole possession of fourth place on the U.S. career scoring list behind Eric Wynalda (34), McBride (28) and Joe-Max Moore (24).

Keller made two spectacular saves in the 26th minute, going to his right to block Roberto Brown in front of the goal, then batting away Felipe Baloy’s follow shot.

“It kind of hit me and I was able to gather it after that,” Keller said of Baloy’s shot.

Two minutes later, Brown had Keller beat but couldn’t get his head on a cross, and Jose Garces hit the post off a 25-yard shot in the 32nd minute.

Argentina qualifies

Argentina secured a spot in the 2006 World Cup by beating defending champion Brazil 3-1 in Buenos Aires behind two goals from striker Hernan Crespo.

The Argentines joined Iran, Japan, Saudi Arabia and South Korea as the first nations to qualify for next year’s World Cup, along with host Germany, an automatic qualifier in the 32-nation field.


• Former U.S. defender Fernando Clavijo was elected to the National Soccer Hall of Fame and will join former teammates Marcelo Balboa, John Harkes and Tab Ramos. Clavijo played in 61 matches over 15 years for the U.S.