(Sunday, October 10, 2009) -- Sometimes a team wins because it is better than its opponent and sometimes victory comes because it is simply luckier. The latter was the case last night at sold out Estadio Olímpico in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, when the United States men guaranteed their place in next summer's World Cup in South Africa with a heart-stopping 3-2 decision over Honduras in what was the most exciting qualifier the U.S. has played in many years.
Honduras would have virtually clinched its first World Cup berth since 1982 with a win; instead, the Americans gained their sixth straight Cup spot. The U.S. (6-2-1, 19 points) and Mexico (6-3-0, 18) are going to the World Cup with Costa Rica (5-4-0, 16) and Honduras (4-4-1, 13) left to vie in Wednesday's final qualifiers for the third automatic berth. The fourth-place finisher faces South America's No. 5 in a two-match series for another spot in the Cup.
The Americans can tack satisfaction in their World Cup advancement even though they conceded a late penalty kick that would have given Honduras a draw had it been converted. That would have rendered the U.S.'s final qualifier, against Costa Rica Wednesday in Washington, D.C., meaningful.
Honduras, certainly this year's most improved team in the CONCACAF, the region of North America, Central America and the Caribbean, threw everything it had into the match. The two sides played an even match and it was only by virtue of the highly unexpected that the U.S. was able to come out on top.
The U.S. expected Honduras to throw everything into attack, so coach Bob Bradley started a more defensive lineup than usual, with effectively two defensive midfielders and his son Michael as a third defensive-minded midfielder. Honduras replied by primarily attacking down its right side and playing through balls to strikers trying to get behind the American defense.
In the first half, the U.S. was often back on its heels, but the defense cut off most of the Honduras attacks and limited it to only a few quality chances. U.S. striker Charlie Davies had a great chance on a rebound of his own header off the crossbar, but sent it sailing high.
The big change in Bradley's lineup was inserting Conor Casey into the front line because of his physical play, ability to hold the ball and defensive presence. The decision paid unexpected dividends. After the U.S. fell behind early in the second half, Casey provided a pair of goals.
"Conor has played very well in Major League Soccer lately," Bradley said. "His movement and ability to hold the ball and bring people into the game has been good. We just felt the fact that he's been playing regularly and the quality that he brings would be important at the beginning of the game."
After midfielder Landon Donovan extended the U.S. lead to 3-1, Honduras coach Reinaldo Rueda inserted David Suazo into the match, giving him three strikers with Carlo Costly and Carlos Pavon. From that point, it was an all-out attack foe the Catrachos.
Honduras narrowed its deficit to 3-2 with a 78th -minute goal, but then the U.S. dug in and held on until the most unlikely of events unfolded.
In the 87th minute, Honduras midfielder Ramon Nuñez sent a free kick bouncing into the penalty area where it skipped and hit U.S. midfielder Stuart Holden's left arm. Pavon, Honduras' all-time leading scorer, skied the subsequent penalty kick well over the bar. Almost as unbelievably, he put an uncontested header over the top moments later.
The Americans were then able to run out the clock and consider themselves fortunate to take away the important three points in the standings.
"This was the most important game in qualifying because it was the one that qualified us for South Africa 2010," Bradley said. "The celebration was a very good one because when you have a group that has come together, that has worked hard, that has grown, when they've accomplished something, it's a special feeling. Tonight we can all share that feeling."
Now, the U.S. match against Costa Rica Wednesday is meaningless to the Americans, but a life-or-death meeting for Costa Rica. Bradley said he would like to win so the U.S. will finish first in the CONCACAF final group, ahead of fierce rival Mexico.
U.S. Player Ratings
Goalkeeper Tim Howard - 6: Could be faulted on second Honduras goal, but otherwise was strong, especially late.
Defender Jonathan Spector - 5.5: With Honduras favoring its right side, was not put under consistent pressure. Moved well into the middle on occasion and was able to get forward into the attack.
Defender Carlos Bocanegra - 6.5: The best U.S. defender. Covered a large area in the middle and on the wings, making a number of key stops.
Defender Oguchi Onyewu - 6: Won all of his air battles in the middle. Early, he showed the effects of not playing in Italy, but settled in and had a good second half.
Defender Jonathan Bornstein - 5: Had problems with Honduran speed on the flank. Should have shut down attackers better.
Midfielder Stuart Holden - 6: Was absolutely terrific down the stretch, helping to kill off the final 10 minutes. Played well throughout, but in the final minutes was all over the field, making plays and holding the ball. Still, was guilty of the hand ball that gave Honduras a potentially tying penalty kick. outings.
Midfielder Michael Bradley - 6: Became a key player late, making long runs to hold possession. Was sharp the whole game in what was a good effort.
Midfielder Landon Donovan - 7.5: A heroic effort. Made big plays on both ends of the field. Assisted on the second U.S. goal with a perfect pass to Casey. His free-kick tally, which turned out to be the winner, was perfectly hit.
Midfielder Ricardo Clark - 5: Made two costly errors on the second Honduras goal. Did fine at times, but was a too susceptible to through balls and, at times, did not handle the pace well.
Forward Conor Casey - 7.5: With his two goals and hard-working effort made a statement that he belongs in the lineup. Gave the U.S. the spark it needed when it was back on its collective heels. His best outing for his national team.
Forward Charlie Davies - 5: Had a frustrating night. He should have converted a sitter in the first half. Also, was too easily handled by the Honduran defense. Not his best performance.
Forward Jozy Altidore (79th minute for Davies) - 5: Added very little to the U.S. effort. Dropped back into defense at times, but overall had little impact.
Midfielder Benny Feilhaber (84th minute for Casey) - 5.5: Was active in the final minutes, bringing fresh legs into the effort to protect the lead.
Defender Steve Cherundolo (93rd minute for Holden) - no rating: Made a good clearance in the dying moments.
SoccerTimes U.S. Player of the Match: Conor Casey.
Robert Wagman is SoccerTimes senior correspondent.
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