IN PHOTOS: Earnie Stewart Remembers 2001 World Cup Qualifiers vs. Honduras
STEWART: "I do feel that they found it more comfortable to play away than they did at home"
The U.S. MNT initially met Honduras in 1965 and actually earned its first World Cup Qualifying win in Central America in a 1-0 victory on March 17 in Tegucigalpa. The two nations wouldn’t face each other again in qualifying until 2001, with both matches providing great goals and other memorable moments along the way.
Serving as captain in both matches, Earnie Stewart also scored three of the four U.S. goals during the two games. Sixteen years later, he still remembers the pair of matches well.
March 28, 2001 – USA 2, Honduras 1
On the heels of an inspiring 2-0 win against Mexico to open the 2001 Hexagonal, the MNT made its first qualifying visit to Honduras since 1965 on Matchday 2. Without previously experiencing the crowd in San Pedro Sula, the U.S. players expected it would be similar to other trips in Central America, but when Earnie Stewart -- who celebrated his 32nd birthday that day -- led the team out of the tunnel, he was pleasantly surprised.
Estadio Olímpico Metropolitano in San Pedro Sula, Honduras
“It wasn’t actually that bad,” said the MNT midfielder. “I remember the stadium being very wide and open, so the fans were far away from the field and it didn’t feel like when we played Costa Rica in Saprissa where everybody is right on top of the field and very loud. We could actually communicate pretty well on the field. It wasn’t as hostile as I thought it would be.”
All well and good, but there was still a game to be played. Honduras was coming off a decent result of their own, drawing 2-2 against Costa Rica at Estadio Saprissa. Riding that wave, Los Catrachos came home looking for three points against the United States, but were going up against a U.S. squad that was also riding momentum following the Mexico result and felt good about their chances heading into the match.
“We had a group with a great mentality,” Stewart added. “At that moment I felt we were very confident and I felt like we went there with the mindset to win the game and you take what the defense gives you.”
In this case, Stewart took the space that was given to him by the Honduran defense and unleashed a rocket from 35 yards. The blast took a wicked deflection off the back of Jose Clavasquin and beamed past goalkeeper Noel Valladares into the top left corner to give the U.S. a 1-0 lead in the 33rd minute.
“Sometimes you do stupid things and they actually turn out well," he said of his birthday strike. "That was a period in 2001 with both NAC Breda and the U.S. team where I felt very good, very confident. I got a good bounce on that and I was able to hit it well. The rest is history.”
Earnie Stewart and Honduras midfielder Amado Guevara (Photo: Tony Quinn)
The U.S. had a nervy start to the second half as Honduras hit the post during scramble in the 48th minute. That predicated Julio Cesar de Leon’s own highlight reel finish from distance just before the hour mark.
Holding their own for the remainder of the game, the MNT looked destined to come away with a well-earned road point. They would have happily taken it, too, until Chris Armas earned a free kick just outside the Honduras penalty area in the 86th minute. The opportunity to capture three points was served up on a silver platter and Clint Mathis didn’t let it go to waste.
Clint Mathis celebrates his game-winning free kick with Jeff Agoos (Photo: Tony Quinn)
“We had a couple players on the field that could take free kicks, and Clint had that ability to hit a ball tremendously. I don’t think there was much discussion about that. He was up there to take the free kick and we saw how it all went.”
Those three points earned in San Pedro Sula were part of a strong start to the Hex for the MNT, as the U.S. went 4-0-1 through the first half of the Final Round. With 13 points at the turn, a couple more wins down the stretch would surely see the MNT through to Korea/Japan.
U.S. MNT players celebrate after earning three points in Honduras (Photo: Tony Quinn)
September 1, 2001 – Honduras 3, USA 2
Despite dropping a narrow 1-0 result at Mexico at the beginning of July, the U.S. was still in good shape atop the group and entered their home date with Honduras knowing three points would likely be enough to claim a place at the World Cup.
While things appeared simple on paper, reality dictated something else. Bruce Arena’s side was beset by injuries, with captain Claudio Reyna, striker Brian McBride, Mathis and Josh Wolff unavailable for the home date. With fewer options in attack, Arena gave Landon Donovan his first World Cup Qualifying appearance, partnering up top with Jovan Kirovski, while Stewart once again wore the captain’s armband in Reyna’s absence.
Landon Donovan earned his first World Cup Qualifying appearance on Sept. 1, 2001 vs. Honduras (ISI Photos)
With college football beginning its season that day, the TV window for ESPN meant a brunchtime kickoff of 10 a.m. in Washington, D.C. Though odd, the start time proved insignificant compared to the crowd at RFK Stadium, which provided a decidely home atmosphere for Honduras.
“I remember the atmosphere well,” said Stewart. “Most of our home qualifying games that cycle had been very pro-U.S., but as we walked out on the field we thought were playing away.”
Having earned five points from its first three Final Round away matches, Honduras was a clear threat on the road, and according to Stewart their playing style suited them better in away matches.
“They were always tough to play, and it had to do with the athleticism of the players at that time. I do feel that they found it more comfortable to play away than they did at home, just because of the way they were setup and the way they could play. If they would have to come out, open up and play, it made things a little more difficult for them.”
Earnie Stewart celebrates his opening goal on Sept. 1, 2001 vs. Honduras (ISI Photos)
Despite not having the home crowd behind them, the U.S. got out to an early lead through Stewart again, with the veteran midfielder pouncing on a diving punch by Valladares to give the U.S. a lead in the seventh minute.
The lead lasted for about 20 minutes when a quick build up following a goal kick led to Milton Nunez burying his effort past Brad Friedel.
Honduras striker Tyson Nuñez ready to strike the 27th minute equalizer (ISI Photos)
The balance of the match seemed to strike back in favor of the U.S. when Kirovski earned a penalty kick in the 41st minute. Already with one goal on the day, Stewart stepped up to take the spot kick, but didn’t place his low effort well as Valladares pounced to his right to palm the shot away. Stewart memorably trudged up to the goal line and kicked the post in frustration, but said the miss didn’t affect the rest of his play.
“I took the responsibility taking the penalty and it ended up short. I’m not a penalty killer, I know that much, but because I was captain I felt I had to step up and do that at the moment because I was one of the older players on the field. Sometimes you shoot and miss at the same time. That’s not good and obviously is frustrating. I remember during the game it didn’t really phase me at that moment. I wouldn’t have scored again if it had.”
Earnie Stewart jumps over Honduras goalkeeper Noel Valladares (ISI Photos)
Honduras took the momentum from the penalty stop into the second half have when Diego Reyes beat Jeff Agoos down the right side before the MNT defender made enough contact in the box for the Honduran to draw a penalty kick.
Shooting at the same goal Stewart had missed at earlier, Carlos Pavon made no mistake for Honduras, burying his effort inside the left post to the deafening cheers of the Honduran crowd in attendance. Things got worse for the U.S. as Honduras took a two-goal lead in the 77th minute, with Nuñez striking again off a feed from Pavon to take a 3-1 lead.
Carlos Pavón puts Honduras ahead 2-1 in the second half (ISI Photos)
Holding out hope to salvage a point, Tony Sanneh headed back for Stewart at the top of the area, where the midfielder hit a mid-air half volley that deflected off a Honduras defender and just over the line in the 84th minute. But their last chance came and went just one minute later when a Cobi Jones cross was nodded over the bar by Joe-Max Moore.
Shortly after, referee Mauricio Navarro blew the final whistle confirming the USA’s first home World Cup Qualifying defeat since 1985, though Stewart said that realization didn’t affect the players.
“We don’t look at the historic values of those things during games or the process,” Stewart said. “You just don’t like losing, period. You’re an athlete and whether it’s a home game or away game, it’s just no fun at all. Winning your home games is crucial. If you don’t win a home game, you have to make sure you win somewhere on the road, and that can be very difficult in CONCACAF because it’s not easy to play on the road as we’ve all seen in the past and now.”
Thankfully the away victory the team earned back in March canceled out this defeat, and the U.S. would qualify for Korea/Japan a month later through a 2-1 home win against Jamaica.
HIGHLIGHTS: USA-Honduras on Sept. 1, 2001 at RFK Stadium