The USA’s World Cup Qualifying series with Honduras has served up memorable matches at every turn. After a wild set of matches in 2002 FIFA World Cup Qualifying, Honduras missed out on the 2005 Hexagonal meaning the two sides wouldn’t meet again until the Final Round of qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra delivered the game-winning goal in the MNT’s 2-1 home victory on June 6, 2009 in Chicago, while Conor Casey stepped up with a brace to help lift the USA to a 3-2 away victory and qualification for the 2010 FIFA World Cup on Oct. 10, 2009 in San Pedro Sula.
June 6, 2009 – USA 2, Honduras 1
With seven points from its first three Final Round qualifiers, the U.S. began a busy summer schedule that featured two World Cup Qualifying matches before taking part in the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup in South Africa and July’s CONCACAF Gold Cup.
The MNT arrived in Chicago on the heels of a 3-1 defeat at Costa Rica days earlier and looked to the home match against Honduras -- just steps away from U.S. Soccer headquarters at Soldier field – as a chance to set things right before jetting off to South Africa.
Having begun his professional career playing at Soldier Field with the Chicago Fire, the game was a homecoming of sorts for U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra, but as he led the team out of the tunnel that night, the match might have felt like it was being played in San Pedro Sula instead.
Carlos Bocanegra leads the U.S. MNT onto the Soldier Field pitch on June 6, 2009 vs. Honduras (ISI Photos)
“Honestly the atmosphere was unbelievable,” Bocanegra remembered. “Almost sold out and there were more Honduran fans than U.S., but it didn’t bother us. We always want to play in front of big crowds and a great atmosphere like that.”
The atmosphere might not have bothered the U.S. team, but it certainly galvanized Honduras early. Just five minutes in, Carlos Pavón forced a U.S. turnover in the center circle and quickly transitioned towards goal. Driving at full speed, Pavon lost his footing, but not before the ball made its way to Carlo Costly whose blast beat Tim Howard inside the lower left corner
Carlo Costly celebrates his early goal vs. the United States (ISI Photos)
“Everyone thinks, ‘oh, a Central American team is coming up to play you on your home soil and it should be easy.’ Whether they pack it in and make it difficult or they’re up for the game and you’re a little off that day, they can try and punish you and they got on us early.”
The goal awoke the U.S. team, whose pressure resulted in chances for Conor Casey and Jonathan Spector that went begging.
Finally, in the 41st minute Oguchi Onyewu launched a long ball over the top which skipped wildly into the box before striking the hand of Honduras defender Mario Beata.
Timing his run to beat the offside trap, Landon Donovan shot his arms up in an appeal to referee Mauricio Morales, who instinctively pointed to the penalty spot. From there, as he’d done many times before, Donovan calmly stepped up and rocketed his penalty into the top right corner to bring the U.S. level going into halftime.
“Whenever you get a goal before halftime, especially in that kind of situation, it feels like you go with momentum,” Bocanegra said. “You could feel the sense of relief after we’d let a few chances slip by.”
Despite carrying the momentum, the U.S. had another scare early in the second half when an in-swinging corner kick from the left saw Tim Howard only get a touch to the ball. Sailing through the area, Chavez redirected towards goal, but Ricardo Clark was there to clear off the line in the 48th minute.
Tim Howard challenges for a corner kick early in the second half (ISI Photos)
The teams traded back-and-forth chances from distance before the go-ahead goal came from the captain in the 68th minute. Donovan’s corner from the left found Dempsey at the back post, where he nodded across the goal. There to meet it was Bocanegra, who sprawled out inches above the surface to head home the game-winner.
As the game’s intensity picked up so did its physicality, and moments after scoring the eventual game-winner Bocanegra was forced out of the match with a hamstring injury.
Jonathan Spector and Julio Cesar de Leon engage in shirt tugging during the second half (ISI Photos)
The MNT absorbed the pressure from Honduras for the rest of the game and survived one final close call as Chavez broke through in the 83rd minute. Howard charged off his line while Onyewu came through with a desperate tackle, together turning away the danger to give the U.S. the full three points.
“We stuck with it. We were confident. We had a good group of guys who had played together for a while. We had consistency, we complimented each other well and most important we trusted and believed in each other. It unfortunately became our thing to be the comeback kids. We had to do it a lot in the World Cup which is not ideal, but we fought and clawed back to get the win and stay on the right track.”
October 10, 2009 – USA 3, Honduras 2
Following the June 6 win against Honduras, the MNT dropped a narrow 2-1 result at Mexico in August before rebounding with a 2-1 win home to El Salvador and 1-0 victory at Trinidad & Tobago in September. Those late summer results set the side up to clinch qualification with a win when they visited San Pedro Sula on Oct. 10.
Bob Bradley’s starting lineup that night had few surprises, until one read the final name up top: Conor Casey.
Pre-game handshakes at Estadio Olímpico Metropolitano in San Pedro Sula on Oct. 10, 2009 (ISI Photos)
Though a long-time member of the U.S. player pool, Casey never had a consistent run with the Men’s National Team. Somewhat surprised he was called up for the camp, the powerful target forward was caught off guard when he found out he was starting the day before.
“I hadn’t started many games with the team. I was pretty new coming in and I don’t really remember exactly what the reasoning behind it was, but I was definitely surprised and excited to get the nod” Casey said. “I went from just getting called in pretty quickly as a surprise to a surprise that I was starting in a game where we could clinch our berth in the World Cup.”
Honduran fans surround the player tunnel prior to kickoff (ISI Photos)
Playing a Honduras side well in contention for their first World Cup ticket since 1982, the match was played in the backdrop of the ongoing military coup that had overtaken the country.
“That was the first time people had been allowed out of their houses that late at night in weeks, so the atmosphere and whole energy in the stadium was really wild.”
After trading a few first-half chances, the teams went into the locker room tied 0-0 and feeling that a single goal could punch the USA’s ticket to South Africa.
Casey and his teammates received a rude awakening early in the second half when Julio Cesar de Leon – scorer of the lone goal for Honduras in the same qualifying tie eight years earlier – rifled a free kick past Tim Howard in the 47th minute.
Julio Cesar de Leon scored the opening goal in the 47th minute (ISI Photos)
The U.S. had already come back from a deficit to earn points three times during the 2009 Hexagonal and pushed ahead looking for the equalizer. It took only eight minutes, and just like Donovan’s leveler in June, it came as a result of a long ball over the top from Onyewu.
Serving from the right side of defense, the hulking defender found Charlie Davies at the top of the area, who nodded towards the penalty spot, where Casey alertly challenged goalkeeper Noel Valladares.
Conor Casey challenges Noel Valladares to pull the U.S. level in the 55th minute (ISI Photos)
“I think it came off my back. It was a long ball into the box and I went up to challenge, and I think I was just able to get to it before the ‘keeper. I kind of felt it redirect, but didn’t know which direction it was going in. I spun and caught a glimpse of it just as it crossed the line with no flags raised.”
“It was my first goal for the National Team, and luckily I got to see it go in.”
Conor Casey celebrates his first goal of the match in the 55th minute (ISI Photos)
The goal silenced the home crowd, and the U.S. gladly took the momentum. Eleven minutes later he added his second and final international goal to give the U.S. a 2-1 lead.
“We had won the ball in our defensive end. Landon broke and I was able to get between a couple defenders. He played me a nice ball in, I was alone with the ‘keeper and he went down early. I was able to slide it by him, and I just remember running over and jumping into all the guys on the sideline. At that moment we would have been through. It was pure joy for us.”
Conor Casey celebrates with U.S. substitutes following his second goal in the 66th minute (ISI Photos)
Casey’s contributions continued in the 71st minute when he drew a foul just outside the area. Riding the wave of momentum, Donovan caught Valladares wrong-footed as he curled his effort around the Honduras wall and into the top right corner.
Landon Donovan gets airborne to celebrate his 71st minute free kick to give the U.S. a 3-1 lead (ISI Photos)
“At that moment we felt it was sealed -- we were definitely going to the World Cup.”
Honduras had other ideas. With nothing to lose, Los Catrachos poured forward and pulled within a goal after a scramble in the box resulted in de Leon finishing his second of the match in the 78th minute.
That goal made for a frantic finish, and gassed from his work up top Casey was replaced by Benny Feilhaber in the 84th minute.
“Being on the sidelines, I just remember them being really on top of us those last 10 minutes. It was going from the general sense that we’d had it clinched, but they had nothing to lose and they were just throwing everything at us.”
In the 87th minute, that pressure set up Honduras’ equalizing chance when a Ramon Nuñez free kick bounced up in the box and hit the hand of U.S. midfielder Stuart Holden. Stepping up to the penalty spot was Pavon – the leading scorer in the 2009 Hexagonal and the man who tallied a penalty kick in 3-2 away win for Honduras in Washington D.C. eight years earlier.
The country’s all-time leading goal scorer seemed a sure bet to convert, but instead he blasted his penalty over the bar.
Minutes later the final whistle blew and celebrations ensued as the U.S. was on the way to the 2010 FIFA World Cup and Casey was the clear Man of the Match.
“It was an awesome moment for me. I hadn’t been with the team that much when they were going through the qualifying process, so to be able to show up and help in such a big game and get your country to the World Cup was very special for me."
“It was typical Conor Casey, just coming in and bruising people around, what he’d done his whole career,” Bocanegra said. “It was another case of having a good group together, and you could plug people in like Conor. He knew what it was all about, he’d been around the National Team programs for a number of years and getting back to the old ways: fighting, scratching, doing whatever it takes to get the victory.
“It’s not always pretty, but especially when you go away for qualifying in Central America, it doesn’t need to be pretty. It needs to be effective, and that’s exactly what it was.”
WATCH: Conor Casey's Man of the Match Performance Qualifies U.S. for 2010 FIFA World Cup