When Honduras midfielder Rommel Quioto delivered an expert finish in the 27th minute in Tuesday’s World Cup Qualifier in San Pedro Sula, the U.S. Men’s National Team faced a harsh reality.
Just four days after falling 2-0 at home to Costa Rica, the U.S. went into the locker room at halftime trailing once again. This time though things were different -- with a loss to Honduras, the U.S. would lose control of its own destiny to gain one of CONCACAF’s three automatic World Cup Qualifying berths.
“We’re coming out at halftime and we’re like, ‘We’ve got to get a goal if we really want a good shot of going to the World Cup,’” Jordan Morris said post-game. “You put it all on the line for 45 minutes to try and put yourself in a position to qualify for the World Cup.
“That’s all the motivation you really need.”
A tactical shift to a 3-5-2 helped the U.S. push the attack, and sure enough an aggressive foray by Christian Pulisic earned a free kick opportunity in the 85th minute. Kellyn Acosta lined up a 30-yard effort that appeared destined for the upper right corner, but an impressive diving save from Honduras ‘keeper Luis López kept it out of the net. As good as his save was, the deflection off his palm took an uncommon deflection back across the goal mouth towards the opposite post. On the endline, Matt Besler dug the ball out before Jordan Morris flicked it into the path of Bobby Wood, who chested it down before clinically burying his opportunity inside the six-yard-box.
Wood was able to recall his simple thought as the ball found him in the box: “Finish the play. That’s it. Finish the goal,” he said.
The finish culminated a pure team effort that brought a strong sense of relief, something that was evident in the way the players reacted.
“That’s the type of mentality we have as a team,” added the goal scorer. “We’re always fighting to the last minute, and that’s what we did.”
For a Honduran team that seemed to be riding a nice wave of momentum following Friday’s 2-1 win in Trinidad & Tobago, the goal was no doubt deflating.
“Clearly this was an important point for the U.S. team today,” MNT head coach Bruce Arena said following the match. “The conditions were quite challenging for both teams, and I’m really proud of our team, the way we hung in there and battled and walked off the field with a point. I’m sure the Honduran team is disappointed -- welcome to World Cup Qualifying in CONCACAF.”
U.S. captain Michael Bradley echoed Arena’s comments: “Huge point, great point -- this is what qualifying is all about. There’s so many days where it’s not pretty. Honestly, in a lot of moments it has nothing to do with football. It’s about finding a way to survive and dealing with everything that gets thrown at you, having a group that holds up in the toughest moments, taking three points when you can take three, finding a way to get one and keep other teams from getting three on other days. This is what it’s all about.”
Following Tuesday’s other results, the U.S. sits fourth in the six-team Final Round table with nine points, just one back of Panama for the region’s last automatic qualifying spot. Panama are up next for the USA on Oct. 6 in Orlando, a match that will be must-win if either team plans on claiming third place. Should the U.S. defeat Panama, it would set itself up to qualify with another win on the final matchday on Oct. 10 at last-place Trinidad & Tobago.
Asked if the U.S felt like it was in the door to get to Russia next summer, Arena responded, “The door for Russia -- there’s not even a crack open right now. There’s a lot of work to be done to get to Russia.”
“It’s never been easy,” Bradley added. “It’s never going to be easy, and we just have to keep going, but today was big time.”