Character. It's a trademark virtue of the U.S. Men's National Team, and it was on full display last month in Honduras. With less than five minutes to go on a steamy afternoon in San Pedro Sula and the home side ahead a goal, a well struck free kick by Kellyn Acosta led to Bobby Wood’s scrappy, 85th minute equalizer to earn a massive 1-1 draw.
The point earned that day was just as important as the two it denied Honduras, and the result positioned the U.S. to have the power that any team would ask for: the ability to dictate its own World Cup fate coming into this month’s last two Final Round matches against Panama and Trinidad & Tobago.
“The point in Honduras obviously made all the difference in terms of us now controlling our own destiny going into these last two games,” veteran goalkeeper Tim Howard told ussoccer.com. “When you start this Hex campaign, that’s what you’re hoping for. You’re hoping to get into October in a position to qualify and only worry about yourself.
“Here we are,” he added.
While sitting in fourth place in the group, the USA still holds all the cards in determining its destiny for Russia. And in that, Wood’s goal did more than just earn the team a valuable point according to U.S. captain Michael Bradley.
“It sets us up for these last two games in terms of everything being there for us,” the midfielder said, “controlling our own destiny and knowing that whatever else happens, we have 180 minutes to make sure we’re going to Russia.”
And while fate is in their own hands, the U.S. team approaches Friday’s clash with Panama knowing there’s no more margin for error. It’s a place the MNT has been twice before during this cycle. Both times, they responded in the best way.
After falling 2-0 to Guatemala during Semifinal Round play last March, the U.S. faced a quick turnaround and prospect of early elimination if it fell to Los Chapines four days later in Columbus. Instead, an inspired U.S. side rattled off a 4-0 victory, the first of three consecutive to finish on top of the group.
Following two successive defeats to open the Hex last November, the U.S. began turning this around with a 6-0 statement victory against Honduras. Four days later, it battled to a 1-1 road draw with the same Panama team it will face Friday.
“Since I’ve been part of the National Team - even before that - whenever our backs are against the wall, the team has always been resilient and able to answer that call,” defender Graham Zusi said. “I don’t expect anything different from this game on Friday night.”
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But what is it about those situations seems to elevate the MNT response?
“The mentality,” said Bradley. "It’s the understanding from every guy that qualifying is never easy. There’s never been an exact blueprint in terms of how it’s going to go in terms of how things play out, and you just have to roll with it. You have to be ready to step on the field every single game ready to deal with whatever gets thrown at you.”
“Our team togetherness is always talked about and the camaraderie we have in camp,” added Howard. “This is my fourth cycle,and there’s always backs against the wall games. That’s the Hex in a nutshell. Every game is tough, winning on the road is incredibly difficult and we have the team and the resilience to fight back when needed.”
And while the U.S. is used to wrapping up qualification before Matchday 10, this time the MNT can’t book its ticket any sooner. The reality is that the Hex is a year-long marathon, and as Zusi points out, some of the race still has to be run.
“At the end of the day, getting three points in the ninth and 10th game counts the same as getting them in the first or second game. Our mission and goal is to be qualified and be on a plane to Russia, and we’re going to do everything we can to make that happen.”