For 80 minutes in Honduras on Tuesday afternoon, the United States men’s national team’s World Cup hopes were descending into free fall. Everybody and everything riding on them was following in line. The U.S. looked shellshocked, and was 10 minutes from its second-straight loss and fourth of the Hex.
But then Kellyn Acosta stepped up to an 85th-minute free kick. Several American players scrambled desperately for a rebounding loose ball in the box. And Bobby Wood – perhaps now properly known as American Savior Bobby Wood – poked home a goal that might just quell the fears of millions back in the States.
The U.S. snuck out of Honduras with a 1-1 draw thanks to Wood’s equalizer. And needless to say, it is feeling a lot better about its World Cup chances than it had been before that equalizer arrived.
A 1-0 loss would not have been disastrous. But it would have been damaging, and would have likely sunk the U.S. into fifth place in the six-team Hex. Instead, the Americans hold onto third place, at least for a few hours.
Panama can leap them with a victory over Trinidad and Tobago later tonight, and the Yanks are by no means secure due to the point in San Pedro Sula. They will probably still need four points from their final two games, the first at home against Panama, the second in Trinidad. But four points will be the minimum expectation. The US. is in good shape.
For 80 minutes, though, it appeared to be crumbling.
The first 25 minutes were evenly contested, with both sides occasionally finding space in their attacking thirds. But in the 27th minute, the American defense was undone by a straight through-ball. Omar Gonzalez went to ground and came up empty. Romell Quioto made him pay:
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Gonzalez seemed to misread the pass, perhaps expecting it to hold up more on the spongy grass. He seemed to chase back in slow-mo, and his sliding tackle was weak. Quioto’s finish, however, was tucked perfectly inside the far post.
Graham Zusi can also be questioned. Quioto’s and Alberth Elis’ pace were Honduras’ most dangerous attacking threats. Zusi failed to acknowledge that threat by positioning himself deeper, and was burned.
The fullback position was a problem for the U.S. all afternoon. Zusi and DaMarcus Beasley were overmatched. Neither lasted 90 minutes. DeAndre Yedlin’s injury-induced absence proved costly.
But Arena’s lineup decisions would have been second-guessed too had the Honduras goal been decisive. He elected to replace three of the four defenders that started in the 2-0 loss to Costa Rica, including, rather surprisingly, both Geoff Cameron and Jorge Villafaña.
With the U.S. stagnant and the score still 1-0 in the 63rd minute, Arena introduced Cameron and Paul Arriola and the U.S. switched to a 3-4-3. Arriola played wide right, and Acosta went wide left, with Jordan Morris, Clint Dempsey and Christian Pulisic still in attack. The new alignment was certainly different. But it was similarly ineffective.
Arena’s third roll of the dice, though, was Wood. He replaced Darlington Nagbe with 17 minutes remaining.
Ten minutes later, Christian Pulisic was fouled in the center of the field. Acosta hit the free kick with pace and precision, and forced Luis Lopez into a diving save to his left.
His palm, however, parried the ball back across goal, and a few redirections later, Wood pounced. The U.S. escaped with a point.
It also stole two from Honduras, a reward that might be just as crucial. The Yanks stay level with the Catrachos on nine points, but ahead on goal differential. They could slip into fourth place tonight. But even fourth is enough for a spot in an intercontinental playoff, which would be against either Syria or Australia.
The scenarios are still complex, and the month-long wait for the Panama match will allow for their dissection. But they are far less worrying before than they were before Pulisic went down; before Acosta claimed the dead ball; before Wood scored the goal that was and could be the difference between massive disappointment and relief.
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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.