COLUMBUS, Ohio – The United States punched its ticket to next summer’s World Cup on Tuesday night, with 90 minutes of effort and around an hour of nervous waiting
A 2-0 victory over fierce rival Mexico took the side to the brink of reaching soccer’s biggest competition for the seventh straight time and back to the top of the CONCACAF qualifying group with two games left. However, a spot in Brazil was only formalized later, when Panama failed to win in Honduras, the only outcome that could have delayed the U.S.’ qualification status.
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The American players, still bathed in sweat from their own triumph sealed by goals from Eddie Johnson and Landon Donovan, congregated around a locker room television screen to take in the second half of Honduras’ 2-2 draw before they could officially start looking ahead to next June.
Yet whatever the permutations said, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, his players and the passionate support at Crew Stadium knew the job had effectively been completed by their own efforts in a venue this team loves more than any other.
Even without star midfielder Michael Bradley and a trio of suspended regulars, even though Clint Dempsey couldn't convert a late penalty kick and even though Mexico was inspired by its own desperate plight, the U.S. showed it has the kind of steel and resolve that was doubted not so long ago.
Klinsmann has the look of a man with the Midas touch right now. Less than a year after suggestions that the team was in crisis and that senior players had little faith in his methods, he masterminded a revival so strong it qualifies as a revolution.
His ability to make the right call at the right time was summed up by the U.S.' second goal, the strike that effectively finished Mexico off. Substitute Mix Diskerud had been on for just one minute to replace goal-scorer Johnson when he found space and slid a low pass across goal. Donovan gleefully accepted the chance at the far post, stabbing the ball home with a flick of his right cleat.
Cue bedlam at Crew Stadium, with smoke bombs, streamers and collective dances of celebration that seemed to rock the venue to its very foundations. There is a reason why the U.S. brings its most important qualifying games here, and it is not for the weather or the proliferation of local Waffle Houses.
The atmosphere on the night was the kind that proves the folly of those who still question the rise of soccer in America and how dedicated a fan base it has attracted and nurtured over the past decade.
In Klinsmann, those fans have a coach they believe can take them to the promised land – not of World Cup glory – but at least to be in contention for the quarterfinals in Brazil.
Klinsmann's first substitution was forced upon him, but it too did the trick. The introduction of Michael Parkhurst at the break was due to Fabian Johnson's injury, which turned out to be a blessing. Parkhurst was able to overlap down the right flank and immediately caused difficulty for the Mexican defense.
It was a move from Parkhurst that led to the corner from which the U.S. grabbed the opening goal. Donovan floated over a perfect corner from the right, while players from both sides wrestled in the box. Eddie Johnson may no longer possess the speed of his youth, but he was powerful enough to shrug clear of his defender and rise highest to power a header into the net.
Mexico is now looking down the barrel and in real danger of missing out on the World Cup, an unthinkable situation for a team that likes to regard itself as the dominant power of the CONCACAF region.
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While new coach Luis Fernando Tena seemed to instill some extra cohesion, especially in midfield, the visitors were unable to get the ball into the net in the early stages. Much of that had to do with evergreen American goalkeeper Tim Howard, who produced a trio of fine saves in the first half to keep the score level at 0-0.
Howard has been coming to Columbus for national team duty since his days as a fresh-faced youngster a decade ago and his evolution into a truly world-class keeper mirrors that of the national team. The Americans are far from perfect and still occasionally prone to the kind of mistakes that would be punished by better opposition. But there is no shortage of belief with this team, no fear factor, even when several key players are missing.
The U.S. would have loved to have injured midfielder Bradley fit and ready, plus defensive duo Geoff Cameron and Matt Besler and forward Jozy Altidore. Yet, even though Bradley in particular was certainly missed, the U.S. was able to weather the storm.
Whatever the scoreline said, this team’s newfound mettle was tested strongly here. Mexico was desperate, understandably so given its plight, and threw men forward with abandon. Instead of panicking, the Americans soaked up the pressure, growing steadily in confidence, then enjoyed the extra space in the center of the field.
Just as they enjoyed the celebrations afterward.