SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras -- The best evidence of just how impressive the U.S. men's performance was in their 3-2 victory against Honduras, which clinched a World Cup berth, could be found in the stands at Estadio Olimpico after the game.
The same Honduran fans who had cheered the home team on for the better part of seven hours still mustered enough energy and showed enough class to applaud the Americans as they walked off the field. It was a deserving tribute to a team that showed great heart and determination to post a comeback victory that won't soon be forgotten.
The U.S. withstood a first-half barrage by an inspired Honduran attack, then overcame an early second-half deficit. Surprise starter Conor Casey scored the first of two goals, and Landon Donovan struck a beautiful free kick to turn a 1-0 deficit into a 3-1 U.S. lead that silenced the once-deafening crowd in San Pedro Sula. Honduras fought back valiantly to try to secure a point late, but Carlos Pavon's potential game-tying penalty kick in the 86th minute went soaring above the crossbar, wasting his team's best chance to equalize and helping send the U.S. to a sixth straight World Cup.
"This was a culmination of a long learning process," Donovan said. "We played mature, experienced and hard-fought 90 minutes that, aside from the Trinidad game, we haven't done in other road qualifiers.
"I think we felt good about how we were in the first half and in the second half, even though they scored twice, I think we played very well."
The U.S. team could have buckled after Honduras opened the scoring just two minutes into the second half on a Julio DeLeon free kick. However, rather than fold, the United States responded by jumping on a Honduran team that appeared to let up just enough to let the visitors back into the match.
"What changed the game was just more of a push that where we got down we knew we had to respond, we had to close down faster, we had to take the play into their end more," U.S. coach Bob Bradley said. "We had talked about that at halftime, but obviously we gave up a goal so quickly in the second half that we had to really respond at that point."
Donovan scored the eventual winning goal on a perfect curling free kick, but the star of the show Saturday night was Casey, who got the nod ahead of Jozy Altidore and Brian Ching and rewarded Bradley's faith with a stellar performance. He helped the Americans erase a 1-0 deficit in the 55th minute when he outjumped Honduran goalkeeper Noel Valladares for a Charlie Davies head to tie the score and silence the once-raucous Honduran crowd.
"It's always strange when you score and it's silent," Casey said. "You're always wondering, 'Did I score, did I not score?'
"After they scored, we just started attacking and were able to get the ball forward," Casey said. "We were a little bit smarter at possessing the ball once we got into their half and were able to create opportunities. It just snowballed from there."
Casey promptly made it 2-1 just 11 minutes later when he ran onto a perfect through-pass from Donovan and deftly faked the keeper before slotting home his second goal.
"Conor was great," Donovan said. "Aside from the goals, he did a lot of things that don't show up on the stat sheet. Holding the ball, drawing fouls, he defended well at times, and the goals obviously speak for themselves.
"The first goal he scored really helped us," Donovan said. "At that time they were confident, the crowd was going, and he made just a good hard play to beat the goalie to the ball and get it in."
"The second goal was fantastic, but the first goal was classic Conor Casey," U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard said. "I think that's why Bob Bradley's brought him back into the mix. He's obviously done well in MLS, but he doesn't make much about the game. He's straightforward, and what you see is what you get, and I think everybody on the team appreciates that."
Casey's impressive performance comes during a year when he has enjoyed a strong season in MLS with the Colorado Rapids. He has fought through injuries that plagued his career and has had ACL surgeries on both knees, but he is hitting his stride and on Saturday staked his claim to be not only a potential member of the U.S. World Cup team, but also a challenger for a starting role.
Casey's second goal came of the night during a dominant stretch in the second half for the Americans, who took advantage of a tiring and stunned Honduran team with some sharp passing and better possession. The result was an eventual third goal on a Donovan free kick after Casey drew a foul 23 yards from goal.
"Sticking to what we thought was going to be successful tonight [was key]," Donovan said. "We stayed disciplined and we defended well, and we knew as time went on they were going to throw numbers forward and we were going to have a chance to catch them the other way.
"We did a good job with our passing; our decision-making; and even in the last five, 10 minutes, just killing the game by keeping the ball," Donovan said. "All of those things were very mature from a lot of guys who hadn't played in a lot of these games."
Young midfielders Michael Bradley and Stuart Holden found their footing in the second half and helped the United States make the most of Honduras' worst spell of the match. The home side kept fighting after falling behind 3-1, even making it 3-2 on Julio DeLeon's second goal of the day in the 78th minute. However, Honduras couldn't find the equalizer as Pavon missed a penalty and a dangerous header late in the match.
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The result helped the United States qualify for the 2010 World Cup with a game to spare, capping a roller-coaster ride through qualifying that saw the U.S. team play its share of difficult matches as well as deliver some memorable performances like the one the Americans delivered on Saturday in San Pedro Sula.
"When you think back to the first [World Cup qualifying] game against Barbados at the Home Depot Center, it's a long grind," Donovan said. "A lot of different players stepped up and made plays when they were called on. Conor was a perfect example tonight. It's just relief, joy and happiness."
Player ratings (scale of 1-10)
GK, Tim Howard, 6 -- Couldn't do much on either Honduras goal, but did make a crucial reaction save on a David Suazo blast. Forced Carlos Costly to pick an angle on a breakaway look that went wide. That was all after having been bedridden with an illness for three days.
D, Jonathan Spector, 5.5 -- Struggled early to deal with Julio DeLeon's speed and skill on the ball but recovered more often than not and eventually settled in and finished out a better second half.
D, Oguchi Onyewu, 5 -- Had some uncharacteristically shaky moments that included the turnover and foul that led to Honduras' first goal (though the foul looked like a dive). Made some key late interventions to help preserve the victory.
D, Carlos Bocanegra, 5.5 -- Was the U.S. team's steadiest defender during Honduras' first-half onslaught. He picked off countless passes and blocked shots and looked more like the Bocanegra of old in central defense.
D, Jonathan Bornstein, 5 -- Beaten early in the match, but eventually settled down, challenged Honduran defenders more, and even got into the attack better than he has in the past for the national team. Had a good shot on goal and made some good heading clearances. Considering the speed on the Honduran right flank with Edgar Alvarez and Mauricio Sabillon, Bornstein held up pretty well.
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M, Landon Donovan, 8 -- Only attacking U.S. player to be able to keep any possession during Honduras' best period, stepped it up to another level in the second half. His pass to create Casey's second goal was sublime, and his free kick wound up sealing the victory.
M, Michael Bradley, 6 -- Struggled early with the combo of Palacios and Thomas in midfield, but began having a bigger impact on the match as it wore on, particularly in the second half, when he ran around tirelessly and made several key interventions. Free kicks left something to be desired, and he probably took one too many long shots, but his effort in the second half was impressive.
M, Ricardo Clark, 5 -- Beaten repeatedly by Palacios in the first half, but got a better foothold as Honduras began to tire. Passing was a bit rushed and not quite sharp, but he stayed busy and did his part to force Honduras to go wide to try to create chances in the second half.
M, Stuart Holden, 5 -- Looked a bit overwhelmed in the early part of the match as De Leon and Emilio Izaguirre got forward. He played better as the game wore on and set up Charlie Davies with a beautiful cross. Worked well with Casey and looked far more comfortable in the second half. Called for the handball that set up Pavon's penalty miss.
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F, Conor Casey, 8 -- Did great to challenge for the ball on his first goal, then made a perfect run and finished off his second goal in style. Goals aside, Casey worked tirelessly to provide a target up top and help relieve pressure when Honduras was pressing. He also drew the foul for Donovan's eventual game-winning free kick.
F, Charlie Davies, 5.5 -- His saved header and subsequent botched rebound shot could have haunted the U.S. team, but he did well to fight to win the header that Casey eventually turned into the U.S. team's first goal.
M, Benny Feilhaber, 4 -- Made a nice move to dribble into the area and have a chance on goal, but missed his chance, sending a shot wide. Remains a nice midfield option off the bench.
F, Jozy Altidore, NR -- Didn't play enough to warrant a grade, but probably should have drawn a free kick in a dangerous spot, if not for the referee's ignoring a foul. However, Altidore had some other shaky moments and never quite settled in.
D, Steve Cherundolo, NR -- Came in as a stoppage-time substitute.
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Ives Galarcep covers the U.S. national team and MLS for ESPN Soccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.