SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras (AP) -- One by one, U.S. soccer players exited their celebration and came into the dark, narrow hallway outside the locker room of Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano.
They had qualified the United States for its sixth straight World Cup, rallying to beat Honduras 3-2 Saturday night in as thrilling a match as the U.S. has played in years. So they were filled with joy. They also were consumed with relief.
And immediately thoughts turned to an even tougher task -- getting out of the first round in South Africa next summer and wiping out the sting of 2006's disappointment.
"Hopefully the sky's the limit for us," goalkeeper Tim Howard said. "We've played some big games in the last few years, and I'm hoping that we go down there and we're not afraid of, you know, what they throw at us."
Of the 19 teams that have qualified for next year's 32-nation field, the United States is among only six nations to have reached six straight World Cups, joined by Brazil, Germany, Italy, South Korea and Spain.
After the United States made an unexpected run to the quarterfinals in 2002, its best showing since the original World Cup in 1930, there were thoughts among some American soccer fans that the national team was ready to take its place among the powers. The first-round exit in Germany, with dismal losses to the Czech Republic and Ghana bookending a bloody tie against eventual champion Italy, led to a shake-up -- with Bob Bradley replacing Bruce Arena as coach after Juergen Klinsmann didn't take the job.
"Progress isn't linear," U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati said Sunday. "Brazil goes to the World Cup expecting to win. Everyone else goes to get through the first round. It's an impossible situation to say we're going to get better at every World Cup. It's not a time trial. Others teams are getting better."
That said, expectations are growing in the United States -- especially after an exciting performance at June's Confederations Cup, where the United States ended the 35-game unbeaten streak of European champion Spain and took a two-goal lead against Brazil in the final before losing 3-2.
Supporters were uneasy when the United States went 0-2-1 in its first three road qualifiers of the regional finals. Even American players were impressed by Honduras' 8-0 home record in qualifying. When the Catrachos had a chance to tie the score on Carlos Pavon's 87th-minute penalty kick, they wondered whether qualification would come down to the final match -- against Costa Rica on Wednesday night at Washington's RFK Stadium.
"You just think, 'Why is this happening to us?" Landon Donovan said.
But then Pavon put his shot over the crossbar.
"You need a break now and then, and we got it," said Gulati.
U.S. players demand more of themselves these days. The three-and-out experience of Germany in 2006 still weighs on them.
"For those of us who were there, we don't want to go through that again," said Donovan, who scored the decisive third goal against Honduras. "I'm a person who likes to live in the moment, but if you don't learn from what happened then, then you get nothing out of it. I've learned a lot and I hope we have, too."
While Donovan and some of his teammates are preparing for their third World Cup, it will be a new experience for Bradley. He used 85 players since replacing Arena, compiling a 34-14-5 record.
"We have a group that has come together, that has worked hard, that has grown," Bradley said. "And they've accomplished something that's a special feeling."
Bradley made some tough decisions, dropping players who failed to get playing time with their clubs, such as DaMarcus Beasley. Some didn't expect his decision Saturday to start Conor Casey at forward over Jozy Altidore. While Casey has been playing well for Major League Soccer's Colorado Rapids, Altidore has started just two of nine matches since joining England's Hull.
Casey responded with the first two U.S. goals against Honduras -- his first in 15 games for the national team. Even Casey said he was "a little surprised -- but definitely excited."
"We just felt that the fact that he's been playing regularly, and the qualities that he has would be important at the start of the game," Bradley said.
For U.S. soccer fans, a group more and more willing criticize each year, that reasoning might not suffice.
"I'm sure somebody out there is going to criticize him because Conor didn't get a hat trick and Jozy might have or something," Gulati said. "Who knows? He's got the winningest percentage of any coach we've ever had. We've gotten to the final of a major FIFA competition. We've qualified and are top of the group. We've won the Gold Cup that was critical to us and gotten to the final of the other one with a relatively young team. You know, I'm not sure how much more we can ask."
Next up, even before thoughts of how to construct the 23-man U.S. roster, is December's draw to determine the three first-round opponents for each team.
"We hope we get a really good draw," Howard said. "I think every draw is tough, but certain draws are better than others to try and navigate our way through the first round."
That might be the most decisive day for the United States in determining its 2010 World Cup fate.