By Sean Hartnett
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The message was clear long before the United States landed on Honduran soil: losing Tuesday’s World Cup qualifier would not be acceptable with three matches left to play.
Yet it was all going wrong for the Americans for 84 minutes. They were down a goal and often looked flatfooted.
But then second-half substitute Bobby Wood scored and changed everything.
What a difference a point makes both in the standings and in the psyche of a soccer nation. American fans were fearing the worst in the final minutes, imagining all the permutations that would have been brought on by the severe blow consecutive qualifying losses. Had the Americans lost, their final two games would have been absolute must-win scenarios. Fans across 50 states exhaled when the final whistle was blown, with the match ending in a draw.
The United States now stands in fourth place with nine points, even on points with Honduras. The Americans hold the tiebreaker due to a superior goal difference. Panama moved ahead of both with its 3-0 win over Trinidad and Tobago later Tuesday night.
The U.S. hosts Panama on Oct. 6 in Orlando, Florida.
If qualifying ended right now, the U.S. would find itself forced to play a playoff against the winner of Australia and Syria for a spot in Russia next summer.
Following last Friday’s disjointed 2-0 qualifying defeat to Costa Rica, U.S. manager Bruce Arena made sweeping changes to his starting XI. Captain Michael Bradley, Christian Pulisic, Graham Zusi and Darlington Nagbe were the only holdovers for Tuesday’s showdown in San Pedro Sula. Forward Jozy Altidore was suspended due to card accumulation.
Arena’s rotation had more to do with the sweltering conditions than a reaction to his team’s poor performance against Costa Rica. He needed to insert fresh legs into his lineup to contend with the 92-degree heat at the Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano
The changes didn’t have the effect Arena desired. Honduras ran the Americans ragged and continually exposed their defensive frailties. The hosts spent the opening 45 minutes playing on the front foot, dominating possession and easily getting behind the American fullbacks.
A one-goal halftime deficit was fortunate for the Americans. The score could have been a lot more one-sided given the gulf in possession and the number of goal-scoring chances gifted to the Hondurans. It became abundantly clear that Zusi, a 31-year-old, makeshift right back could not handle the pacey runs of Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto. The absence of first-choice right back DeAndre Yedlin loomed large throughout the match.
On the other side of the pitch, 35-year-old left back DaMarcus Beasley looked equally out of place. He was eventually replaced by winger Paul Arriola in the 61st minute, as the Americans switched to a three-defender formation. Versatile Geoff Cameron replaced Zusi a minute later.
Wood came on in the 74th minute for Nagbe and played the role of savior 11 minutes later. A goalmouth scramble ensued following a powerful Kellyn Acosta free kick that dinged off the crossbar. Fortunately, it fell to Wood, who controlled the ball with his chest and toe-poked it into the net.
It was the result the Americans needed, but several weaknesses were exposed. Central defender Omar Gonzalez was the player most at fault for the Hondurans first-half goal. Unable to win the initial tackle and stumbling like a newborn deer on ice, Gonzalez allowed Quioto the space to tuck away an easy finish. As mentioned earlier, Zusi and Beasley could not keep pace on the wings.
Oddly, Cameron was not among the starting XI and only entered the match in the 62nd minute. The Stoke City defender is capable of playing anywhere across the back and is a more calming influence when preferred centrally over Gonzalez or Matt Besler, who put in a far more competent shift than Gonzalez.
Arena will have to go back to the drawing board and come up with a starting XI that isn’t as vulnerable to opposing counter attacks for the final two matches. After the United States hosts Panama it will finish the hexagonal at Trinidad and Tobago on Oct. 10.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey