While Europe slept, lulled to bed by a French vanilla day of World Cup qualifiers, the nations of CONCACAF provided a late-night, channel-switching, allegiance-questioning, heart-pounding finish to the hexagonal. UEFA could have only dreamed of such last-day drama.
Bottom line: Honduras will join the United States and Costa Rica in Brazil next summer and Mexico might tag along, too.
How we reached this point, though, will not soon be forgotten.
Honduras took the uncomplicated route, earning a 2-2 draw at last-place Jamaica to ward off any possible Mexican threats and clinch the third automatic berth.
Mexico, meantime, was in an early jam in its bid to secure fourth place and a date with New Zealand in a special playoff next month. The Mexicans required a draw, or a Panama loss or tie. But El Tri fell behind Costa Rica while Panama, chasing Mexico, had gone ahead of the United States. But then Mexico drew even, and midway through the second half of both matches, Mexico was safe.
Well, then all Hades broke loose. Moments apart, Alvaro Saborio scored for Costa Rica and the Americans equalized in Panama City. With Mexico trailing, the Panamanians needed to reclaim the lead to gain the advantage in the standings. And in the 83rd minute, they did. El Tri was seven-plus minutes from elimination.
The Americans had nothing to play for, safely qualified last month and on the road with a secondary lineup against a driven foe seeking to keep alive hope for its first World Cup berth.
Mexico was desperate for the United States, its arch nemesis, to score. Let that sink in for a moment: Mexico was pulling for the gringos.
Four years ago, Honduras prayed for a late American goal against Costa Rica in Washington to secure passage to South Africa. Jonathan Bornstein answered in stoppage time. The Americans were happy to oblige.
This was different, though, because a U.S. loss without consequence would oust Mexico. Imagine: Mexico finishing fifth — fifth! What was a U.S. supporter to do? Root for their team to lose in order to enjoy a heaping serving of schadenfreude?
The Americans, though, were not going to roll over, regardless of the tempting circumstances. It’s just not in their DNA. So they attacked.
And 1 minute 25 seconds into added time, Graham Zusi gained honorary Mexican citizenship by scoring on a header: USA 2, Panama 2.
For good measure, Aron Johannsson struck 75 seconds later for his first U.S. goal to sink Panama and cap the Americans’ final round in fine fashion: USA 3, Panama 2.
De nada, Mexico. You owe us. Big. To start, we’ll take Tijuana for MLS expansion. In exchange, you agree to accept Chivas USA.
Final CONCACAF Standings
United States 7-2-1, 22 points, +7
Costa Rica 5-2-3, 18 points, +6
Honduras 4-3-3, 15 points, +1
Mexico 2-3-5, 11 points, -2
Panama 1-4-5, 8 points, -4
Jamaica 0-5-5, 5 points, -8
*Mexico will play New Zealand on Nov. 13 or 14 at Azteca Stadium, then visit Wellington on Nov. 20. The winner will advance to Brazil.
In a 10-game schedule, the Americans won five more matches than Mexico and recorded 11 more points. The last time El Tri finished with more points than the USA in CONCACAF qualifying? Way back in 1997. (They were even on points in 2001 and ’05.)
PAN: Gabriel Torres (Marcos Sanchez), 18th minute.
USA: Michael Orozco (Brad Davis), 64th.
PAN: Luis Tejada 83rd.
USA: Graham Zusi (Brad Davis), 90+2.
USA: Aron Johannsson (Terrence Boyd), 90+3.
Guzan; Evans (Davis 56th), Goodson, Orozco, Castillo; Bedoya, Beckerman, Kljestan, Diskerud (Johannsson 62nd), Zusi; Altidore (Boyd 76th).
NEXT FOR USA …
Nov. 15: friendly at Scotland in Glasgow, 3 p.m. ET (ESPN2, UniMas, WatchESPN)
Nov. 19: friendly at Austria in Vienna, 2:45 p.m. (NBC Sports Network)
Dec. 6: World Cup draw in Bahia state, Brazil.