SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras — Bruce Arena paced the sideline, his U.S. national soccer team trailing by a goal while time melted away on both Tuesday’s World Cup qualifier against Honduras and the hopes of staying in prime position for a ticket to Russia next summer.
“I was thinking,” he said later, “we might have an early vacation at the end of this year.”
Substitute Bobby Wood then turned the American fortunes in the 85th minute, scoring on a chaotic and desperate sequence inside the penalty area to forge a 1-1 draw at a sweltering madhouse known as Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano.
If the United States ends up advancing to next year’s spectacle, Wood’s goal will find its way into the program’s history lessons.
The Americans wouldn’t have been eliminated with a loss. But they would have lost the power to control their future, needing to not only win their last two matches next month, but also hope and pray for help in the other CONCACAF group matches.
“We knew what type of spot we were in,” said Wood, a Hawaiian-born, California-trained, German-employed forward. “We knew we needed at least one point.”
When the final whistle sounded a few minutes later, that one point felt like three. The Americans (2-3-3, nine points) stayed even with Honduras (2-3-3, nine) in a six-nation pod that offers three automatic berths in Russia. But they hold the first tiebreaker (goal differential) by a wide margin.
Late Tuesday, Panama (2-2-4, 10 points) overtook the United States with a 3-0 home victory over last-place Trinidad and Tobago (1-7-0, three). But the Americans could retake third place Oct. 6 by defeating Panama in Orlando. They’ll close the schedule Oct. 10 at Trinidad and Tobago.
“The door to Russia, there’s not even a crack open right now,” Arena warned. “There’s a lot of work to be done to get to Russia.”
Mexico (18 points) qualified last week, and Costa Rica (15) is on the verge of securing passage. (They played to a 1-1 draw late Tuesday.)
With Trinidad and Tobago all but eliminated, the United States, Honduras and Panama are in the hunt for the third slot. The fourth-place finisher will advance to a two-leg playoff against Australia or Syria in November.
To remain in good, if not great, position to claim third place, the Americans needed to overcome extreme heat — between air temperature and humidity, it felt like 107 degrees at kickoff — and a Honduran side that went ahead in the 27th minute on Romell Quioto’s goal.
The Houston Dynamo attacker collected a through ball from unpressured playmaker Alexander Lopez in a narrow channel between defenders Omar Gonzalez and Graham Zusi.
Gonzalez’s slide briefly disrupted the run, but Quioto gathered the ball before Matt Besler could cover the exposed ground and fired a 10-yard shot that kissed the far post and caromed into the net.
The eruption of sound and celebration might have been heard on the Caribbean coast an hour away.
With a wave of energy sweeping through the raucous arena, Honduras rode the momentum to three additional quality opportunities. The Americans labored, their energy sapped by the overheated conditions.
“The players were dead on their feet,” Arena said. “We just had to battle and create chances.”
With the Americans committing additional players forward, Honduras squandered several opportunities to put the result out of reach with a second goal.
“The mentality of this team, no one was nervous,” forward Jordan Morris said, “we really felt we were going to score a goal.”
It came just in time. Honduran goalkeeper Luis Lopez made an extraordinary save on Kellyn Acosta’s 25-yard free kick labeled for the top right corner.
The ball floated to the other side, where Besler’s flying kick kept the sequence alive. Morris nodded it to the six-yard box, where Wood, 24, settled the ball with his chest and stabbed it into the net for his ninth international goal.
“That’s my job,” said Wood, who started in the 2-0 defeat to Costa Rica on Friday and entered this match in the 73rd minute. “Coming in as a sub, you always want to change the game in some way.”
He did. And in doing so, the Americans are feeling a lot better about their World Cup chances than they did earlier in the brutally hot day.
“This is what qualifying is all about,” captain Michael Bradley said. “There are so many days when it’s not pretty. Honestly, in a lot of moments it has nothing to do with football. It’s about finding a way to survive and having a group that can hold up in the toughest moments.”
— Planet Fútbol (@si_soccer) September 5, 2017
— Yahoo Sports (@YahooSports) September 5, 2017