COLUMBUS, Ohio — In gratifying segments, spaced over the course of a compelling evening, everything fell into place for the U.S. national soccer team to clinch a World Cup berth Tuesday.
A lead early in the second half. Security late in the match. The final whistle, confirming yet another 2-0 victory over Mexico at delirious Columbus Crew Stadium.
Then the wait.
All eyes turned to a lone TV set in the locker room, players bunched on chairs and on the floor, to watch Honduras tie Panama in a late-starting game — the last piece to the Americans clinching a seventh consecutive spot in soccer’s quadrennial extravaganza.
Columbus today, Brazil next summer.
“This is a huge, huge evening for all of us,” Coach Juergen Klinsmann said, wearing a “Qualified” T-shirt. “They really deserve it.”
On a night that did not start well, the United States (5-2-1) recovered from Friday’s loss at Costa Rica and claimed one of three automatic berths in the regional qualifying competition with two games to spare.
Eddie Johnson scored in the 49th minute and Landon Donovan added another in the 78th as the Americans defeated Mexico in Columbus by a 2-0 outcome for the fourth consecutive time.
They should have won 3-0, but Clint Dempsey missed a penalty kick in stoppage time.
“It’s a long journey, it’s stressful, but we’re going to the World Cup,” Dempsey said of the 16-month qualifying cycle. “The goal is to do well in Brazil. You want to qualify for a World Cup, but you want to do well.”
Meantime, Mexico (1-2-5) is in danger of missing the World Cup for the first time since 1990. Costa Rica (4-1-3) also clinched, while Honduras (3-3-2) is in prime position to claim the third spot next month.
The Mexicans were superior in the first half, but after failing to score and then conceding Johnson’s goal, they were deflated.
“They looked relatively timid and shy throughout,” Donovan said. “I’ve never seen a Mexico team look that way. When we scored the goal, it was pretty clear we were going to get a second or third or it was going to end 1-0.”
Sputtering in the run of play, the Americans used a set piece to seize the lead. Donovan served the corner kick. Jose de Jesus Corona was badly off course. Johnson shed his marker and elevated in front of the advancing goalkeeper, squarely heading the ball into the heart of the net.
In the late stages, Donovan latched on to substitute Mikkel Diskerud’s cross on the back side.
The Americans, unbeaten in 10 visits to Columbus since 2000, have not lost a home qualifier since 2001 against Honduras in Washington.
Europeans will continue to look down on CONCACAF, the region encompassing North and Central America and the Caribbean. And while no team has advanced beyond the World Cup quarterfinals in the modern era, the U.S.-Mexico rivalry has become one of the fiercest in the world.
While it cannot match the history of Argentina-Brazil or England-Germany, the U.S. and Mexico have collided more often than traditional rivals — and the impact is typically seismic. Especially in Columbus.
The Mexicans “start to doubt themselves,” Klinsmann said. “There is absolutely a psychological element in place in Columbus, and it’s definitely on our side.”
Fans began gathering outside the stadium before noon, creating a day-long, patriotic-themed festival of sight and sound. Mexican supporters were able to secure tickets, but for the most part this was a U.S. jamboree.
Fans affiliated with supporters’ groups, primarily the American Outlaws, totaled more than 9,000 filling 27 sections — a national team record. Before the game, chants of “Dos a cero!” (Two to nothing) echoed through the parking lots.
Without injured midfielder Michael Bradley, the Americans labored. Mexico’s quick, slick play unlocked the U.S. resistance, and Tim Howard had to make three quality saves.
The match turned — emphatically — after the break.
“I told [Johnson] at halftime, ‘You just have to stay hungry for it. You are going to get the opportunity,’” Klinsmann said. Mexico barely threatened again.
The Americans will play out the last two qualifiers next month and then await the World Cup draw Dec. 6 in Brazil.
“Now it’s expected of us [to qualify], but it’s never a guarantee,” Howard said. “It’s tense. We said [when play began] it’s going to come down to match-day eight or nine, which is always does. You can never breathe a sigh of relief, but tonight we were able to do that.”