17’ Americans Stunned by Own Goal
The first sign of trouble comes at the same time as a hint of potential salvation. In San Pedro Sula, Oribe Peralta gives Mexico a 1-0 lead over Honduras at about the same moment United States defender Omar Gonzalez swings his leg toward Trinidad forward Shahdon Winchester in Couva. Gonzalez and Winchester both are racing to be first to a routine cross, but Winchester gets there first and the ball ricochets off him, then off Gonzalez’s shin, and then in a spinning loop over Tim Howard.
The Americans are stunned, and suddenly — improbably — trailing by 1-0. “One of the most unlucky goals ever, I think,” Gonzalez says, “and it’s one that will haunt me forever.”
Bradley calls the goal “a killer.” On the sideline, Arena fumes. “We foolishly brought Trinidad into the game,” he says after the match.
United States fans start rooting hard for Mexico and Costa Rica.
34’ Honduras Pulls Even
Bad news. Alberth Elis scores in San Pedro Sula, heading in a free kick at the back post to pull Honduras even.
36’ Costa Rica Helps U.S.
And suddenly, good news. In Panama City, Peter Venegas runs on to a through ball and deftly chips it over the sliding goalkeeper to give Costa Rica a 1-0 lead. A Panama loss guarantees the Americans at least a playoff spot.
37’ U.S. Goes Down, 0-2
The other games keep breaking the United States’ way. Carlos Vela restores Mexico’s lead against Honduras in San Pedro Sula. The goal is especially welcome to the Americans in Couva, where Alvin Jones’s screamer of a shot has just put Trinidad and Tobago ahead by 2-0 over a lethargic, and now extremely nervous, United States.
After Jones nearly fools Howard again from long range, the Americans are rattled, and the break is a welcome respite.
“We talked at halftime about a strong response,” Bradley says later, “and I still feel like everything was there for us. And it was.”
47’ U.S. Comes Out Swinging
The United States roars out of the locker room, with Christian Pulisic freeing himself to score less than 90 seconds into the second half. A few steps away, Jozy Altidore tells himself another goal is coming. “At that point in the game, you thought, maybe we have a chance here,” he says. But things are about to take a dark turn in Central America.
52’ Controversy in Panama City
Panamanian defender Ramon Torres heads a corner kick toward the back post, where it is knocked down amid a scramble. His teammate Blas Perez tries to get to the ball, but a defender hauls him down, and another lying on the goal line blocks its path into the net. The ball never crosses the line, but the referee mistakenly allows the goal.
Instead of another corner kick, Panama has tied the score at 1-1. When an own goal a minute later in San Pedro Sula ties the score between Honduras and Mexico, American fans quickly start studying the qualifying math. If Panama and Honduras can score again, and the Americans can’t, the United States is out.
60’ Honduras Takes Lead Over Mexico
The first shoe drops in San Pedro Sula. Romell Quioto of Honduras slips behind Mexico’s back line and runs down a long pass. Spinning at the top of the penalty area, he turns and fires his team into the lead. The celebrations, given what that lead could mean, are suitably bonkers.
With a half-hour to play, Honduras can almost taste the World Cup, and now it’s Panama that really needs a goal. If Panama scores, the United States is out. If the United States scores, Panama is out.
“It didn’t matter,” Arena says of why he never checks the scores during the game. “It never mattered to us — the score of the other games — at any time today.”
72’ U.S. Makes Changes
Arena has already sent on a forward, Clint Dempsey, for a midfielder, Paul Arriola, at halftime. Now, still needing a second goal, he wants another set of fresh legs, so midfielder Kellyn Acosta comes on for left back Jorge Villafaña.
77’ Oh, So Close for U.S.
Dempsey’s left-footed shot from the top of the area is pushed onto the post by Trinidad goalkeeper Adrian Foncette. The Americans in the crowd groan.
87’ Americans Miss Again
Another chance: Benny Feilhaber, who entered minutes earlier as Arena’s last throw of the dice, wins a header in the goal mouth but drives it downward, where Foncette bats it away.
Just then, in Panama City, Torres, the burly central defender from the Seattle Sounders, is chewing up turf as he runs down the center-forward channel like a striker ….
88’ Goal! Panama!
Torres scores a late winner for Panama. Bedlam in Panama City.
It’s all over but the shouting now, and Americans are doing most of that. In a split second, a difficult feat — qualifying for the World Cup — that has become something of a birthright for a generation of United States fans has vaporized.
90’ The Door Closes for U.S.
Five minutes of extra time for the Americans in Couva, but it produces only three yellow cards. In San Pedro Sula, there are seven minutes added, an agonizing wait for Hondurans eager to celebrate.
In Panama City, the whistle blows. A full stadium still smiling from Torres’s goal turns up the volume even more to celebrate the country’s first World Cup berth.
“We did it!” said Perez, Panama’s 36-year-old striker. “As our national anthem says, ‘We have finally won.’” Torres, the newly shirtless national hero, poses for selfies with fans. The country’s president gives everyone Wednesday off, declaring it a national holiday.
They are roaring in San Pedro Sula, too. Mexico has been beaten, 3-2, but Honduras Coach Jorge Luis Pinto, the well-traveled Colombian manager who led Costa Rica to quarterfinals in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, is pulling the handbrake. Honduras will face a home-and-home playoff against Australia in November. “We have won something, but let’s not go crazy,” Pinto said. “You have to go play the playoff.”
Meanwhile, in a tiny conference room at the Ato Boldon Stadium in Trinidad, and then along the edge of a single-lane delivery tunnel just outside the room’s glass door, the mood is much more grim. Arena, U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati and four senior players take turns choosing words to place in front of the term of the day: disappointment. Arena goes with “highly.” Gulati uses “extraordinarily.” Bradley, finally emerging from doping control nearly two hours after the final whistle, declares himself “incredibly” disappointed.
Arena gives a 10-minute news conference in which he says he accepts responsibility for the defeat, and the failure to qualify. Several United States players, including Clint Dempsey and Christian Pulisic, use the focus on Arena as cover to slip through the tunnel and onto the team bus — thereby avoiding reporters.
Gonzalez, stung with guilt, steps into a huddle of reporters.
“I just want to say sorry to the fans,” he says. “All the U.S. fans that were pulling for us, that wanted to go to Russia, that believed in us. We let down an entire nation today.”
No one seems to know how to follow up a statement like that, so Gonzalez drops his eyes, steps aside and walks the lonely road to the team bus. It waits to collect Altidore, and then Howard, before lurching away into the night.