SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras – The current version of the United States men’s soccer team is not the greatest in the program’s history, is not packed with world-beaters and is not especially confident right now.
But it has one critical and unshakable thing going for it.
It doesn’t give up.
Against Honduras on Tuesday evening, the Americans were outplayed, out-battled and, with five minutes to go, all but beaten. Until they weren’t.
With time running thin and Honduras deserving of its 1-0 lead things suddenly fell into place in such a way that might have saved the team’s World Cup qualifying campaign.
Christian Pulisic, the 18-year-old jewel of the squad, won a free kick after 85 minutes. Kellyn Acosta, another youngster, drilled it on goal and produced a desperate save. Defender Matt Besler hooked the rebound back into the middle, Jordan Morris headed it onward and Bobby Wood flicked it home with the outside of his right foot.
Make no mistake, things are far from ideal, yet for much of this sweltering afternoon they were positioned to get so much worse.
A point took the U.S. to nine points in eight matches, remaining ahead of Honduras on goal differential, and still in third place in the group — though Panama had the chance to leapfrog from fifth with a victory over Trinidad and Tobago later on Tuesday.
The group’s top three finishers qualify automatically for Russia next summer, a fourth goes into a playoff against either Syria or Australia. The U.S. has reached the past seven World Cups but may now have to win both of its final two games — at home to Panama and at Trinidad and Tobago next month — to extend that streak.
“Getting a point was huge for us today," coach Bruce Arena said. "I am proud of how we battled. They were tough conditions. With two games remaining we have everything to play for.”
There is no single culprit that contributes to a troubled campaign. Jurgen Klinsmann, despite overseeing a pair of defeats to begin the final phase before being fired and replaced by Arena, is not entirely responsible. Yet that dismal opening did give the U.S. a sense of vulnerability it is still struggling to shed.
Honduras sensed it here, attacking from the outset and spurning chances for Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto before its opening strike, through Quioto, after 27 minutes. Quioto pounced on a ball forwards from Alex Lopez, Omar Gonzalez was slow to cover and could not flick the ball away with a sliding tackle, and the Honduras forward fired in off Brad Guzan’s post.
The U.S. federation’s clumsy decision to host last Friday’s defeat to Costa Rica in a part of the country — New Jersey — where vocal support for the visiting team was guaranteed, is not the sole reason why the Americans have found things tough, either.
It is a combination of factors, and it has all added up to a situation that could scarcely be more tense. The U.S. is not in the clear, but at least it has kept things in its own hands.