SAN PEDRO SULA -- An early afternoon downpour gave way to a beautiful and temperate, if humid, night in Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano. The USA team marched into the hostile environment at San Pedro Sula and came away with a hard-earned victory to clinch a World Cup berth.
Pre-match fireworks -- blue, of course -- sent the fans into a frenzy after the Honduran Starting XI was announced. The stadium was over capacity, with the steps between sections literally obscured by blue-and-white clad fans who were sitting there.
With World Cup qualification up for grabs, both teams burst out of the gates with purpose. Chips over the defense nearly panned out for each side early on.
Firstly, Carlo Costly latched onto a ball and looked to be through on goal, but United States captain Carlos Bocanegra recovered to tackle the ball out.
Soon after, Stuart Holden found space around the edge of the Honduras defense, but when the cross came, he was unprepared and hashed his trap, giving up the opportunity.
The U.S. players had trouble keeping their footing on the pitch in San Pedro Sula.
Nearly 20 minutes into the game, the U.S. wasted an even better chance. Landon Donovan curled in a corner which bounced in the middle of a crowd of players and continued through to find Bocanegra unmarked at the back post. The U.S. captain wasn't prepared for the ball and had to lean back to connect, sending his header sailing high.
On the stroke of half an hour, Honduras went one better by missing a one-on-one chance. The ball pinged out of defense and across the field. Costly latched onto it and eluded his markers. Alone on goal, the burly striker scuffed his shot inches wide of the post.
Minutes later, Charlie Davies spurned the best chance of the half. A good interchange with Conor Casey set Holden free down the right. The Houston Dynamo arced his shot over the head of Maynor Figueroa to Davies, who headed on frame. Honduras goalkeeper Noel Valladares pulled off a reaction save to keep out the point-blank header. Davies hit a half-volley on the rebound, but hit it embarrassingly high.
As the hosts, Honduras kept the pressure up with the Americans content to light out on swift counterattacks. As the half wound to a close, Honduras had the better chances. First, Pavon directed his header wide from a promising position.
Then, the U.S. defense repelled a double-chance. Some brilliant quick passing through the middle involving Costly set Pavon up nicely for a shot in the box. Bocanegra dove to deflect the shot back out. When the rebound was powered towards net, Tim Howard was in position to gather.
The crowd was noticeably quite during the half. Perhaps they were feeling the pain of past times when their team has gotten so close to qualifying, but slipped up at the last moment.
The second half started more explosively than the first. Within 30 seconds, Oguchi Onyewu brought down Pavon on the very edge of the box. Julio Cesar de Leon stood over the ball and eyed up the goal. He stepped forward and curled a picturesque ball over the wall and into the top corner of the net for the game's opener.
Ten minutes later, the U.S. hit back. Onyewu smashed a long ball out of the back, which Davies headed on in the box. Valladares looked set to gather the ball easily until Casey came crashing into him, looping a header over the 'keeper's outstreched hands and into the unguarded net.
The Honduras defenders appealed for the foul, but the goal stood.
Substitute David Suazo should have put Honduras back in the lead ten minutes later. A gorgeous through-ball set him free in the box and he struck a sizzling shot, but Howard reacted quickly to push it wide.
Casey made them pay. Landon Donovan carved out some space in the middle of the park and slotted a ball through into the path of Casey. The Colorado Rapid forward took the ball in stride, setting him free on goal, and coolly sidefooted into the corner of the net.
With 20 minutes to go, it looked like the U.S. had sealed it. Casey won a free kick by tripping over his own feet. Landon Donovan stepped up and absolutely hammered a shot into the top corner that looked like it might take the net off. Valladares had no chance.
The Honduras crowd was silent after the third goal. Some started leaving the stadium, but not many.
Going two down sparked Honduras back to life. Four minutes after Donovan's goal, Pavon had the ball in the back of the net. Suazo was in an offsides position before centering for the former LA Galaxy striker to put the ball past Howard, but the goal was called back.
It only took another three minutes before Honduras scored one that counted. Substitute Ramon Nunez chased down a ball after the USA defenders stopped playing because they thought he was offside. Honduras played the whistle, though. Nunez pulled the ball back to Suazo, who remained calm in the box. He coolly slipped the ball to his left for de Leon, who smashed it through a mess of defenders and into the net to halve the deficit.
The crowd erupted, chanting "si se puede" after de Leon's goal.
With only one goal between them, the last ten minutes were frantic. Substitute Walter Martinez tried an overhead kick after a fluffed header by Bocanegra that nearly tested Howard.
All the pressure seemed to pay off five minutes before fulltime. A Honduras free kick bounced to the far post, where Stuart Holden handled the ball as he attempted to clear. The referee pointed to the penalty spot and waved away any protests.
Honduras captain Carlos Pavon stepped up to take the kick. The capacity crowd inhaled as the balance of the game hung on Pavon's kick.
When he connected, he miscalculated, sending the ball skimming over the crossbeam and high. Tim Howard and the U.S. players rejoiced as if they had won.
From there, the game became scrappy. End to end action didn't create much (aside from a Pavon header which kissed the top of the post before missing, sealing a dismal night for the striker), and the referee called time four minutes into injury time.
With the win, the U.S. qualifies for the World Cup. Honduras isn't out of it yet, and plays El Salvador on Oct. 14 in the last WC qualifier.
Noah Davis, Goal.com with assistance in Los Angeles from Andrea Canales and Zac Lee Rigg
Visit the U.S. national team page on Goal.com for more