Five minutes away from disaster. That's how close the U.S. national team came to suffering a second straight World Cup qualifying loss in September, and seeing its Russia 2018 hopes put on life support.
That's when Kellyn Acosta stepped up and struck a beautiful free kick that forced a top-shelf save, and Bobby Wood pounced on the ensuing loose ball and scored a goal that brought the U.S. team's qualifying hopes back to life with a 1-1 draw in Honduras.
Bruce Arena can count himself lucky that his team escaped Honduras with a point and, just as importantly, snatched two points away from the Catrachos. The result keeps the U.S. team's fate in its own hands, even though the Americans face another riveting qualifier against Panama in October, which should determine which team grabs the third and final automatic qualifying berth in CONCACAF.
Wood's goal helped the U.S. escape with a precious point, while also putting some generous makeup on an otherwise ugly performance by the Americans, who still lost ground in the race to qualify for Russia. They now head to Orlando in October knowing anything but a win against Panama could push them closer to a fourth-place finish in the Hex and a World Cup qualifying playoff against Australia or Syria.
Arena shook up his U.S. national team lineup on Tuesday, making seven changes and benching all of his European-based players except Christian Pulisic. His reasoning was that his European-based players were early in their seasons, and not quite fit enough to handle two games in four days yet. That opened the door for an MLS-heavy squad to try and win in Honduras.
The first half was one to forget for the Americans, with Arena's lineup playing even worse than the squad that lost to Costa Rica last Friday. The fresh legs of seven lineup changes did little to help the U.S. Instead, it was the Honduran MLS players who shined in the first half, with Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto torching U.S. fullbacks Graham Zusi and DaMarcus Beasley repeatedly, including on Quioto's first-half goal, where Omar Gonzalez was also beaten badly.
The Quioto goal energized the crowd in San Pedro Sula and Honduras continued to abuse the U.S. on the counter, making it look more likely a second Honduras goal would come. The U.S. managed to avoid that killer blow though, and escaped into the halftime locker room still within range of earning a result.
Honduras never did recapture that same level of energy in the second half, even with Arena sticking by Beasley and Zusi to start the second half. Sensing his team's qualifying hopes hanging in the balance, Arena brought in Geoff Cameron and Paul Arriola for Beasley and Zusi, switching to a 3-5-2 in search of an equalizer. The move helped the Americans settle into comfortable control, but dangerous chances were still nowhere to be found.
That was before Pulisic earned one of a plethora of free kicks drawn from a steady stream of fouls suffered all match, setting up an Acosta free kick from 30 yards out that forced a wonderful top corner save, but also yielded a loose ball in the penalty area. Matt Besler kept the ball alive, and it eventually found Wood, who chested it before slipping it into the low right corner of goal.
As ugly as the first half was for the U.S., the second half provided some signs of promise. The final 20 minutes were particularly impressive, when the Americans could have caved under the pressure, but instead responded with an equalizer.
The road draw was the bare minimum the U.S. needed on Tuesday, and as much as you'll hear about how CONCACAF games are ugly and all that matters was the point, the fact remains the U.S. did not play well at all for the second straight qualifier.
The U.S. now has a month to regroup and prepare for the final two CONCACAF qualifiers in the Hex, at home against Panama, and then on the road against Trinidad & Tobago. The Americans need a pair of wins to ensure an automatic World Cup berth. it is definitely a manageable task, but Arena and his team have to know that they will need to play much better in October than they did in September, or they'll be spending November in a World Cup qualifying playoff series, or even eliminated from World Cup qualifying altogether.