The ball dribbled across the Australia goal line in stoppage time, but Honduras players already had tears in their eyes. After making the 2010 World Cup and returning to the 2014 tournament, Honduras will be watching the 2018 edition from home.
The 'consolation goal' scored by Alberth Elis will be of little consolation to Honduras, which fell 3-1 to Australia in the second leg of the CONCACAF-AFC play-off and will miss out on Russia.
Honduras manager Jorge Luis Pinto said prior to the first leg that his goal was to get out of the home leg without conceding. Honduras accomplished that despite being second-best, but that never was going to be enough to get past the Socceroos.
His defensive tactics would've been a surprise if it weren't so deeply engrained in what Honduras does. The team all but applied for a trademark on a defensive, physical style of play that relied on center backs Maynor Figueroa and Johnny Palacios to keep opponents from challenging veteran goalkeeper Donis Escober. It resulted in plenty of fouls, lots of frustration for opponents and a fourth-place finish in the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualification after a slow start.
What that ignores is that when Honduras has come out and played football, it's gone pretty well. The final matchday required three points, and Honduras went out and got it with a 3-2 victory over Mexico. The style was still mostly closed but allowed Elis and Rommel Quioto to get at Mexico wide on the counter-attack. Each player scored in the triumph as Honduras stayed alive in World Cup qualification.
Once November rolled around, though, it was more of the same. After going to a back four and adding an attacker instead of his usual 5-4-1 formation, Pinto reverted to the heavily defensive alignment. The coach actually believed Australia to be the team trying to impede an open game.
"It's a big, tough team. The referee allowed rough play and they wanted to stop Elis from the start because they knew he was the most dangerous in the match," Pinto said after the match. "Australia pressured us, I saw the bad intention from the start of the game with trying to neutralize Alberth Elis."
It's an interesting charge for a coach with Pinto's history. At any rate, Honduras was able to fend off the Socceroos for the first half, but after the break it all fell apart. Once the team was behind, Pinto was slow to react. Instead of bringing on an attacker immediately after Mile Jedinak's deflected free-kick put the home side ahead, Pinto waited a full 20 minutes before inserting Mario Martinez. By that time Jedinak already had converted from the penalty spot on the way to a hat trick.
Honduras knew going into the game that a goal would be required to go to the World Cup. Instead of looking for that goal, Pinto sat back and seemed to have been playing for penalties despite Australia playing at home and being fresher after the first leg.
Pinto will point to the disadvantages his team faced. Honduras always was going to have tired legs after its long journey to Sydney via Los Angeles. Luxuries the Australian FA could afford like a direct charter flight from San Pedro Sula after the first leg, anti-jet lag glasses, a stopover for stretching and massage and lay-flat seats were just that for Honduras - luxuries on which the FA couldn't splurge. As much as the federation didn't put the Honduran players in a position to succeed, though, the coach didn't either.
It's time for Honduras to reset. Since Los Catrachos first World Cup berth with this group in 2010, this has been a team that relied on its defense through the thick and thin. That made sense when pillars like Osman Chavez, Victor Bernardez and Maynor Figueroa were the biggest stars. Now, there's a new generation. Rommel Quioto, Elis and Andy Najar, the Anderlecht midfielder who missed the playoff but whose participation with the national team is crucial once he returns to full fitness, are the new generation. These are attacking players who need to be given a chance to excel.
Pinto didn't provide that for his team this time around. He likely won't be retained by Honduras, with his high salary relative to other coaches in the region, prickly personality and, most significantly, Wednesday's failure. The next man up needs to take advantage of the resources he does have in a promising batch of young players like Quito and Elis and the domestic-based players who were able to lift the Copa Centroamericana at the beginning of the year.
Doing so will ensure Honduras is moving forward, not sliding back, in its quest to punch above its weight and continue to be relevant on the world stage. Going away from the conservative style that has characterized it for so long may result in some difficult lessons in the short-term, but in the long run would take it to new heights both in CONCACAF and on the world stage.