Final qualifier far from meaningless

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Try telling that to the U.S. players, who celebrated their dramatic come-from-behind 2-2 tie (RECAP) with an emotional tribute to forward Charlie Davies, who was seriously injured in an auto accident on Tuesday. Try telling that to the U.S. fans, who honored the No. 9-wearing Davies by standing, cheering and setting off red-white-and-blue smoke bombs during the game's ninth minute.

And try telling that to forward Jozy Altidore, one of Davies' best friends, who could barely contain his feelings during the game and after the final whistle. "I was very emotional the past few days, I'm not going to lie," Altidore said after Jonathan Bornstein's 95th-minute equalizer. "I just couldn't get my mind off it, you know what I mean? It's just unbelievable how your life can change in one night, in one minute, in one second."

Altidore had grown worried even before he and his teammates had learned of Davies' accident on Tuesday morning from coach Bob Bradley. After a team dinner on Monday night, Altidore had sent Davies a couple of text messages to check in. "I didn't get a response. He usually always responds to me."

Once Altidore found out what had happened, there was no chance this game would be meaningless. He wanted to score a goal for his friend and show off the T-shirt he was wearing, the one that read DAVIES 9 on it. But after Altidore picked up a yellow card in the 14th minute, Bob Bradley pulled him to the sideline. If Altidore scored and pulled off his shirt he would receive a second yellow and be suspended during the first game of the World Cup next year.

"He said, 'Don't pull your shirt off now. We all know you want to pull it off,'" Altidore recalled. "But, to be honest I, got so excited every time I got in front of the goal. I wanted to show [the T-shirt] so bad."

Meaningless? The game wasn't meaningless to Michael Bradley, who started the comeback from a 2-0 deficit with his goal in the 72nd minute. "When you're a competitor and you step on the field you want to win," Bradley said afterward. "The feeling of winning is something you can't take away. So in the 95th minute when Jonny Bornstein scores a header and he's running toward the corner and it's 2-2 and we fought like bastards to get it to 2-2, good luck telling anybody on our team that it was meaningless."

The game certainly wasn't meaningless to Costa Rica, which saw its automatic World Cup bid go up in smoke with Bornstein's last-second goal. Now the Ticos will have to face Uruguay in a two-game playoff next month. Bornstein's goal also sparked national celebrations in the streets of Honduras, which -- because the U.S. tied -- qualified outright for South Africa with its 1-0 win in El Salvador.

An hour after the game, I received an e-mail from a friend in Honduras. There was pandemonium in the streets, he said, after Honduras had reached its first World Cup since 1982. "Right now the U.S. is king in this country," he wrote. "People in the streets are carrying Honduran and U.S. flags." Interim president Roberto Micheletti had declared a national holiday. If I were Bornstein, I'd consider taking a vacation to Honduras after the MLS season. He'd be treated like a hero.

Simply put, this was the most meaningful "meaningless" game I've ever seen, both for good and for ill. Oguchi Onyewu, the U.S.'s hulking central defender, tore his left patellar tendon in the 83rd minute going up for a header in the Costa Rica penalty box. He'll now have to undergo surgery and is expected to miss at least three to four months with his club, AC Milan.

"We've had two days of tough news," said Bob Bradley. "Gooch has been such an important part of our team. But ... he's young, he's healthy, and our doctors are good. He's someone that we're sure is going to get back and be ready to go [at the World Cup]. Nevertheless it's another setback for us."

The elder Bradley usually cuts a stoic figure, but that was raw emotion he showed after Bornstein's goal, pumping his fists and hugging his assistants. And that was raw emotion on Bradley's face when he was asked about visiting Davies in the hospital on Wednesday not long before the game. Bradley described a scene in which Davies' doctor was performing rounds and being given reports on Davies' condition.

"We weren't in the room at that point, but I could hear him," Bradley said. "I could hear him say, 'Charles! Can you open your eyes? Open your eyes.' And sure enough he did. So when he was done and he was talking to the family, he said that the responses continue to be good, that in some cases the ones that aren't there yet have more to do with the fact there's still a lot of medication to keep him comfortable."

"I made sure that Charlie and his family knew that every player, every coach, everybody involved with U.S. Soccer is thinking about him. And we have to think he's going he's going to be back with us pretty fast."

Meaningless? On a night that was important for so many reasons, that was the furthest thing from the truth.