SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras — There’s a fascinating difference in how World Cup qualifiers are viewed in the Spanish language compared to English. In English the word is qualifiers, with the emphasis on the positive (qualifying for the World Cup). In Spanish the word is eliminatorias, with the emphasis on the negative (elimination).
Eliminatorias are more about survival than success. Over the past 10 months, as the U.S. has struggled through its most difficult campaign since 1989, these World Cup qualifiers have become eliminatorias for the Stars and Stripes. Survival is all that matters now.
In soccer terms, the stakes in the 85th minute of Tuesday’s game between the U.S. and Honduras could not have been much higher for the Americans. Honduras was leading 1-0, courtesy of a first-half strike by Romell Quioto. With another loss, the USMNT was staring at its worst week in two decades and absolutely needing to win its final two Hexagonal games in October just to have a chance of reaching Russia 2018—perhaps in a playoff against Australia or Syria.
“I was thinking,” said U.S. coach Bruce Arena, “that we might have an early vacation at the end of this year.”
The U.S. players had responded unlike most American teams in the immediate aftermath of the Honduran goal. Instead of rebounding with defiance, they had hung their heads. There was no response. Arena spoke to them at halftime about it, and after he introduced subs Bobby Wood, Geoff Cameron and Paul Arriola midway through the second half, the U.S. started to show some of its trademark spirit again.
Survival instincts kicked in.
The sequence that led to Wood’s dramatic U.S. equalizer will not go down in the annals as a textbook play of surpassing beauty. But it was most definitely a case study of extreme effort. Desperation soccer is rarely pleasing on the eye, but there is something elemental and human about it that grabs you by your shoulders and forces you to pay attention.
U.S. winger Christian Pulisic, frustrated yet again by a defense that targeted him for 90 minutes, managed to earn a free kick in the 85th minute. Somewhat surprisingly, Clint Dempsey allowed his younger teammate, Kellyn Acosta, to take the free kick. Acosta has grown confident in his dead-ball abilities, and he unleashed a wicked shot that was saved well by Luis López.
In a desperate lunge after the rebound, Matt Besler got his foot on the ball. Jordan Morris stretched to put his head on it, and the ball arrived in a perfect spot for Wood in front of the goal.
“I think sometimes in a game like this you have to score scrappy,” Morris said afterward. “And Kellyn hit a really good free kick. He made a good save, and then Besler kind of flicked it back in. I was just trying to flick it in front of goal and hope it got to someone. And Bobby, all credit to him. He brought it down and finished it really well.”
Wood has developed a reputation as a clutch goal-scorer. Arena had left Wood out of the starting lineup on Tuesday, owing to the tropical weather conditions and the 90 minutes that Wood had played on Friday. But Wood did not sulk about being left out. He knew what was at stake when he came into the game.
“You just want to help the team,” Wood said. “We knew what type of spot we were in. We knew we needed at least one point.”
There will be plenty of time to analyze the U.S.’s overall performances in the past week. For the most part, they simply weren’t good enough. Arena got his tactics wrong, as well as some of his personnel decisions. The U.S. attack was unimaginative and lacking a sharp edge. Few individual players could be said to have had good games. Defending was plagued by mental errors and lack of speed. These are all giant concerns for any team that wants to reach a World Cup and perform well there.
“It was O.K.,” Arena said when asked about the U.S.’s performance. “I thought the first 25 minutes we played well. I think we put our heads down a little bit after [the Honduras goal] and we had to regroup at halftime. I thought the effort in the second half was very good, and we fought through the conditions. We knew it wasn’t going to be pretty, and players were dead on their feet, as you could see. We just had to battle and create chances and put it in the back of the net. And we did that. I thought the three players that came into the game really helped us.”
But when you’re in survival mode, there are things other than pure performance that also matter.
“Honestly, in a lot of moments it has nothing to do with football,” said U.S. captain Michael Bradley afterward. “It’s about finding a way to survive and dealing with everything that gets thrown at you, having a group that can hold up in the toughest moments, taking three points when you can take three, and finding a way to get one and keep other teams from getting three on other days. So this is what it’s all about. It’s never been easy. It’s never going to be easy, and we’ve just got to keep going. But today was big-time.”
Hondurans are smart soccer fans. The stadium went silent after Wood’s equalizer, knowing full well that in terms of surviving for the World Cup, Tuesday’s result was a killer for Honduras and a modest boost for the United States.
Life can be ruthless in eliminatorias.