SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras — American players danced in the locker room and swigged some bubbly. With a thrilling victory on a hot and humid night in Central America, the U.S. soccer team earned a trip to South Africa and another chance to impress at the World Cup.
Conor Casey scored his first two international goals in the second half, Landon Donovan added another and the United States clinched its sixth straight World Cup berth with a game to spare by rallying to beat Honduras 3-2 on Saturday.
"It never gets old, that's for sure," Donovan said. "After what most of us would say was a very disappointing 2006 World Cup, we now have a chance at redemption."
In one of the most exciting end-to-end matches the U.S. has played in many years, the Americans took a 3-1 lead before Honduras closed on Julio Cesar De Leon's second goal of the game in the 78th minute.
Carlos Pavon had a chance to tie following a hand ball in the penalty area by Stuart Holden. Pavon stood over the ball ahead of his penalty kick, and U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard worried.
"You try not to think about all the negative stuff, but it's inevitable," Howard said. "You just think, 'Where did it all go wrong?'"
Pavon put his penalty kick over the crossbar in the 87th minute. Then, 2 minutes later, he fired high on an open header.
"Thank you," Howard said to himself.
And just a few minutes later, he heard the final whistle, securing the berth. The Honduran crowd, which had been respectful during the playing of the U.S. anthem, applauded even though it was disappointed.
"I was relieved. I was thankful," Howard said. "I feel like I'm in the prime of my career, and the thought went through my head this week that I certainly didn't want to miss this opportunity."
Coming off a first-round elimination at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, the United States (6-2-1) is first in North and Central America and the Caribbean with 19 points and assured of one of three automatic berths that to go to the top finishers in the region.
Mexico (6-3) also clinched Saturday and has 18 points following a 4-1 victory over visiting El Salvador. Costa Rica (5-4) moved into third with 15 points after winning at home against Trinidad and Tobago.
Honduras (4-4-1), seeking its second World Cup appearance and first since 1982, has 13 points and dropped into fourth. If the Catrachos are still in that spot after the final match at El Salvador on Wednesday, they would meet the No. 5 nation from South America in a playoff. Costa Rica closes against the U.S. at Washington's RFK Stadium.
"You don't want to go into the last game leaving anything to chance," Donovan said. "As we see around the world, in qualifiers today, anything can happen in one soccer game and we didn't want to leave that opportunity open."
Too bad not many in the U.S. got to see it – the game was broadcast only on closed circuit to bars and restaurants, a decision made by the company that bought rights from the Honduran federation.
Honduras has been in turmoil since a June military coup, but the crowd was united behind its team. The Catrachos had been 8-0 at home in qualifying and had been undefeated in 17 games at San Pedro Sula since June 2003. Anticipation of a World Cup berth turned this into a Honduran national celebration.
"We're very proud," U.S. coach Bob Bradley said. "We understand the responsibility we have every time we step on the field for our fans, for our country."
He said the team had extra emotion because the win came three years and one day after the death of former U.S. assistant coach Glenn Myernick.
"I think he would have been proud of us tonight," said Bradley, who replaced Bruce Arena after the 2006 tournament.
Fans started filling the stadium about 5 1/2 hours before kickoff, the stands separated from the field by a running track and high barbed wire.
De Leon put Honduras ahead in the 47th minute when he curved a free kick over a five-man defensive wall and to the right of leaping Howard from one yard outside the penalty area after a foul by Oguchi Onyewu.
That set off sustained boisterous cheering and jumping that made Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano shake, but the sellout crowd of about 40,000 was silenced when Casey tied it in the 55th.
Onyewu sent a long pass downfield, and Charlie Davies nodded it across the area to Casey, who outjumped defender Maynor Figueroa and outmuscled goalkeeper Noel Valladares for his first goal in 15 international appearances.
"It's always strange when you score and it's silent," Casey said. "You're always wondering, 'Did I score or not score?"
David Suazo nearly put Honduras ahead in the 65th, one minute after entering, but Howard made a leaping fingertip save. Casey then gave the U.S. the lead a minute later when he split two defenders, took a pass from Donovan and scored from 16 yards.
Plagued by injuries that required surgery on both knees, Casey has been in and out of the national team. He had not scored in 14 previous international games.
"It's been a long time coming over the years – the injuries and whatnot," he said.
Donovan, who set an American record with his 10th assist of the year, extended his U.S. scoring record on a 21-yard free kick in the 71st minute, his 42nd international goal. It was if the air had been sucked out of the stadium.
Maurcio Sabillion nearly tied it in the 82nd, putting a bicycle kick over the crossbar and causing Howard to scream at his defenders.
Then came the frantic finish.
"This was a culmination of a long learning process," Donovan said. "We played a mature, experienced, hard-fought 90 minutes."