As is to be expected when the United States goes on the road in World Cup qualifying, a raucous, sold out crowd waited the Americans at Estadio Olimpico in San Pedro Sula on October 10, 2009. But that night wasn't your normal CONCACAF crowd, nor were they normal circumstances.
Honduras was fighting for a spot in the World Cup and may have been able to clinch it that day, the penultimate matchday of the final round of qualifying. The country, in the midst of political turmoil that made headlines worldwide and on their way to becoming one of the most dangerous places in the world, had united behind their team, which was trying to qualify for their first World Cup since 1982.
For the U.S., the task was simple -- win and clinch a spot at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
But winning was not going to be easy. The Americans had failed to win at Mexico, Costa Rica and El Salvador already and needed a Ricardo Clark wonderstrike to edge a bad Trinidad and Tobago team in front of fewer than 5,000 fans. The road had not been kind to the U.S. and Honduras figured to be no different.
A sloppy first half didn't do much to inspire the many Americans who poured into a select few bars around the country, which were the only places to watch the match thanks to the Honduran FA. But while the first 45 minutes didn't have the U.S. jumping for joy, at least they hadn't fallen behind.
That silver lining was gone not even two minutes into the second half. Julio Cesar de Lion curled a free kick from 20 yards over the wall and past Tim Howard. Estadio Olimpico erupted and what had been a constant drone of noise for the first 47 minutes was a full blown explosion. The country that had been through so much finally had a good moment -- a great moment rather -- and that elusive World Cup was creeping ever closer.
To rain on Honduras' parade at that point would have been cruel, but the U.S. desperately needed a villain. The last thing they wanted to do was go into the final match of the Hex needing a result to qualify for the World Cup, which meant a goal, then another, had to come from someone.
Enter Conor Casey.
The big, hulking striker was an unpopular selection to the U.S. team, leaving fans wondering how a player whose primary skill was being large could possibly make the national team. He had never scored for the U.S. before and never looked especially close to finding the net either. He was the most unlikely of Honduran villains, but that's what he proved to be. And an American hero.
Eight minutes after Honduras went in front, Oguchi Onyewu booted a long ball to the edge of the box, where Charlie Davies challenged for it. He didn't win it cleanly and instead just knocked it high into the air, eight yards from goal. Honduran goalkeeper Noel Valladares came rushing off his line for it, but he was a moment too late. Casey, the man who seemingly never outran anyone to a spot ever, had beaten him to the ball. Using his most discernable talent, his size, Casey knocked Valladares aside while skying high to head the ball into the open net and level the match at 1-1.
The U.S. team mobbed Casey, who looked as shocked as anyone that he had scored before rushing towards the American bench in euphoria to celebrate with his teammates. And yet Casey wasn't done yet.
A mere 11 minutes later, Casey was at it again. This time the U.S. broke quickly from their own half, with Davies flying down the left before feeding Landon Donovan in the center. The Honduras defense was out of sorts and Donovan spotted it right away. With his very first touch, Donovan played Casey in all alone on goal and Casey showed unusual poise, calmly letting Valladares go to ground before slotting the ball home for the go-ahead goal.
Casey had done it again.
The match was hardly over at 2-1, though. Donovan, the man who assisted on Casey's second goal took matters into his own hands 19 minutes from time with a gorgeous free kick that caught Valladares cheating. Wrong-footed, the Valladares had no chance to get back to the near post, where Donovan had ripped the free kick into the net for the goal that seemingly put a ribbon on the Americans' World Cup berth.
Only things are never that easy in World Cup qualifying. Certainly not in CONCACAF and certainly not with that U.S. team.
Up 3-1, the U.S. took their foot off the pedal and allowed Honduras unlimited time and space even in the Americans' own box. Rightfully, the U.S. was made to pay for it when de Leon added his second goal of the match in the 78th minute to get the Americans' lead in half.
The Americans' collapse wasn't over there, though. Still unable to play with any sort of composure, the U.S. invited pressure, which Honduras gladly applied and in the 87th minute, the Catrachos earned a penalty.
Defending with 10 behind the ball, many of them in their own box, the U.S. watched as Honduras lofted the ball in and let it bounce around. Finally, fortunate favored Honduras when a bouncing ball hit Stuart Holden's arm and the referee pointed to the penalty spot.
The Honduran crowd that had been reawakened by de Leon's second goal was in full voice, sure that their all-time leading goalscorer would convert from the spot and draw the Catrachos level. Howard stood on his line, waiting for the whistle and when it blew, he watched as Pavon too his run up and blasted his shot. Howard dove, but it was fot naught. Pavon's shot had skied over the bar.
On the road in World Cup qualifying, where everything and anything can and will go against the visiting team, fortune had favored the U.S. A crazy, mesmerizing and unbelievable match went to the Red, White and Blue.
The heroic Casey, helped plenty by Donovan, walked off the field at Estadio Olimpico to the applause of the classy Honduran fans, who had stayed to cheer the U.S. The World Cup bound U.S.