Clint Mathis connected on a free kick late in the 2001 win over Honduras. (Photo courtesy of the Red Bulls)

FrontRowSoccer.com editor Michael Lewis has covered two memorable World Cup qualifying matches in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. He decided to share two of those games he reported on – in 2001 and 2009.

U.S., Mathis get 2-1 WCQ win in 2001

By Michael Lewis

SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras — The U.S. national team has played in this Central American country only four times before Saturday night’s World Cup qualifier.

They have a 2-1-1 record here, the most recent confrontation a 2-1 victory in a qualifier on March 28, 2001.

As was his custom, U.S. coach Bruce Arena refused to give the small American media contingent his lineup because his team was reeling from several injuries, including to Brian McBride, Joe-Max Moore, Landon Donovan, Claudio Reyna, Eddie Pope and Ben Olsen.

At a late-afternoon practice two days before the match that had been off-limits to the Honduras media, Arena told six American journalists at Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano: “I don’t know who you are rooting for in this game, but we would prefer this story doesn’t get out until Wednesday because we don’t want to give [the Hondurans] a day to think about what’s going on. . . . We have enough to worry about.”

But so much for that strategy. One of the local newspapers had photos of the team practice and a story about the probability of a weakened U.S. lineup — with Moore and Olsen listed as possibilities.

Without those injured players, the Americans managed to overcome a hostile crowd, heat and humidity and an insistent and sometimes dazzling Honduran side to register a thrilling and dramatic triumph.

The drama was provided by then MetroStars standout Clint Mathis, who had replaced the ailing Reyna (groin muscle). The 24-year-old’s star continued to rise as the dynamo played a role in both U.S. goals. He set up the first one — Stewart’s score in the 33rd minute — and connected on the game-winner off a dramatic, 22-yard free kick in the 87th minute before an estimated SRO crowd of 50,000.

The victory was a gutsy performance by the Americans, who won only for the fifth time in 22 games in Central America (they’re 5-10-7 overall). They remained atop the final round group with a maximum of six points in their first two matches. It was the Americans’ first win in Central America in more than 11 years, since a 1-0 qualifying victory over El Salvador in Tegucigalpa, Honduras on Sept. 17, 1989. Honduras fell to 0-1-1.

“To get six points in the first two games and to defeat two fine teams in Mexico and Honduras, we’re very pleased,” Arena said.

“That puts us in an extremely strong position,” goalkeeper Brad Friedel said. “Anyone who watched the game saw we had our backs against the wall for a lot of different reasons. That’s going to happen when you’re here.”

Stewart, who was named captain for the match in Reyna’s absence, enjoyed a memorable 32nd birthday. In the 33rd minute, defensive midfielder Chris Armas won the ball in the midfield and found Mathis, who shuffled off a short pass to Stewart. Stewart then rifled a slightly arching 30-yard line drive out of the reach of goalkeeper Noel Valladeres for his 12th international goal.

“Captain, scoring a goal and winning on my birthday,” Stewart said. “It doesn’t get much better than that.”

With time running down, Armas was fouled by Maynor Suazo 22 yards out. Up stepped a tiring Mathis, who fired a low shot around the right side of the wall to the right corner past Noel Valladares for his third international score in 10 matches.

“The keeper was kind of far over towards the far post,” Mathis said. “I had time to get it over the wall to dip in. I kind of kept it tight to the post. The keeper got a hand on it and it was able to go in.

“Any time you score a goal of this magnitude in a World Cup qualifier, it’s a great feeling.”

Besides Mathis, there were many heroes. Friedel stopped just about everything kicked his way, making several important saves, although he couldn’t deny Julio Cesar de Leon’s 25-year bullet in the 59th minute. Central defenders Jeff Agoos and Carlos Llamosa were rocks, clearing crosses and passes out of harm’s way.

The only downside was second-half substitute Cobi Jones, who was red-carded in the 90th minute for tripping a Honduran player. He would miss the next match.

The U.S. had a month to bask in the glory — the next match wasn’t until April 26 in Kansas City — as MLS started its sixth season.

U.S. reaches WC for 6th consecutive time in 2009

By Michael Lewis

SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras — The U.S. National Team could not have mapped out a more frenetic, crazy finish to their latest World Cup clinching.

Their thrilling 3-2 qualifying win over Honduras Saturday night had everything you wanted in a soccer match, from momentum changes to unlikely heroes to surprising goats in October 2009.

The U.S. survived a wild, heart-thumping second half of end-to-end action and five goals to book their sixth consecutive World Cup berth — in South Africa next year.

“This was a culmination of a long learning process,” said midfielder Landon Donovan, who scored one goal and set up another. “We played mature, experienced, hard-fought 90 minutes that we haven’t done, aside from the Trinidad game, we haven’t done in other qualifiers. I am very proud of us.”

Donovan qualified for his third World Cup. “It never gets old. That’s for sure,” he said. “After a disappointing 2006 World Cup, we now have a chance at redemption. So it’s sweet.

“It’s the end of a long grind. It’s relief, joy, happiness.”

The U.S. players celebrated with champagne and some dancing in their locker room. “The celebration was a very good one because when you have a group that has come together, that has worked hard, that has grown, when they’ve accomplished something it’s a special feeling,” U.S. coach Bob Bradley said.

Had the U.S. (6-2-1, 19 points) failed to qualify, the Americans had another shot in the 10th and final game of the Concacaf hexagonal against Costa Rica (5-4-0, 15), 4-1 winners over Trinidad & Tobago Saturday, in Washington, D.C. Wednesday.

“You don’t want to go into the last game leaving anything to chance,” Donovan said. “As we see around the world, even in qualifiers today, anything can happen in one soccer game. We didn’t want to leave that opportunity open. it was nice to get it done.”

As it turned out, most of the U.S. soccer community could not watch this classic confrontation because it was only available via closed circuit TV in bars and restaurants.

They missed out on a superb performance by Colorado Rapids forward Conor Casey.

Casey, who had never scored an international goal in 14 appearances before Saturday night, was a surprise starter over former Red Bulls forward Jozy Altidore. Casey, who is second in MLS with 16 goals, turned out to be the man of the hour, or an hour and a half, striking twice in the second half and helping set up the third goal.

“I was kidding Conor that he decided not to show up for 60 minutes today and he thought he was going to put two goals in,” Howard said. “What you see is what you get. He’s pretty vanilla ice cream. He works hard.”

Casey, who has been forced to endure an ACL operation on both knees, was just happy to be in the lineup.

“It feels good, it feels good,” he said. “Its been a long time with the injuries and what not. To be able just to have the opportunity to play with these guys this night and to seal up the world cup slot, it’s huge it’s real good.”

The Americans were helped by the fact that Honduran veteran Carlos Pavon fired an 87th-minute penalty kick over the net after U.S. defender Carlos Bocanegra was called for a handball in the area.

“You try not to think about all the negative stuff, but its inevitable,” Howard said. “You just think. Where did it all go wrong? We were up, 3-1.”

After Pavon missed the penalty, Donovan said he felt “elation.”

Pavon sent a close-range header over the crossbar a couple of minutes later.

“Listen, we brought our luck tonight, without question,” Howard said.

The Hondurans struck in the opening minute of the second half. After Oguchi Onyweu gave up the ball at midfield, the defender fouled Pavon just outside the left side of the penalty area. Julio De Leon then fired an 18-yard free kick into the upper left corner out of the reach of Howard.

The stadium erupted as Honduran supporters threw confetti to celebrate. They certainly were patient enough. The crowd, estimated at 45,000, had filled the stadium some four hours prior to kickoff, entertaining themselves with signing, dancing and chanting before the main event.

The Americans silenced the crowd when they countered 10 minutes later on Casey’s first goal. A long ball was played toward the penalty area. Charlie Davies won the ball and headed it to Casey, who outjumped and outmuscled goalkeeper Noel Valladares and headed it into the net for a tie.

“The first goal was classic Conor Casey,” Howard said.

Asked if he thought the call could be called back because he hit the keeper, Casey replied, “I wasn’t thinking about it. It happened so quick. I was running away by that time. He [referee Roberto Moreno] wasn’t calling anything so, it looked good to me.”

Casey made himself felt again in the 66th minute. After Donovan fed him a perfect pass, he split two defenders and then fired a low shot off his right foot past Valladares into the lower right-hand corner for a 2-1 advantage in the 66th minute.

Casey helped set up the third U.S. goal as De Leon fouled him some 22 yards out on the left side. Donovan then stepped up and launched a free kick that wound up in the upper right side of the net for a 3-1 lead in the 71st minute.

But the Hondurans wouldn’t give up. They thought they had a goal by David Suarez in the 75th minute, but he was ruled to be offside.

Their persistence paid off three minutes later. Ramon Nunez forced Howard to come out of the net on the right side. Howard, however, wound up in no man’s land as Honduras worked the ball around and De Leon shot from the top of the box to cut the lead to 3-2.

The Americans were fortunate they finished the first half with a scoreless tie because the Hondurans dominated. The hosts worked the flanks, trying to use their speed to find holes in the U.S. defense. They had to wait until two minutes into the second half to break the tie.

Howard said he thought the Americans’ resilience was the key.

“They scored the opening goal and we hit them back with three good answers,” he said.