By Michael Lewis

FrontRowSoccer.com Editor

No matter what the team, country or situation, every U.S. game in Central America is an adventure. Triple that if it’s a World Cup qualifier.

Perhaps former U.S. international defender Jeff Agoos put it into the proper perspective.

“It’s part sport, part war, part theater,” he told the Washington Post years ago. “The best way to describe a qualifying game on the road is like watching the old Roman warriors fend for their lives. … You just want to get in there, do your job and get out of there.”

Unless otherwise noted, quotes were accrued by the author.

Some information used to fill-in the blanks was taken from the Roger Allaway and Colin Jose book, The United States Tackles The World Cup, the Associated Press and United Press International.

As the U.S. prepares to visit Panama, here is a look at every U.S. WC qualifying match in Central America prior to this year’s Octagonal:

1966

In preparation, the U.S. actually enjoyed a head start, training 12 days and playing four matches in Bermuda. In the end results, however were the same. The Americans registered a 2-2 draw with Mexico in Los Angeles before the Mexicans bounced back in their capital five days later, 2-0.

The Americans were still alive, but could not sweep Honduras. They won the first encounter, 1-0, before 1,268 in San Pedro Sula, Honduras on March 17, 1965 on an Ed Murphy goal off a Helmut Bicek corner kick in the second half. They tied the second, 1-1, in front of 2,331 spectators at Estadio Nacional in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, as Murphy connected for an 81st-minute goal. The hosts, however, equalized several minutes later and the U.S. was eliminated from competition.

1986

Twenty years later, the U.S. earned a rare point in Costa Rica, playing the hosts to a 1-1 draw. in front of 25,000 fans at Estadio Alejandro Morera on May 26, 1985. The Costa Ricans grabbed a 1-0 lead in the 42nd minute as goalkeeper Arnie Mausser fumbled a low cross before Oscar Ramirez knocked the ball into the net during a goalmouth scramble. The Americans, however, equalized on a John Kerr Jr. score minutes later. Mike Windischmann sent a pass on the left side to Jeff Hooker, who crossed it to an unmarked Kerr, who volleyed it home.

The tie, however, was negated five days later as the U.S. lost to the Costa Ricans, 1-0, in Torrance, Calif., eliminating the Americans from qualifying exactly a year to the day to the kickoff of Mexico ’86.

1990

In Bob Gansler’s first game as coach, and the U.S. got off on the wrong foot on April 16, 1989 dropping a 1-0 decision to Costa Rica in San Jose, Costa Rica. Midfielder Gilberto Rhoden scored the only goal 14 minutes into the match past goalkeeper Jeff Duback — deflecting an Evaristo Coronado shot – before 26,271 at Estadio Nacional.

“We didn’t play that well,” said Windischmann, who had been appointed captain by Gansler. “There’s no excuses to be made.”

Current El Salvadoran head coach Hugo Perez produced some heroics against the country of his birth and in front of his 78-year-old grandfather, who had made a seven-hour drive from El Salvador to Tegucigalpa, Honduras to watch him perform heroics on Sept. 17, 1989. Honduran goalkeeper Carlos Rivera had saved a low drive off a 23-yard free kick from John Harkes. The rebound came to Peter Vermes, whose six-yard shot bounced off Rivers again. But Perez then headed home the high, bouncing deflection inside the right goalpost past goalkeeper Carlos Rivera in the 62nd minute in front of 3,700 fans (incidentally, Mexican referee Edgardo Codesal, who was the game official, worked the middle of the 1990 World Cup final that Germany defeated Argentina, 1-0).

“I was looking for that goal for months,” Perez said. “I wanted to do well (for my grandfather).”

It was officially a home game for El Salvador, which was ordered by FIFA to play its remaining qualifiers at neutral sites after home crowd trouble. Unfortunately, an injured Perez did not play for the U.S. at Italia ’90.

It would be 11 1/2 years before the U.S. would win again in Central America.

On Oct. 8, 1989 the U.S. outplayed Guatemala and had several serious scoring opportunities, but had trouble putting them away in a scoreless tie in Guatemala City. “Our Achilles heel showed again,” Gansler said. “We had difficulty putting it in.”

“It feels like a loss,” said forward Bruce Murray, who had two of the best scoring chances for the U.S. during a five-second span in the first half, but goalkeeper Ricardo Piccinini made two bang-bang saves on point-blank shots. “I’m just disappointed. We came down to get two points and we didn’t get them. We’re going to need them for the stretch run.”

Goalkeeper Tony Meola agreed. “I’m as depressed as if we lost,” he said. “The most depressing thing about it was we have an incentive for Italia ’90, they didn’t.”

For a team eliminated in September and rebuilt within the past couple of weeks, Guatemala acquitted itself quite well. There wasn’t much local interest in this match, as one newspaper headlined the game “Futbol de la consolacion” — consolation soccer.

Although ticket prices were as low as 80 cents, $2 and $3.20, a crowd of only 4,723 turned up at the 45,000 seat Estadio Nacional Mateo Flores that featured a field better suited for growing rice than playing soccer because of torrential rain the past several weeks.

1998

The Americans’ 2-1 loss to Costa Rica at Estadio Ricardo Saprissa in San Jose in front of 25,000 sometimes raucous spectators on Dec. 1, 1996 was infamous for the fans throwing coins, batteries, shoes, garbage and bags of urine at the visitors. One hit defender Alexi Lalas in the head.

“I have never been so spat upon in my life,” goalkeeper Brad Friedel was quoted in “The United States Tackles The World Cup.”

Costa Rica dominated play from start to finish.

Paulo Cesar Wanchope scored against Friedel in the 40th minute, knocking in a low cross from Hernan Medford. Wilmer Lopez made it 2-0 six minutes from time before Cobi Jones struck with seconds remaining to slice the score in half and make it respectable.

Because the U.S. already had qualified for the next round, the sixth and final match, a 2-2 draw with Guatemala in San Salvador, El Salvador on Dec. 21, 1996 was rendered meaningless as far as the standings went (the Guatemalans were forced to play their first-round matches on the road after 96 fans died — many were crushed to death — before a qualifier at Estadio Mateo Flores in Guatemala City). It wasn’t meaningless for the players, most of whom were second-line players trying to impress coach Steve Sampson. Preki and Frankie Hejduk, two players in and out of Sampson’s scored in the doghouse during qualifying, scored for the U.S. Preki stripped a Guatemalan player of the ball in the sixth minute and scored before he set up Hejduk with a through-ball in the 48th minute in front of 7,106 at Estadio Cuscatlan.

The next time the U.S. visited Saprissa, Costa Rican fans had to clean up their act or face stiff sanctions by FIFA. They did – the sellout crowd of 22,000 was on its best behavior – but the U.S. still couldn’t overcome an attack by the Central Americans that broke loose for three goals in a 3-2 triumph on March 23, 1997.

It was a rare feat for the Americans to strike twice on the road as Roy Lassiter, a second-half sub who played professionally in Costa Rica, equalized in the 68th minute for a 2-2 tie after he intercepted a pass from Mauricio Solis that was intended for Ronald Gomez. But Gomez finally got a foot on the ball for the game-winner in the 76th minute. Harold Wallace started the scoring sequence, picking up a loose ball outside the penalty area. He faked Lalas and chipped a cross that defender Mike Burns kicked onto the foot of Gomez at the near post before a crowd of 22,000.

“When they give you a point, you should not give it back,” then U.S. Soccer secretary general Hank Steinbrecher said.

No one had to remind Sampson, either. “We had that one point in our hands … we lost it,'” he said. “We tried to hang on and cover the spaces on defense, but their speed was too much.”

Hernan Medford opened the scoring in the 10th minute after Harold Wallace intercepted a bad pass by Thomas Dooley that was intended for Jones. It was the first goal goalkeeper Kasey Keller allowed in 562 minutes, which was only 32 minutes short of the U.S. Soccer shutout record held by Mark Dodd.

Eric Wynalda tied it in the 24th minute, scoring from 15 yards for his 30th international goal. He connected from about 15 yards, sending the ball into the upper right corner. But eight minutes later, Solis dribbled down the middle of the field and beat Keller with a 35-yard shot into the upper left corner for a 2-1 advantage.

“We shouldn’t have allowed those gaps in the back, we should have been tighter,” defender Michael Burns said. “With 15 minutes left, that should never have happened.”

Fan disturbances loomed its ugly head in other qualifiers as well. Take, for example, what transpired in Mexico’s 1-0 qualifying win in San Salvador on June 8, 1997. When the referee failed to award a penalty kick to the home team in the waning minutes, angry fans threw objects onto the field at Estadio Cuscatlan. The match was stopped for several minutes. Coach Milovan D’Joric was slapped with a two-match suspension for not quieting the crowd — he wouldn’t be on the bench for the qualifier against the U.S. — and was fined $5,000. The El Salvadoran Soccer Federation also was fined $35,000.

Midfielder Tab Ramos warned his teammates to expect the worst anyway in the June 29 match. “It’s a very difficult place to win,” he said. “People hate Americans down there. It’s a hostile crowd.”

Raul Diaz Arce, a member of D.C. United at the time, understood the power of the fans. “You feel their presence when you are on the field,” he said. “We feel their support and the opponents [feel] their hostility regardless of what country it is.”

The fear of violence prompted the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador to order its employees not to attend the match. The El Salvadoran government made sure there were 1,500 security officers, including 90 in riot gear who surrounded the field.

Fortunately, there were no incidents (a plastic water bottle was thrown at U.S. captain John Harkes, but fans quickly identified the culprit and he was removed from the stadium). The stadium opened at 6 a.m. — six hours before the kickoff — and within 90 minutes it was half-full.

After El Salvador dominated the opening half – a Mauricio Cienfeugos shot bounded off the crossbar – Lassiter scored seven minutes into the second half, volleying in a Harkes cross for a 1-0 advantage. But the U.S. lead could not stand up as Diaz Arce, knocked home a cross by Luis Lazo off his right foot after missing it with his left foot from point-blank range in the 61st minute for the equalizer.

“It’s important that you continue to progress and get points on the road,” Sampson said. “The ideal result would’ve been to get three points [for a win], but a point on the road is always a positive note.”

The U.S. almost pulled out a win, but Lassiter’s 12-yard shot hit the crossbar and didn’t enter the net.

2002

U.S. coach Bruce Arena and the U.S. learned the hard way about Central America on the way to Korea. The semifinal round draw placed the Americans in the same group as Costa Rica, Guatemala and Barbados.

Up first were back-to-back matches in Guatemala and Costa Rica on July 16 and 23, 2000, respectively. Instead of playing at the national stadium in Guatemala City, the country’s soccer federation decided on the middle of nowhere approach and picked Mazatanengo, a town of about 40,000 situated in the jungle and near active volcanoes, in a last-minute switch. The only way to get there was to fly into the capital city and take a three-hour car ride or bus trip.

Temperatures generally were higher there — 93 degrees on U.S. game day — compared to a balmy 83 in Guatemala City.

Compounding the challenge were local DJs playing music until 1:30 a.m. outside the heavily guarded U.S. motel-restaurant, using a PA system in an attempt to keep the American players awake. Nice try, but it didn’t work. The players had earplugs.

Arena did not have his optimum lineup with four starters out with various ailments, including forwards Brian McBride (broken cheekbone) and Joe-Max Moore (knee injury), midfielder Ben Olsen (sprained ankle) and defender Jeff Agoos (knee surgery). He was so desperate for players, he recalled Ramos, a veteran of three World Cups who thought his international playing days were over, to be a possible late-game replacement.

Early on, defender Eddie Pope, the best backline player on the team, injured his left knee and needed to be replaced.

The Americans acquitted themselves well in a match punctuated by sweltering heat, humidity and questionable referee decisions. Yet, they walked out of Estadio Municipal Carlos Salazar a frustrated and disappointed side with a 1-1 draw after squandering a one-goal lead in the final minutes in front of an SRO crowd of 9,500 and curious souls watching from rooftops.

Carlos Ruiz, who went on to become a major force with the LA Galaxy, turned out to be their No. 1 nemesis. A physical forward who wasn’t afraid to give it or take out (many observers felt he should have received a second yellow card for flooring Robin Fraser and Keller in separate incidents), Ruiz gave it to the U.S. with two minutes to spare, connecting for the equalizing score.

That offset Ante Razov’s third international goal, a 17-yard blast out that deflected off lunging defender Luis Swisher and over goalkeeper Edgar Estrada into the upper left corner of the net in the 45th minute.

“We’re disappointed we didn’t play better in the last 15 minutes,” Arena said. “We should’ve walked out of here with three points. We should’ve done better.”

Indeed, they should have.

As the tired U.S. defense continued to bend and bend, it finally broke in the 88th minute. Dwight Pezzarossi beat defender Greg Vanney to a head ball and chested down an Erick Miranda corner kick to Ruiz, who beat defender Robin Fraser and knocked the ball past Keller.

“We definitely did some dumb things out there,” Keller told The Washington Post. “Giving a late goal up is the difference between a good team and a great team.”

Added Razov: “We should have been able to kill off the game. We feel like we gave away two points, and now we’ve got to get three in Costa Rica, I think.”

If the Americans thought things would get better a week later at Saprissa, they were dead wrong. They exited the stadium, furious, claiming they were robbed on a phantom handball call by referee Peter Prendergast of Jamaica. He brazenly made the call two minutes into stoppage time on defender Gregg Berhalter. According to television replays, it appeared the ball accidentally hit Berhalter in the upper arm area after he had headed the ball. Many game officials usually won’t make the call unless it was intentional.

But with so much at stake in front of a raucous and rowdy home crowd of about 20,000, perhaps Prendergast gave into some personal survival instincts in what was a deadlocked game at the time.

Hernan Medford converted the ensuing penalty kick and several minutes later Costa Rica walked off with a controversial 2-1 victory.

Afterwards, an incensed Arena, Claudio Reyna, the captain, and Earnie Stewart needed to be restrained by security guards and U.S. team officials from going after Prendergast at the center circle.

“I told him he cheated us,” Arena said before storming out of the post-match press conference. “The call was “disgraceful” and “that’s not the way to decide a game.”

Reyna threw his captain’s armband at Prendergast. “Concacaf referees are miles behind the rest of the world,” he said. “I don’t think the referee was awful the whole time, but that particular play was the game. It’s terrible.”

Rolando Fonseca’s eight-yard header had given the Costa Ricans the lead in the 10th minute, but Stewart tied it, putting home a rebound of a Razov shot in the 65th minute. To further frustrate and complicate matters, Eddie Lewis, a much more accomplished passer than shooter, missed two golden point-blank opportunities to score.

As time was winding down, U.S. TV announcer Ty Keough surmised that Frankie Hejduk’s ill-advised trip on Austin Berry in the penalty area in the 89th minute could result in a make-up call. He turned out to be exactly right.

By the time Predergast had whistled the match over, the field was so littered by paper and heavens knows what else that it looked more like a party paper store than a soccer field.

Medford sent a cross into the area that Berhalter headed down, deflecting off his body and then out of bounds for an apparent Costa Rican corner kick.

“I headed it out of bounds,” Berhalter told The Washington Post. “Basically, that’s it. . . . It was a case where the referee was under pressure to call something. My hands were at my sides the way they always are.”

“To call a penalty on something like that, I’ve just never seen it before,” Keller said. “The Costa Rican players didn’t even react that much. They were happy to have a corner kick. . . . Personally, I just don’t think [Prendergast] wanted to go to the airport [and face the Costa Rican fans] after a 1-1 draw.”

Speaking of the airport, ironically, the next day at Miami International Airport, Washington Post writer Steve Goff ran into Prendergast while waiting for a connecting flight to Jamaica the next day.

Prendergast said that “it was pretty clear to me from my angle” that the ball struck Berhalter’s hand. He added that the ball hit Berhalter in the face and then “had a change of direction that was not consistent with the ball coming down” in a routine situation. “I looked at my [linesman] and he concurred with me.”

Added Prendergast: “It’s unfortunate the game was decided that way, but for me, I have to do what is right. . . . For the good of the game, that’s what I’m about.”

Asked about the non-call on Hejduk, Prendergast replied, “There was clearly no contact. It was more than a dive.”

He referred to a photograph in the San Jose newspaper La Nacion, which showed Berry in the air and the sliding Hejduk a short distance behind him.

Asked about Reyna’s outburst, Prendergast said he cited the midfielder for the armband incident in his post-match report. Reyna faced a fine and suspension from either FIFA or CONCACAF. “I understand the emotion and he said what he had to say, but he went too far,” he said.

With the July, 2000 games under their belt, Arena and the U.S. knew what they were getting themselves into in 2001 in Central America in the final Concacaf round.

In fact, the Americans were even going to surprise themselves on March 28 against Honduras in San Pedro Sula, as they entered another cauldron of Central American soccer and survived to talk about it.

As was his custom, Arena refused to give the small American media contingent his lineup because his team was reeling from several injuries, including to Landon Donovan, Claudio Reyna, McBride, Moore, Pope and 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 newspaper 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 2-1 triumph.

The drama was provided by Clint Mathis, who had replaced the ailing Reyna (pulled groin muscle). Mathis 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 gutsy performance by the Americans, who won only for the fifth time in 22 games in Central America. 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.

“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,” 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, 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 Valladares 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, defensive midfielder Chris 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 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 Agoos and Carlos Llamosa were rocks, clearing crosses and passes out of harm’s way.

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

After the U.S. was stunned by a rare home qualifying defeat – 3-2 – to Honduras on Sept. 1, 2001, the team had to travel to its least favorite place in the world to play soccer — Estadio Ricardo Saprissa in Costa Rica — only four days later.

The U.S. deployed a revamped lineup that played like it wanted to get out of Saprissa with a scoreless tie and a point, but failed miserably in a 2-0 loss before 30,000 exuberant and screaming fans.

Steve Cherundolo and David Regis were benched. Agoos and Pope still patrolled the middle, but Carlos Llamosa and Greg Vanney were on the right and left flanks, respectively. Backup defensive midfielder Richie Williams got a rare start, teaming with Armas. Jovan Kirovski remained up top, joined by Jones, subbing for Landon Donovan.

Arena’s ultra-conservative strategy worked for 40 minutes — until Llamosa pulled down Ronald Gomez in the penalty area. Friedel guessed that Rolando Fonseca would kick right and the Costa Rican booted the ball down the middle for a 1-0 lead. Fonseca added another score in the 68th minute on a through pass by Solis, who beat the offside trap.

“The better team won today,” Arena said. “We wanted to get through the first pass but we dropped off too deep on defense.”

The Americans’ losing streak reach three, their longest since the 1970 and 1974 qualifying runs.

2006

Panama (Sept. 9, 2005)

Leaving things for the last minute is not a particularly good habit to get into, but the USMNT has thrived on it on the road during World Cup qualifying.

For the second consecutive away match, the U.S. pulled out a dramatic 1-1 draw as veteran Cobi Jones struck two minutes into stoppage time for a 1-1 tie in Panama City.

Jones, a 57th-minute sub for Clint Mathis, scored from eight yards some 85 seconds into added time to give the U.S. the stunning tie.

On Aug. 18, the Americans pulled out yet another 1-1 draw on an 89th-minute goal by Brian Ching.

The tie in Panama kept the U.S. (five points) undefeated in Concacaf Group A at 1-0-2 and extended the team’s unbeaten streak to 10 games (6-0-4). Surprising Panama (four points) is 1-1-1.

It was the fifth time this year the U.S. scored either the equalizing or winning goal in the 88th minute or beyond.

“We have a natural attitude of never say die,” Jones said. “We’re a team that never quits. We’re going to play ball for 90 minutes.

“It was a credit to us to come back and get that goal when we’re getting outplayed a bit.”

With the U.S. in desperate need of a goal, Vanney sent a left-wing cross into the penalty area to Donovan. Donovan’s shot went directly to Jones, who beat goalkeeper Donaldo Gonzalez to the far post to silence the estimated enthusiastic crowd of 12,000 and Panama president Martin Torrijeos at Estadio Rommel Fernandez.

“It bounced straight down across the goal,” Donovan said of Vanney’s cross. “My eyes got big. As I went to shoot it, it hit a little puddle and stopped. It kind of came off the end of my foot and went to Cobi.

“Things happen for a reason.”

Despite Jones’s late heroics, the U.S. still has trouble winning in Central America. Until then, the Americans had won but three times in 15 tries, all victories coming in Honduras. The U.S. is 3-6-6 in qualifiers down there.

Panama, which never has qualified for a World Cup, was on the cusp of a startling upset on the strength of Roberto Brown’s 70th minute goal against the favored Americans, vying to reach their fifth consecutive Cup.

Ricardo Phillips, a first-half substitute, made a 45-yard run, going in one-on-one with Kasey Keller before firing a shot that the goalkeeper knocked away. The ball was sent back in and hit the right post before Brown scored in a scramble from five yards.

The stadium, already a sea of red with spectators wearing the colors of their team, erupted with smoke bombs and popcorn and drinks flying down from the upper decks.

The match was played under less than optimum conditions. A thunderstorm several miles from the stadium threatened to delay the game, but it abated before kickoff. Still, rain continued throughout the match, making one penalty area waterlogged.

A good three hours prior to kickoff, two radio stations blared loud, deafening, incomprehensible music over loudspeakers for several hundred fans who arrived early. There were only four light towers, which made life miserable for the players, particularly the goalkeepers, and no working scoreboard.

U.S. coach Bruce Arena made five changes from the lineup he deployed in the 2-0 home victory over El Salvador the previous Saturday. He used more veterans in Keller, defenders Eddie Pope, Frankie Hejduk and Vanney and midfielder Mathis in favor of Tim Howard (he returned to Manchester United), Cory Gibbs, Steve Cherundolo, Bobby Convey and Kerry Zavagnin, respectively.

Both teams had little to show for their attacking soccer in a scoreless first half.

With Reyna at defensive midfielder, Mathis ran the show for the U.S. in the first half. He set up teammates with quick flicks or bloop passes, attempting to circumvent the slick field. It almost paid off in the 21st minute when he chipped a pass from 35 yards to defender Carlos Bocanegra, whose shot was deflected out of bounds by Gonzalez.

Mathis nearly scored himself in the 26th minute as his 12-yard shot, after quick passes by Conor Casey and Brian Ching, was knocked out of bounds by Gonzalez.

The Americans successfully defended a water-logged penalty area in the half with very few slip-ups. That forced Panama to shoot from long range. Julio Medina powered a 22-yard shot to the left of the net in the 17th minute and midfielder Engie Mitre had Keller beat with a 26-yard blast that sailed wide left in the 42nd minute. Mitre knew he had wasted a golden opportunity, punching his arm in frustration.

“The big part of the game was our inability to take advantage of our control we had in the first half,” Arena said.

Panama slowly, but surely took control of the match in the final 45 minutes. Brown headed a corner kick right to Keller in the 57th minute and defender Carlos Rivera headed another from three yards over the goal. Phillips almost brought the crowd to its feet, firing a hard, 22-yard shot wide right.

In an attempt to revive his team’s attack, Arena made three offensive-minded substitutions. He pulled Mathis for Jones in the 57th minute, Casey for McBride in the 62nd minute and Ching for Eddie Lewis in the 77th minute.

While the trio did not immediately make an impact, they came through when the game was on the line.

“We wore them down at the end,” Arena said. “I thought it would be the other way.”

El Salvador (Oct. 9, 2004)

The U.S. needed four points against host El Salvador Oct. 9 and visiting Panama Oct. 13 to reach the final round.

“I don’t think we’ve played at our best up to this point but we’re on top of our group,” Arena said. “If we can turn a corner here and improve our performance, I think we’re going to be in good shape. It’s a challenge, I don’t think people realize that our opponents have been training for a couple weeks and it’s very difficult. . . . All players have to be ready to respond and improve on their performances from our last three games.”

The Americans had to accomplish that with two key midfielders missing from the lineup. Reyna (thigh injury) and defensive midfielder Chris Armas (knee operation), who was not fit enough to play at the international level.

In 20 of the last 21 qualifiers, Arena had either or both players in the lineup. The only time they both weren’t in the starting 11 was in the final 2002 qualifier at Trinidad & Tobago. By then the U.S. had clinched a spot. “It’s going to be difficult not having those guys obviously,” Pope said. “That’s why you have to have a lot of good players on the national team.”

Lo and behold, the U.S. accomplished a rare feat, winning in San Salvador, El Salvador, 2-0, the Americans’ fourth win in Central America — ever. The triumph solidified the Americans’ hold on first place with a chance to clinch at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. four days later. The U.S. (2-0-2, 8) led the group, followed by Panama (1-1-2, 5), Jamaica (1-1-2, ) an d El Salvador (1-3-0, 3).

“We did well,” Arena said. “We took El Salvador’s best shot. I think the first half we were a little sloppy in different parts of the field, but I think in the second half we were much more solid. Obviously, we could have scored more goals. You don’t win that many games on the road in World Cup qualifying. We finished this round without losing a game on the road so I think that’s a big plus for our team.”

The last time the U.S. emerged triumphant in Central America was a 2-1 win over Honduras on a late goal by Mathis in March, 2001. The win also ended a dubious American streak as the team finally won a qualifier outside of Honduras. Entering the match the U.S. had been 0-for-11 (0-5-6) in trying to earn a full three points in Central American qualifying games, which included a single draw in their only previous qualifying game in El Salvador (a 1-1 tie in 1997).

McBride’s game-opening goal — his 26th internationally — came in the 29th minute, after DaMarcus Beasley had tracked down a long ball from Zavagnin and earned a throw-in on the right side. The PSV Eindhoven midfielder threw the ball in on the wing, where Zavagnin collected it on a run into the box before playing a short pass to McBride.

McBride set himself up for a right-footed shot by sliding across the top of the penalty area with four straight touches as no El Salvador defenders closed on him, burying his shot from 16 yards into the upper right corner. It was McBride’s seventh goal vs. El Salvador.

“When I received the ball, I just tried to shield it and turn,” McBride said. “I faked the shot and the second time I was going to hit it but I faked again and they fell off again and the ball set up for the third time and I struck it pretty well.”

The game marked the debut of 20-year-old forward Eddie Johnson, who burst onto the international scene unlike any other American forward prior him. Only four minutes after making his first appearance as a second-half substitute coming on for McBride, Johnson struck for his first international goal. The goal couldn’t have been much easier as he slotted a square ball from Donovan into an empty net after Donovan was sprung by a Beasley pass. Johnson was left unmarked on his goal as the last defender, captain Victor Velasquez, attempted to steal the ball.

“I was lucky. I was in the right place at the right time,” Johnson said. “I moved into the box and Landon made a very unselfish play to pass the ball. I just wanted to do well for the team. I wanted to hold the ball up and bring other players into the game.”

With Reyna out, Donovan was selected to wear the captain’s armband for the U.S. for the first time in his career. “The second highest honor is playing for your country and the highest honor is wearing the (captain’s) armband for your country,” Donovan said. “It was good because I knew I was going to be ready. It shows that the players have confidence in me and that feels good.”

Arena was right. It was a very different game in Washington, D.C. as the U.S. booked a spot in the 2005 final round with a rare qualifying laugher, a resounding 6-0 thrashing of Panama. Johnson continued his torrid pace, again coming on a sub and connecting for a second-half hat-trick. Lost in the shuffle was the fact Donovan scored twice as the hosts pounded Panama for five second-half scores.

Panama (June 8, 2005)

There was little doubt the U.S. was playing on all cylinders. For the second consecutive game, the U.S. scored three goals and registered a 3-0 World Cup qualifying victory over Panama in Panama City (where they had struggled for a 1-1 draw some nine months earlier) four days later, a year and a day to the start of the World Cup in Germany.

“We are the first team in this cycle to beat Panama at home,” Arena said. “As critical as we are sometimes of our performances, getting a result like that is exceptional. The first goal was big, the second goal was terrific, and then Kasey Keller once again was tremendous. In most game reports, that will go unnoticed, but those three saves were tremendous. Overall, we did what we had to do. The back line played very well and we scored opportunistic goals.”

The victory solidified the Americans’ hold on second place (4-1-0, 12). Mexico (4-0-1, 13), 2-0 winners over Trinidad & Tobago, still was atop the group.

Bocanegra started the scoring in the sixth minute. Donovan sent a corner kick into the penalty area. Bocanegra headed the ball off the crossbar and into the net.

“I just got up and got high on the ball and put it in,” Bocanegra said. “It was a big goal, especially in a hostile environment. We knew we had to go and get goals and force them to chase the game. We got really confident after the third goal, but we knew anything could happen.”

Donovan made it 2-0 in the 20th minute with his 21st international goal. Ralston crossed the ball into the box. Donovan won the challenge, heading the ball into the bottom left corner of the net. Donovan has collected at least a goal or assist in 12 of 13 qualifiers, a first in U.S. history.

McBride sealed the win in the 40th minute, his 28th international goal and his ninth career qualifying goal, tying him with Stewart for the all-time U.S. lead. McBride recovered the ball at the top of the area  and beat goalkeeper Donaldo Gonzalez.

Guatemala (Sept. 7, 2005)

After clinching a spot in the 2006 World Cup with a dos a cero win over Mexico Sept. 3, Arena allowed virtually the entire European contingent to return home to train with their European clubs, while recalling MLS players who were allowed to return to their teams for the previous week’s matches.

Gone from the team are Keller, Berhalter, Reyna, Beasley and McBride. The Reading duo of Convey and goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann was all that remained of the Euro-based players for the Guatemala encounter.

Goalkeeper Matt Reis, defenders Chad Marshall and Vanney were recalled from their MLS clubs. Kansas City Wizards defender Nick Garcia was the only new addition to the original training camp roster in Columbus.

“It gives the coach a real chance to look at some other players in games that matter,” Berhalter said.

The game was meaningless for the U.S., although Guatemala was still battling for a spot. But for players on the bubble for next year’s the 23-man roster, the three remaining matches were vital to make their case. The candidates included the New England Revolution forward Taylor Twellman, Ralston and Dempsey and Reis, among others.

“This is a fantastic opportunity for this group to demonstrate they can perform in this type of environment,” said Arena. “Can they win a game where the home team is desperate, the crowd is against them, and the conditions are difficult? Players that can do that are the kind of players that can possibly help your team in a World Cup. It’s a great chance for them to prove that.”

Guatemala City was hardly a proving ground for the U.S. In only four days, the Americans went from a side that clinched a Cup berth to one that was a spoiler.

They certainly had their chances, but couldn’t finish them. They remained unbeaten in eight games (4-0-4) against the Central American side. While the U.S. (6-1-1, 19 points) earned a tie with its sixth consecutive qualifying shutout, the Guatemalans had to leave Mateo Flores Stadium much more frustrated, realizing they had squandered two precious points in their bid to finish third.

The U.S.’s best opportunity came in the 80th minute when a six-yard header from Johnson, a second-half sub, went wide of the near right post. Johnson put his hands on his head, realizing he missed a golden opportunity.

“It was a good ball by Landon, but it’s like a kid in a candy store,” Johnson told the Associated Press. “I was already thinking about my celebration before I even headed the ball.”

The Guatemalans had their best chance in the 90th minute when Edwin Villatoro fired a shot that left the left post. The rebound by Carlos Figueroa sailed over the crossbar.

“Both teams had chances in the second half,” Arena said. “I thought our team had a much-improved effort in the last 45 minutes. The rule of thumb in qualifying is that if you get a point on the road, you have done well. I’m satisfied with the result. It is always difficult to play on the road, and we made 11 changes to the team that played against Mexico.”

Costa Rica (Oct. 8, 2005)

It was a good thing that the Oct. 8 qualifier in San Jose, Costa Rica didn’t mean much to the U.S. in terms of booking a spot in Germany because the team was forced off schedule thanks to Mother Nature. It was business as usual when the team left its Miami hotel at 2:45 p.m. on Thursday. That all changed when one of the staff members was briefly left behind and the journey quickly became anything but normal.

The charter flight took off for San Jose with an expected arrival time of about 7 p.m. But about an hour out of San Jose, Costa Rica ground control informed the pilots that bad weather in San Jose made landing impossible at the moment. Deciding to head to Panama City to refuel and wait out the storm, the charter touched down about 6:30 p.m.

After three hours, the decision was made to stay in Panama City for the night. But there was one problem. A chicken and egg convention had booked nearly every room in the city. However, with the help of the Intercontinental Hotel in Panama City, the team found accommodations in the jungle resort town of Gamboa, about an hour from the airport.

The U.S. eventually arrived in San Jose, although the less said about the game the better. Carlos Hernandez scored two goals as Costa Rica became the third CONCACAF nation to qualify for World Cup with a 3-0 win over the U.S. at Saprissa Stadium on Oct. 8, The Americans have never won in Costa Rica in eight attempts (0-6-2).

The U.S. left its offense home. The defense didn’t fare much better, often looking disorganized in front Howard.

Costa Rica controlled the flow of play for much of the first half, and finally broke through in the 34th minute. Alvaro Saborio got through the defense on a long ball and attempted a point-blank shot on a charging Howard. The rebound found Paulo Wanchope, who finished into an open net.

2010

Guatemala (Aug. 20, 2008)

In the opening game of qualifying for South Africa, the Americans got off on the right foot, securing a 1-0 win over Guatemala in Guatemala City.

Center back Carlos Bocanegra scored on a header in the 69th minute. Bocanegra, who was left unmarked some three yards from the net, headed home DaMarcus Beasley’s corner kick for his 10th goal in 59 international matches. Beasley had entered the game only three minutes earlier, replacing a bleeding Eddie Lewis. Lewis needed to be stretchered off after he collided with Jose Manuel Contreras’ forearm while both players leapt for the ball.

On the other side of the field, Bocanegra was solid as he disrupted Carlos Ruiz and Carlos Manuel Contreras from receiving crosses.

The USMNT was forced to play the final 30 minutes of regulation and stoppage time a man down after right back Steve Cherundolo was red carded for tripping Freddy Garcia for his second yellow card.

Goalkeeper Tim Howard was credited with the shutout.

El Salvador (March 28, 2009)

Talk about dodging bullet. Overcoming a two-goal deficit, the USA pulled off an two-goal rally behind Jozy Altidore and Frankie Hejduk that quieted a boisterous crowd of 30,500 at Estadio Cuscatlan.

The result gave the Americans (1-0-1, 4) a precious road point while the hosts played to their second home draw in as many matches in the Hexagonal.

The El Salvadorans grabbed a 15th-minute lead on Eliseo Quintanilla’s score, taking an advantage of a giveaway by DaMarcus Beasley. Quintanilla took a pass from Osael Romero and beat goalkeeper Brad Guzan, sliding the ball inside the far post. Guzan started in place of Tim Howard, serving a yellow-card suspension.

In the 72nd minute as Rodolfo Zelaya maneuvered past Beasley on the wing and crossed the ball to Castillo at the top of the penalty area. Cristian Castillo headed the ball in on one bounce for a 2-0 lead.

The Americans, however, weren’t dead. Altidore, who came on in the 61st minute, scored on a header from three yards out off a Hejduk cross past backup goalkeeper Juan Jose Gomez in the 77th minute. Gomez had replaced injured starter Miguel Montes earlier.

Hejduk, playing right back for the second successive game while regular Steve Cherunoldo recovered from a hip injury, tallied the equalizer in the 88th minute. The unmarked defender headed the ball home after Donovan’s corner kick deflected off El Salvadoran defender Marvin Gonzalez.

Brian Ching might have experienced the most frustrating game. He put the ball into the net in the 43rd minute, but as many as five teammates might have been offside on the play. Seven minutes into second-half stoppage time, the U.S. striker tried to score a spectacular game-winner on a bicycle kick but defender Mardoqueo Henriquez denied his bid at 11th-hour heroics.

A couple of interesting notes on Castillo: He scored three international goals in 47 appearances for his country. Two were against the USA in WCQ for South Africa 2010. His other goal was in a 2-2 loss in Sandy, Utah on Sept. 5, 2009. Castillo was one of 14 El Salvadoran players who were banned from the sport for life because of their involvement with a match-fixing scheme.

Costa Rica (June 3, 2009)

The USMNT entered the Monster’s Cave Wednesday night optimistic and confident that it could finally get a tie or even a win in that unforgiving stadium.

Instead, the Americans quickly crashed back to reality, leaving with yet another nightmare result at their personal house of horrors, Saprissa Stadium.

Buoyed by a goal scored only 79 seconds into the match and another in the 13th minute, Costa Rica rolled to a relatively easy 3-1 World Cup qualifying victory over an embarrassed American side.

To be fair, the score wasn’t that close.

“As a group tonight, we came up short in every way,” U.S. coach Bob Bradley said.

It was the worst qualifying result for the Americans since their 3-0 defeat in Costa Rica on Oct. 8, 2005. At least the visitors had an excuse in that game, leaving several key players at home because they already had clinched a berth for Germany 2006. Nothing has been decided for South Africa 2010 and the U.S. hardly looked like legitimate CONCACAF contenders — at least for one night.

The loss dropped the U.S. (2-1-1, seven points) into second place in the CONCACAF hexagonal behind the Ticos (3-1-0, 10). The Americans will face a must-win situation against Honduras in Chicago on Saturday.

“We didn’t compete hard enough,” Howard said. “We got beat to balls. They caused us problems we couldn’t figure out. A lot went wrong.

“No one is going to feel sorry for us. We’ve taken our lumps now. We cruised in the semifinal round and we’re no longer at the top of the group. We’ve got our work cut out for us.”

Asked if he thought the Americans were embarrassed, forward Landon Donovan replied, “I don’t feel embarrassed. I’m disappointed. It’s disappointing to play that way. We were never in control because of the way we started the game. and that’s what makes it difficult.”

Saprissa, its artificial turf and its exuberant fans has been a horrendous place for the U.S., which has never won here (0-6-0).

Howard refused to use that as an excuse. “It’s a great place to play,” he said. “It’s an awesome atmosphere. . . . That’s the least of our problems tonight. We created our own problems tonight, not the turf or atmosphere.”

The Americans were on the verge of getting shut out for the third consecutive time here, but Donovan’s penalty kick two minutes into stoppage time ended a 295-minute scoreless streak at Saprissa (dating back to Earnie Stewart’s goal in a 2-1 loss on July 23, 2000).

It was way too little and way too late for the Americans, who were beaten in virtually every phase of the game continually.

“We were under pressure from the start, and we didn’t control the game. They took advantage,” U.S. coach Bob Bradley said. “I just don’t think we were good enough.”

It was one of those nights in which the Americans could do very little right as the Ticos struck first on a beautiful goal less than two minutes after kickoff.

Alvaro Saborio fired a left-footed shot from the top right of the penalty area into the upper right corner of the net. There was no way that Howard could have gotten to the ball it was placed so deftly.

“We were behind the eight ball before we even got started,” Howard said. “It’s not like the crowd needed any more motivation to be up for the game. We didn’t deal with it properly. The guy hits a great shot. It couldn’t have started worse, that’s for sure.”

Costa Rica’s second goal came off a give-and-go between Angel Esteban Sirias and Bryan Ruiz on the left side. The ball came to Celso Borges, who connected from the middle of the box in the 13th minute for a 2-0 lead.

“We weren’t smart in the first part of the game,” Donovan said. “We didn’t play the way we should have. In the environment we’re in, the situation we’re in, playing on turf, playing away, we didn’t play the way we needed to and that’s disappointing because we have players who know better.”

The Americans were forced to press the rest of the match, leaving gaping holes in the back for Costa Rican counterattacks as central defenders Carlos Bocanegra and Oguchi Onyweu cleaned up in front of the net.

Even though the U.S. tried to get on the board, players rushed their passes and never truly made many dangerous threats. For example, during breaks into Tico territory, Donovan twice lost the ball on simple tackles in the first half. While trying to set up overlapping left fullback DaMarcus Beasley, Jozy Altidore’s pass picked up too much momentum on the artificial turf.

“We were never dangerous in the first half,” Donovan said. “We had some good movements and passing sequences. But at the end of the day, we never got anywhere.”

Pablo Herrera put the exclamation point on the victory as he found himself with plenty of room as no one picked him up in the area and he fired a 10-yard shot past Howard for a commanding 3-0 advantage in the 69th minute.

Honduras (Oct. 10, 2009)

The USMNT 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.

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 singing, 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.

2014

Guatemala (June 12, 2012)

A funny thing happened to the USA en route to what the Americans thought would be a qualifying win in Central America. They didn’t get there.

Second-half substitute Marco Pappa converted a free kick in the 83rd minute to boosts Guatemala into a 1-1 draw at Estadio Mateo Flores that Tuesday night.

The deadlock boosted the Americans (1-0-1, 4) into the Group A lead with Jamaica (1-0-1, 4), which played host Antigua & Barbuda (0-1-1, 1) to a scoreless tie earlier in the night. Guatemala (0-1-1, 1) is tied with Antigua.

The draw extended the U.S.’s unbeaten streak over the Central American side to 18 games (12-0-6), dating back to a 1-0 loss on Jan. 10, 1988.

“We got a result here,” U.S. coach Juergen Klinsmann said. “We wanted three points but we’re OK with the one point that we take away leading the group. And knowing now going into Jamaica, for us, we have to get that result as well, which we will do, and we’ll be one of the two top teams that advance. That is our goal as well as Guatemala’s goal.”

Klinsmann, however, admitted he was disappointed the Americans could not find another.

“When you control the game the way we did, especially after we scored the goal and passed around the ball really well, you’re a bit disappointed when something like that happens,” he said. “On the other side, they never gave up. They launched long balls and ran for second balls, that’s their kind of approach and that’s always tricky.

“You’ve got to give them credit for that. Overall, I’m pleased with the performance of our guys. The way they played the game, controlled the game, it was clear to see that we came here for three points – we didn’t come here for a point.”

With time winding down in the match, midfielder Fabian Johnson received a yellow card for fouling striker Carlos Ruiz some 24 yards from the net. Pappa, who replaced Carlos Figueroa at halftime, drilled a left-footed shot just inside the underside of the crossbar past Howard to equalize.

Asked if he thought whether the hosts could come from behind, Klinsmann replied, “It’s always possible that you can concede a goal on a set piece. We conceded a goal from a set piece, a beautiful free kick. But corner kicks are also dangerous from Guatemala. We knew that so we were prepared for that. Obviously, when you lead one-nil, you want to close it down. You want to score the second goal. . . . It was pretty serious there. It was tough for us. They kept pushing and creating and then they got that goal through a beautiful free kick.”

Clint Dempsey struck in the 40th minute to give the Americans a 1-0 lead. Johnson sent the Fulham midfielder-forward a centering pass from the left side and Dempsey got some space from his marker and slotted his 27th international goal past goalkeeper Ricardo Jerez.

Only two minutes prior to the goal, Howard denied Ruiz on a shot from the right side of the penalty area.

Ruiz was a handful for the U.S. defense for most of the match.

A minute into first-half stoppage time, Ruiz beat midfielders Michael Bradley and Maurice Edu and fired a shot from inside the penalty area that just missed the net on the left side.

Honduras (Feb. 6, 2013)

An encouraging start was negated by a poor finish as the USA dropped a disappointing decision in San Pedro Sula.

Striker Jerry Bengtson took advantage of a defensive lapse to break a tie in the 79th minute and lift Honduras to a 2-1 victory over the United States in the opening round of the hexagonal.

“We got outplayed in a lot of facets of the game,” Howard said.

Clint Dempsey put the Americans into the lead in the 36th minute (31st international goal in 92 appearances), but the Hondurans answered back with a Juan Carlos Garcia bicycle kick and Bengston’s late score at Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano.

The game-winner was set up Oscar Boniek, who ran through the heart of the USA defense. Howard charged out of the net, but could not disrupt the Houston Dynamo player. He touched the ball into open space as Bengston scored into an open net. Bengston played with the New England Revolution at the time.

“Overall, there were too many mistakes done and too many players today just didn’t reach their usual potential,” U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann was quoted by the Associated Press. “They stayed behind their own game and there, it’s really difficult coming away with a win here if you’re not having everybody 100 percent at their limits.”

Costa Rica (Sept. 6, 2013)

Estadio Saprissa. Estadio Nacional.

It doesn’t matter where Costa Rica plays the United States in their country. The Ticos always have their foes number.

That number is usually three, as in the number of points the Costa Ricans accrue when they host the Americans in a World Cup qualifier.

The result certainly was no different on Friday night. Costa Rica sprinted out to an early two-goal advantage in front of a loud, enthusiastic and boisterous crowd and recorded a 3-1 victory over the United States before a capacity crowd of 35,000 at Estadio Nacional.

Johnny Acosta and Celso Borges scored first-half goals and Joel Campbell sealed it with an insurance tally for the Ticos (4-2-1, 13 points), who moved past the Americans (4-2-1, 13) and into the lead.

Clint Dempsey converted a penalty kick late in the first half for the Americans, who had their 12-game winning streak snapped.

The loss might have ramifications for the USA against Mexico on Tuesday as the Americans lost three players for that match because they had accrued their second yellow card of the hexagonal — Jozy Altidore, Geoff Cameron and Matt Besler.

Even before the first ball was kicked, the USA suffered a major loss during pre-game warm-ups when central midfielder Michael Bradley suffered a sprained left ankle that left him on the sidelines in crutches with a big ice bag over his ailing ankle. Geoff Cameron replaced the standout midfielder in the Starting XI and Bradley’s absence certainly hurt the U.S.’s composure and defensive structure in the early going.

In fact, the game got off to a rousing start for the hosts, who struck with the game only 119 seconds old.

About 30 seconds prior, U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard swatted away Bryan Ruiz’s shot for a corner kick. On the ensuing kick, an in-swinger from Joel Campbell was sent into the area that Acosta headed past Howard into the left corner for a 1-0 lead. Acosta beat his man, Dempsey, as the ball deflected off of left back DaMarcus Beasley.

Dempsey attempted the Americans’ first shot in the ninth minute on a 19-yard bicycle kick that was easily saved by goalkeeper Keylor Navas.

Some 30 seconds later, Costa Rica wound up celebrating its second goal off a counterattack as Cristian Bolanos fed Borges, who headed the ball home for a 2-0 advantage in the ninth minute.

There was little doubt as to which team controlled much of the first half as the Costa Ricans constantly won first and second balls while the Americans had trouble clearing their half of the field and get a decent attack going. The Ticos outshot the visitors in the opening 45 minutes, 10-4.

The U.S. tried to halve the lead in the 29th minute, but Navas slammed away Fabian Johnson’s 14-yard blast.

Six minutes later, Howard denied Campbell after the talented young striker got behind the U.S. defense to fire a point-blank shot that the keeper saved.

Navas, however, wasn’t perfect as he took down Johnson in the penalty area after Johnson fed his teammate with a quick, long free kick and referee Marco Antonio Rodriguez (Mexico) pointed to the penalty spot.

Dempsey, who was playing in his 100th international, took the penalty and he fired a shot into the middle of the goal that Navas got a hand on, but could not save as the U.S. sliced the lead to 2-1 in the 43rd minute.

It was Dempsey’s eighth qualifying goal during this cycle and 13th overall.

Dempsey came close on connecting for a second goal in the 56th minute as he ripped a shot off the left post.

As it turned out, the U.S. suffered two more losses in the second half. In the 62nd minute, Cameron was assessed a yellow card for fouling a Costa Rican player. It was his second of the hexagonal, which means he will miss Tuesday’s qualifier against Mexico in Columbus. Matthew Besler also was slapped with his second yellow card of the round late in the match, forcing him out of Tuesday’s encounter.

In an attempt to secure the equalizer, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann made a pair of offensive substitutions in the second half, bringing on speedster Eddie Johnson for Graham Zusi in the 58th minute and striker Jozy Altidore for Johnson in the 71st minute.

The equalizer never came as the Ticos tallied an insurance goal in the 75th minute. Second-half sub Jose Miguel Cubero sent Campbell a through ball and the striker was off to the races, running past a pair of U.S. defenders before depositing the ball in the back of the net for a 3-1 advantage.

Panama (Oct. 15, 2013)

Talk about a classic comeback and a complete turnaround.

Trailing 2-1 entering injury time, the USMNT rallied for two goals to pull out a rather improbable 3-2 victory over Panama in Panama City. The win kept Mexico’s world Cup hopes alive and eliminated the Central Americans.

The USA, which clinched a berth in September, did not use most of its regulars in a game played in a downpour.

Gabriel Torrest drew first blood for the hosts in the 18th minute, but Michael Orozco equalized in the 64th minute.

Panama, however, forced ahead on Luis Tejada’s goal in the 83rd minute.

But the USA had the last words. Actually, Graham Zusi and Aron Johannsson had the last words.

Zusi knotted things up 84 seconds into added time and Johannsson thrust the dagger into Panama’s back at 2:30 of stoppage time (three minutes were given) to seal the team’s elimination.

2018

Guatemala (March 25, 2016)

Guatemala dealt a lethargic USA a 2-0 loss in qualifier in Guatemala City. It was the first time the Central Americans defeated the USMNT in qualifying.

The victory gave Guatemala six points from three matches, one behind Group C leaders Trinidad and Tobago. The U.S.’s four points put the squad in third, ahead of St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

Rafael Morales and Carlos Ruiz struck for goals in the opening 15 minutes and goalkeeper Paulo Motta was outstanding in goal for the Guatemalans, who secured their first qualifying victory over the USA and climbed over the Americans into second place in Concacaf Group C.

USMNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann was confident prior to the match, but all that went down the drain quickly.

The hosts got off to a dream start when Morales nodded a corner kick off the back of Mix Diskerud and past goalkeeper Tim Howard in the seventh minute. Ruiz doubled the lead in the on the quarter hour when a long goal kick from Motta rolled untouched past the defense. Ruiz raced onto it and beating Howard.

The Americans looked more dangerous early in the second half. Motta answered the challenge, denying Dempsey and Diskerud from close range.

Costa Rica (Nov. 15, 2016)

The United States has endured and experienced more than its share of problems, headaches and struggles in Costa Rica over the years. On that Tuesday night, the Americans hit a new low, even for themselves.

In the team’s worst performance in the Central America country, the USMNT went down to a stunning and embarrassing 4-0 defeat. It was the most one-sided loss for the U.S. since 1980 and the most one-sided shutout loss in 59 years.

That was only days after losing to Mexico in Columbus, 2-1, at Mapfre Stadium, which had become known as the dos a cero venue.

Trailing 1-0 midway through the second half, the Ticos pulled away as Joel Campbell scored twice and Cristian Bolanos added a single tally during a 10-minute span in front of a sellout crowd of 35,000 at Estadio Nacional in San Jose.

“A very, very bitter moment for us,” Klinsmann told The Los Angeles Times. “We didn’t imagine going into the hexagonal with two defeats right at the beginning. This is a moment to reflect [on] what happened in the last 10 days.”

Three questions into the postgame press conference, Klinsmann was asked if he was right man to lead the USMNT.

“Um, I think so,” he said.

Several days later, Klinsmann was sacked and replaced by Bruce Arena.

Panama (March 28, 2017)

It hardly came close to its dominating performance Friday night, but the United States took the point and walked out of Estadio Rommel Fernandez with a World Cup qualifying mission accomplished in Panama City, Panama.

In dead last in the Concacaf hexagonal entering the Games Three and Four of the competition, the Americans earned four points in those encounters, the second match a 1-1 draw with Panama.

The result kept the Red, White and Blue in fourth place in the six-team group, behind Mexico (3-0-1, 10), Costa Rica (2-1-1, 7) and Los Canaleros (1-1-2, 5). The top three teams earn an automatic berth to the 2018 World Cup in Russia, with the fourth-place side advancing to an inter-confederation playoff.

There are six games left in the hex.

“It wasn’t two points lost. We wanted to get a point,” U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “If we got six points we’d be on top of the world. Four is good. We look forward now to June.”

U.S. head coach Bruce Arena liked where his team was positioned after the past two matches with Trinidad & Tobago at home and Mexico away on tap in June.

“We’re obviously in better shape with four points in two games. We’re fourth, so we’ve made progress obviously every game in qualifying,” he said. “The remaining six games are going to be critical for every team. Every team is in there. Mexico is on top of the group with [10] points. They got a jump on everyone. It’s going to be a battle for the second, third and fourth spots. We made a lot of progress and somehow managed to get through an unusual amount of injuries and those type of things. I give our players a lot of credit.”

It was a physical affair, but referee César Arturo Ramos Palazuelos never pulled out either of his cards.

“They’re a physical team,” Howard said.  “This is probably the most athletic team in CONCACAF. So it’s hard to match them. I thought we did a good job.”

Added Arena: “They had a very aggressive posture, were very physical and that’s the way the game played out. the referee didn’t blow his whistle too much and that’s the way the game looked for 90 minutes.

“It was a slugfest for 90 minutes.”

Arena made three changes from Friday’s 6-0 demolition of Honduras, two on defense. He replaced right back Geoff Cameron with Graham Zusi, former Red Bulls center back Tim Ream took over for John Brooks and Jermaine Jones slotted in for the injured Sebastian Lletget.

Despite having a back four with not much qualifying experience, Arena was happy with its performance.

“They did a good job,” he said. “They never played together before. For the most part they were pretty solid.”

The U.S. was outplayed in the opening half, but managed to walk off the field with a 1-1 deadlock.

The combination of Christian Pulisic and Clint Dempsey, which was so devastating in the demolition of Honduras, clicked again in the 39th minute as the Central American side surrendered only its second goal of the hex.

Pulisic looked more like an 18-year veteran and not an 18-year-old midfielder on that scoring sequence.

On the right side of the penalty area, the Borussia Dortmund player first beat Felipe Baloy and then Seattle Sounders center back Roman Torres with some nifty moves to work himself free. He beat Baloy high in the box and then Torres at the edge of the six-yard box before sending Dempsey a short feed. The Sounders striker slotted the ball past goalkeeper Jaime Penedo for the lead. Dempsey’s goal was his 56th international as he moved one behind all-time U.S. leader Landon Donovan.

The Americans wanted to get out of the half with the lead, but the Panamanians had other things in mind four minutes later. Defender Adolfo Machado started the play with a long throw-in from the right side that went into a scrum of players inside the box. Gabriel Gomez managed to head the ball past goalkeeper Tim Howard for a 1-1 tie.

The goal snapped a 291-minute scoreless streak for the home team.

“We were a little sloppy in the goal that we conceded,” Arena said.

Gomez has been a thorn in the Americans’ sides through the years, having scored the game-winning goal in a 2-1 Panama triumph over their rivals in the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup. It was the first defeat the U.S. had suffered on home soil in the competition.

There were a handful of chances in the final half. Baloy managed to head a Pulisic close-range shot over the goal line for a corner kick in the 51st minute.

Eight minutes later, Howard, with the ball between his legs, managed to deny Luis Tejada.

All in all, though, Arena was more pleased than anything else.

“I’ve been very encouraged by what I’ve seen over the last 10 days,” he said. “Our veteran leadership is exceptional.”

Honduras (Sept. 5, 2017)

Only days after suffering a 2-0 home defeat to Costa Rica at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J., the Americans earned a road point to keep their slim hopes of a trip to Russia alive.

Bobby Wood scored off a scramble in front of the Honduran net in the 85th minute to salvage a 1-1 deadlock in San Pedro Sula. The tie lifted the US to a 2-3-3 record as it remained in third place in the Hexagonal.

Romell Quioto’s goal lifted Los Catrachos into a 28th-minute lead before second-half substitute Woods saved the day for the visitors.

“I was thinking we might have an early vacation at the end of this year,” Arena said.

“I’m proud of the way our team battled. Those were really difficult conditions. That was a huge point. With two games remaining in qualifying, we have everything to play for.”

And as it turned out, everything to lose.

Two wins in its final two games – against Panama at home and at Trinidad & Tobago – would have ensured an eighth trip to the World Cup for the USMNT. But we know how that transpired.