The USMNT celebrate reaching the 1990 World Cup. (Michael Lewis/FrontRowSoccer.com)

By Michael Lewis

FrontRowSoccer.com Editor

ORLANDO, Fla. – It’s never easy qualifying for the World Cup, whether you try to negotiate the tough jungle called CONCACAF or attempt to convince the powers that be of FIFA that you should be allowed to host the world’s greatest single sporting event.

This writer has been fortunate enough to witness the previous seven times the U.S. had reached soccer’s promised land.

With the USMNT closing in on Qatar 2022 – it hosts Panama on Sunday night – here’s a review of those special days in 1988, 1989, 1997, 2001, 2005, 2009 and 2013.

Warning: This story is not short reading.

1990

PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad – Finally, the long wait has ended.

Some 40 years of World Cup frustration and soccer futility were put to rest on Nov. 19, 1989 as the United States qualified.

The man of the hour, or in this case, 90 minutes, was a defensive midfielder named Paul Caligiuri, who etched his name into U.S. soccer history alongside those of Joe Gaetjens, Harry Keough and Walter Bahr with the lone goal of the game to lift the U.S. to a 1-0 victory over Trinidad & Tobago.

So, the United States, the first team to qualify for the 1994 World Cup, receiving an automatic bid as hosts, became the last and 24th finalist for Italia ’90. Some critics claimed the U.S. was not ready to host what is considered to be the world’s greatest sporting spectacle because it had not qualified on its own since 1950.

But this time, the U.S. (4-1-3, 11 points) did it the hard way; the Americans earned it on the field, qualifying as the second-place team in CONCACAF, behind Costa Rica (5-2-1, 11) and ahead of Trinidad (3-2-3, nine).

The U.S. had to overcome a pesky Trinidad team that needed only a tie to advance to Italy (coach Everald “Gally” Cummings claimed that the U.S. was not going to win) and an enthusiastic, overflowing crowd of more than 30,000 that wore red — the national colors — at National Stadium.

“This game will have a tremendous impact on the sport in the United States,” Caligiuri said in a locker room that was part New Year’s Eve and part Mardi Gras. “It was the single most important game we ever won.

“It proves to the rest of the world we can play and we can qualify. We all knew what was on the line for the future of soccer in the United States.”

He received little argument from his comrades.

Before he opened the locker room to the media, U.S. coach Bob Gansler told his troops, “Now we’ve gotten where we want to go, now we can dream a little bit.”

When they were not drinking or spilling champagne over each other and chanting, “USA, USA,” or “Italia ’90,” Caligiuri’s teammates and U.S. soccer officials talked about the victory’s significance.

“I’m especially pleased that the team went out there and did the job,” U.S. Soccer Federation president Werner Fricker said. “We needed it very badly. It was most important. Had the U.S. not won today, some of the players would have not gotten another chance.”

Some of the players put it more succinctly.

“It’s the greatest feeling in the world,” U.S. captain and sweeper Mike Windischmann said. “It’s just an awesome feeling.”

Added forward Bruce Murray: “I’m sky-high right now. It’s been a long, hard grind.”

No one realized that more than Caligiuri, a surprise starter who had not begun an important international match in more than a year — or since the Seoul Olympics in September 1988. He made the most of his opportunity in the 31stminute, beating goalkeeper Michael Maurice with a 25-yard shot slightly to the left that was taken against the wind. The ball sailed over the Trinidad defense and hooked into the right side of the net to break the U.S. goal-scoring drought at 239 minutes, slightly more than two a half games. It also was only Caligiuri’s second goal in 24 international matches.

“I saw I had space ahead of me,” Caligiuri said. “But then two defenders converted on me. I faked with my right foot and kicked it with my left foot over his head to the far post.

“Maybe it caught the goalkeeper by surprise. Maybe it was luck.”

No one complained. That included Murray, who admitted he expected Caligiuri to pass.

“I thought Cal was going to slip it to me or Tab [Ramos, U.S. midfielder],” he said. “When he kicked it, two guys on Trinidad who were standing nearby said, ‘Oh God, mon.’ They knew it was in. I was so happy.”

It was then up to the U.S. defense to make the goal stand up. In their first encounter with Trinidad, a 1-1 tie in Torrance, Calif. on May 13, the Americans lost a 1-0 lead with two minutes left.

While Trinidad did not place a dangerous shot on goal — the hosts outshot the U.S., 6-4 — it did have a number of close calls in the penalty area. For example, goalkeeper Tony Meola beat Leonson Lewis to a ball by a fraction of a second. Meola wore a white baseball cap in the second half to keep out the sun. He survived to record his fourth shutout in as many World Cup qualifying matches.

“It might have looked easy, but it was a difficult game for us,” Meola said.

Added Murray: “They had their opportunities, but Tony stopped them. He’s a world-class goalkeeper. I’m not going to swell his head because he has no ego. He’s amazing, an amazing goalkeeper.”

The U.S.’s unlikely hero was Caligiuri, a surprise starter and defensive midfielder who had not started an important international in more than a year – or since the 1988 Olympics. Gansler decided to start Caligiuri instead of John Stollmeyer, a midfielder with strong ties to Trinidad – his father was born there and his great uncles were world-class cricket players there – who had not missed a minute in the seven previous qualifying matches.

“I felt his quickness was better suited for [Russell] Latapy and (Dwight) Yorke,” Gansler said of the two dangerous Trinidad midfielders.

For Trinidad, it was a disappointing end to some high expectations. Immediately after the game, Trinidad players, wives and girlfriends cried openly on the sidelines.

The entire stadium was a sea of red — the national colors — as popular calypso stars sang songs about the World cup some two hours before the kickoff. Fans arrived six hours before the match so they could get a seat.

In fact, no one left the stadium after the match. The fans stood, chanting for their heroes a good half hour afterwards. Then the entire team re-appeared on the field and took a lap with captain Clayton Morris leading the way with a Trinidadian flag.

1994

The U.S. didn’t have to play one minute to “qualify” for the 1994 event. The Americans wound up hosting it.

Originally, the day of decision was set for June 30, 1988. But on March 3, FIFA changed it to July 4, U.S. Independence Day, making some soccer observers feel the U.S. was a shoo-in.

The U.S. was hardly that. While its bid was solid, there were a number of concerns and minuses. There was a question of whether grass could be placed over the artificial turf football fields. There was no strong, national pro league.

There also was the question if the USSF could find a television network or networks, possibly a cable concern, to originate a strong signal for not only the games in the states but for the rest of the world.

Here is a minute-by-minute overview of the final process at the Movenpick Hotel in Zurich, Switzerland:

9 a.m. — The FIFA Executive Committee began its session in the Regulus Room. The committee held a draw to determine the order of the final presentations. Three egg shells were placed in an oversized brandy sifter. The order: Brazil, Morocco and the United States.

The committee also outlined the procedure it will follow through the next four hours. “We struck fairly rigidly to it,” says FIFA senior vice president Harry Cavan, who chaired the meeting. FIFA president Dr. Joao Havelange, a Brazilian, did not chair the meeting of vote so there would be no conflict of interest.

The committee received a report from the technical committee and takes a break to read it.

10 a.m. — The Brazilian delegation, including Brazilian Soccer Confederation president Octavio Pinto Guimares and confederation administrator Moacir Peralta, gave its presentation. Each delegation was limited to 30 minutes.

Cavan later said, “We had quite a bit of emotion collectively from all three, least of all from the United States.”

The U.S. delegation, Cavan added, was “very level voiced, very quietly put and very effectively put.”

10:40 a.m. — The Moroccan delegation, including minister of sport Abdellatif Semlali, met with the committee.

Semlali said that he urged FIFA to continue helping the development of soccer in Third World countries. “I tried to prove that the United States does not need such competitions,” he said. “They have so many already.”

11:25 a.m. — The U.S. delegation was called in and gave a 22-minute presentation, including a two-minute speech on videotape by President Reagan. The five men who meet with the Executive Committee included U.S. Soccer Federation president Werner Fricker, World Cup USA 1994 director Paul Stiehl, former USSF president Gene Edwards, World Cup USA 1994 counsel Scott LeTellier and Rey Post of Eddie Mahe Jr. and Associates.

“It was exactly, give or take a minute, how long we thought the presentation would be,” Stiehl said. “We didn’t want to make it so long that it would have bored everybody to death. At the same time, we couldn’t cut it too short.

“We were all very satisfied. I think we were able to optimistically read some of the faces.”

1:05 p.m. — The three heads of the delegations, including Fricker, were called into the executive committee meeting, and they are told the news. Fricker, showing no emotion, walked back to the U.S. waiting room, where he slammed the door. “He’s stone-faced,” Stiehl said. “He’s very good at that.”

Once inside the room, Fricker put his right thumb up to signify victory (One observer later said that Fricker had such a sour look on his face, it was as though FIFA told him, not only won’t the U.S. host this World Cup, it never will stage one at all).

Several minutes later, the Brazilian and Moroccan delegations walked over to the U.S. room to congratulate the Americans.

1:21 p.m. — Before about 100 members of the international media, Havelange let Cavan make the big announcement.

“After very careful and very responsible consideration of all the information that has been brought to us today,” Cavan said, “the executive committee of FIFA has, in a very democratic way, arrived at a conclusion that I am happy to announce on behalf of the president of FIFA, the executive committee of FIFA, the following results.

“It was a card vote, a secret vote. It resulted as follows: Brazil two, Morocco seven, the United States 10.

There were cheers from the audience.

Cavan continued, “I declare on behalf of FIFA that the host country for the 1994 World Cup will be the United States of America.”

1998

BURNABY, Canada – The U.S. had fought a 12-month uphill battle to qualify for the World Cup. The Americans had played in front of hostile crowds in their own country, tied games they should have won and played well below par at other times.

That is, until that sunny, crisp Sunday in suburban Vancouver on Nov. 9, 1997, when the pieces fit neatly into place as they qualified for their third consecutive World Cup behind a 3-0 triumph over Canada, in front of an appreciative crowd in supposed enemy territory.

The Americans needed Mexico to play at least a tie with Costa Rica and they got it — 3–3. They needed Jamaica to play at least a draw with El Salvador and they got it 2-2.

And they needed superior performances from a pair of unlikely sources during their 15-game run to France — Claudia Reyna and Roy Wegerle — and they got it.

They reached soccer’s greatest stage for the sixth time in 16 tries and became the 23rd team out of an eventual field of 32 teams to qualify.

Reyna, hyped as the second coming of Tab Ramos, had underachieved since a promising start. But he was a different player, someone who could slow down the pass of a match, whereas Ramos would beat his foes one-on-one.

Playing in place of the injured Ramos, the 23-year-old Reyna scored the first U.S. goal in the fifth minute — which broke a personal 18-game drought at the international level – set up the second and controlled the U.S. midfield.

“It’s been tough,” Reyna said. “We’ve been through a lot of agonizing times. At times, there were many lost points.”

Wegerle, a 33-year-old whose knees have seen too many operations and better days, wasn’t even a regular for his MLS team, D.C. United, but had his international career rescued from the scrap heap by coach Steve Sampson. He created Reyna’s score and knocked in the final two goals in the 81st minute and three minutes into stoppage time off counterattacks before a sellout crowd of 8,420 — with some loud and enthusiastic 2,000 fans who ventured from the U.S. — at Swangard Stadium.

“I had two or three years with wretched luck with my knees and I thank heaven that things are going well for me and my confidence is back,” Wegerle said. “It showed today. I’m just grateful. I just hope I can stay healthy for the next six months and be at the World Cup.”

And there was Sampson himself. He saved his job with rumors that U.S. Soccer president Alan I. Rothenberg might replace him with an internationally experienced coach for France ’98.

“I just want to thank God to be in this position,” said Sampson, who has directed the U.S. into second place in CONCACAF behind Mexico with only three wins in three matches — two against last-place Canada (1-5-3, 6) along with a loss and five ties. “This is especially a sweet taste. I know the results haven’t gone the way we wanted them to go.”

Seconds after referee John Jairo Toro Rendon of Colombia blew the final whistle, Sampson, along with Rothenberg, secretary general Hank Steinbrecher and vice president Sunil Gulati, were wrapped in a circle at midfield, doing a jig and chanting, “Ole! Ole! Ole! Ole!”

“Congratulations for a great result,” Rothenberg later told Sampson. “This is the best thing that has happened to U.S. soccer in a long time.”

Instead of waiting until the final game to qualify as they did in Trinidad & Tobago in 1989, the U.S. moved on with a game to spare thanks to a sometimes rocky, but workmanlike effort.

2002

The U.S. qualified after a rather improbable bunch of results on Oct. 7, 2001.

The Americans’ 2-1 victory over Jamaica in Foxborough, Mass. certainly wasn’t far-fetched by any means. But it was quite difficult to explain and fathom Trinidad & Tobago’s stunning 1-0 upset at Honduras (Trinidad had secured only one point in its previous eight qualifiers) and Mexico’s scoreless draw against Costa Rica, which had nothing to play for because it already had qualified.

“We had no idea we were going to qualify,” said Joe-Max Moore, the unlikely hero with two goals, including the deciding penalty kick in the 81st minute. “We had put ourselves against the wall. . . . It’s great to celebrate.”

The most popular and probable scenario had the U.S. (5-3-1, 16 points) needing a win at Trinidad & Tobago on Nov. 11, regardless of what transpired before 40,483 spectators at Foxboro Stadium.

“Hopefully, it’s another step forward,” coach Bruce Arena said. “Hopefully it helps our professional league. If we’re going to be a quality soccer country, we’re going to have to have a first-class league.”

But even Arena admitted he was surprised by the results. “It’s a funny game,” he said. “You guys follow sports. You bury guys one day and dig them out the next. It’s an unusual series of events. We deserve to go through.

“We have a long way to go. We know that. We have six-to-eight months to produce a better team in 2002.”

Moore turned into that unlikely hero, considering he hadn’t scored more than year for his English club, Everton, and had scored but two goals in 10 qualifiers (twice against lowly Barbados at Foxboro in August, 2000).

“What Joe gives us is a fire,” Arena said. “Sometimes these games are about rolling up your sleeves and fighting.”

With the game barely four minutes old, Moore headed home a free kick by Reyna before James Lawrence equalized 10 minutes later, taking advantage of open space after chesting down a throw-in.

Jamaica had the U.S. sweating for quite awhile before Tyrone Marshall, who played for the Miami Fusion (MLS), took down Landon Donovan in the penalty area. Arena claimed that his team hadn’t converted a penalty during his three-year tenure, which set up a tense situation.

“I was thinking of turning my back to it,” Arena said. “If he had the courage to take it, I thought I should at least watch.”

Moore was confident when he took the ball. “I picked my corner at that point,” he said.

Goalkeeper Aaron Lawrence, who once played for the Long Island Rough Riders (A-League), went up to Moore and shook his hand.

“He wished me all the best,” said Moore, who did his best, planting the ball into the lower right corner.

As luck would have had it, any major publicity from the victory was dwarfed by the fact the U.S. bombed Afghanistan for the very first time since the Sept. 11 tragedy. Not surprisingly, the game was taken off ABC, which followed the American action overseas and put it on ESPN Classic, a cable channel that not many people had on their systems.

The match was first by an American national team since the Sept. 11 World Trade Center and Pentagon disasters. Arena said he told his team that the U.S. had bombed Afghanistan before it took the field.

“If I could substitute a victory today for the lives of the (3,000) lost that day, I would,” he said.

The surprising victory made the U.S.’s final qualifier a moot point. Arena tried to rest as many regulars as possible and play players on the bubble of earning a spot on the 23-man roster for the Cup. The result was a scoreless tie in Trinidad.

2006

COLUMBUS, Ohio — When it’s not playing Mexico at Azteca Stadium, the U.S. national team has discovered it has the Mexicans’ number.

Actually, it’s two numbers — two and zero as in 2-0.

Dos a cero.

That was the score of the U.S. qualifying victory over Mexicans in the cold here in 2001.

That also was the final of the Americans’ stunning triumph at the 2002 World Cup.

And not surprisingly, it also was the result of Saturday night’s (Oct. 7, 2005) qualifier that boosted the U.S. into its unprecedented fifth World Cup.

It certainly was sweet revenge for the Americans, who lost to their archrivals in Mexico City, 2-1, in March.

Goals by Steve Ralston and DaMarcus Beasley early in the second half lifted the U.S. to victory in front of a packed house of 24,685 at Columbus Crew Stadium on Sept. 3, 2005.

“They suck,” forward Landon Donovan said after a champagne party in the U.S. locker room. “I’m so happy, man. They made it a little bit easier on us. I expected more. After we got the first one, they were never in the game.

“The only thing sweeter would have been to score. At least for three or four more years they will shut up and can’t say anything and I love it.”

The U.S. became the seventh country to book one of 32 spots in soccer’s promised land in Germany, joining the hosts, Argentina, Japan, Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Ukraine.

For the first time since 1934, when it defeated Mexico, 4-2, for the lone spot in the region, the U.S. became the first team from CONCACAF to book a spot in the Cup.

“That’s fantastic,” U.S. coach Bruce Arena said.

The U.S. (6-1-0, 18 points) hasn’t lost to Mexico (5-1-1, 16) in a home qualifier since 1972 and raised its record at the stadium to 4-0-3. Moreover, the U.S. is unbeaten in seven straight home games vs. the Mexicans since 2000, outscoring their foes, 11-0.

As it turned out, the U.S. ended their qualifying quest at the same stadium where they began it in June 2004, when they defeated Grenada, 3-0.

This time it took them seven out of 10 games to clinch, as opposed to nine games in 2001.

“It’s difficult,” said Arena, who directed the U.S. to the 2002 Cup as well. “You look at it and you’ll say it’s a breeze and it wasn’t a breeze.

“Every game has been difficult, but I think our experiences over the last four years has positioned us to be successful. Our guys know how to win in big games.”

So, by dispatching Mexico while qualifying for the World Cup, can the U.S. win the whole thing?

“I mean, let’s not get carried away,” Donovan said. “We beat Mexico.

“Sure, why not? Why can’t we? Of course we could. Bruce made a good comment: We qualified and that’s great. But let’s get better over the next seven months.”

After a scoreless first half, the U.S. found a way to break the Mexican defense.

“The first half was sluggish,” Donovan said. “We didn’t play so great. After the halftime, we got a little momentum and we started to get some free kicks in good areas. You knew that if we got a goal, that they would be dead.”

The U.S. broke a scoreless tie in the 53rd minute on Ralston’s fourth international goal.

Defender Eddie Lewis sent a 35-yard free kick into the penalty area that defender Oguchi Onyewu headed off the left post. The ball came to Ralston, who headed it home from point-blank range for his second goal of the qualifying campaign.

“It was probably the easiest goal I’ve ever scored,” he said.

Beasley gave the Americans a two-goal advantage in the 58th minute as the PSV Eindhoven midfielder scored from 10 yards off a pass. Beasley started it with a short corner kick to Donovan, who played it to Reyna. Reyna then fed Beasley for his 12th international goal.

“We’ve done that six games in a row,” Donovan said. “I don’t know if they were sleeping or if their coach wasn’t paying attention. They didn’t mark Claudio. He said yesterday in training if he makes that pass and goes, they might not follow him. And sure enough they didn’t great goal. It makes them look stupid, which is good.”

At the other end of the field, Onyweu held Jared Borgetti in check. Borgetti, a thorn in the Americans’ side with two qualifying goals in as many victories, was rendered virtually useless by the 23-year-old defender.

“Gooch is a great young player,” Arena said. “Obviously his physical presence is fantastic. You see a player like Borgetti today and he’s bouncing off Gooch for 90 minutes.”

Kasey Keller, who recorded his fifth consecutive qualifying shutout as his scoreless streak reached 507 minutes, was called on to make one difficult save a minute into first-half stoppage time after defender Gregg Berhalter fouled Francisco Fonseca 27 yards out. Ramon Morales powered the ensuing free kick toward the left post, but goalkeeper Keller dived to knock it out of bounds for a corner kick.

“We limited them to zero chances, which is great,” U.S. captain and midfielder Claudio Reyna said. “They’re a great attacking team. Probably the bigger plus was how well we defended more so than how we attacked.”

2010

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 (Oct. 9, 2005) 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 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,

2014

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Regardless of what transpires in Brazil next year and beyond, the U.S. national team knows it will always have Columbus.

And Mexico.

And dos a cero.

Like clockwork, the Americans pulled off yet another 2-0 result, their fourth World Cup qualifying victory by the same exact score since they decided to make Columbus Crew Stadium a quadrennial chamber of horrors for El Tri a dozen years ago.

Veteran midfielder Landon Donovan, the comeback kid, set up the first goal by Eddie Johnson and scored the second goal. Goalkeeper Tim Howard produced some stellar goalkeeping late in the first half when it was anybody’s game on Sept. 10, 2013.

To rub it into their archrivals’ faces, the Americans (5-2-1, 16 points) took over the CONCACAF hexagonal lead from Costa Rica and qualified for their seventh consecutive World Cup and pushed the beleaguered Mexicans (1-2-5, eight) into fifth place by goal differential in the CONCACAF hexagonal with only two precious games remaining.

“Now it’s expected of us, but it’s never a guarantee,” said Howard, who led the team celebrations inside and outside of the locker room with champagne spritzing of teammates and fans. “World Cup Qualifying is tense. It’s always so tight. We said down in Honduras in February that it’s going to come down to matchday 8 or 9, which it always does. You can never really breathe a sigh of relief, but tonight we’re able to do that.”

As the U.S. put the finishing touches of its historic victory over Mexico, the players did not know whether they had clinched a berth at Brazil 2018. The Americans needed Honduras to tie or beat Panama, and that encounter was early in the second half with the Hondurans winning, 1-0. So, instead of the coaching staff and players talking to the media, they remained in the locker room to watch the remaining minutes of what turned into a 2-2 draw.

Donovan said watching the game was “a little nervy. The assumption was that regardless of what happens we’re going to qualify, but you want to be finalized. We saw Panama score at the end, got a little nervous. But once they blew the final whistle, then everyone was excited to be going to Brazil.”

Added Howard: “That part was fun and then once they wheeled the champagne in it got even better.”

When the team emerged from its locker room champagne bath and shower, the players, now wearing white shirts with one word in capital block letters proclaiming QUALIFIED — allowed the ardent remaining supporters from the sellout crowd of 24,584 get into the action. Howard led the way, getting fans wet with the bubbly. No one seemed to complain.

Howard himself was given a Gatorade bath by a teammate. The players then formed a circle and danced in front of their adoring public before walking onto the field and throwing teammates up into the air and catching them.

There is good reason why the players celebrated so much.

What the U.S. has accomplished in the capital of Ohio has almost become mythical proportions. They have played the Mexicans four times in qualifying and won all four times by the same score — 2-0 or as the fans taunted the Mexican side — dos a cero — incessantly during the second half. For the record, those other qualifiers were in 2001, 2005 and 2009.

“This is a great crowd,” Howard said. “It’s become its own monster. People want to come to Columbus and see USA vs. Mexico. Because of the way results have gone the last four times, you almost feel like it’s our destiny to win here.”

“You see it when we came in the stadium,” Donovan said. “It was rocking already. That was a real atmosphere. That’s what we face when we go away. And it’s nice other teams have to face it when they come here. We enjoy playing in front of a crowd like that. They certainly boosted us on tonight and it was great to do it in front of them.”

For coach Jurgen Klinsmann, it was an opportunity to return to the World Cup as a coach. He won it as a player with West Germany in 1990 and finished third as German coach when his country hosted the extravaganza in 2006. Now he gets another shot at the golden ring.

“It means a lot to me like it means a lot to all of us. To the players, to the federation, everyone working here in this environment, to you guys as well as the fans. A qualifying campaign is a very difficult road and we knew that. I did that myself as a player, as a coach with Germany, and I had difficult moments. When I went through it the first round I almost didn’t go to the World Cup in 1990 and ended up winning. It is a special moment and we coaches enjoy it the same way as the players do.”

And the team doesn’t have to wait a month, when it hosts last-place Jamaica in Kansas City, Kansas on Oct. 11.

“We wanted to get this done as quickly as possible,” Klinsmann said. “We were upset with Costa Rica, how it ended [a 3-1 loss], but we couldn’t change it anymore. It is important, and it makes a lot of things easier for us on the federation’s side to plan things ahead. We can finalize things for Brazil, we can look at friendly games in November, and so it’s definitely important.”

Desperate to earn three points as their window of opportunity to reach Brazil gets smaller and smaller with each passing qualifying game, the Mexicans came out aggressively and forced the issue in the early going, though they did not get any decent attempts on goal.

After surviving the initial surge by the visitors, the U.S. regained its composure and began taking the game to El Tri, although the visitors did have their moments at the end of the half.

Howard came up big time in the final minutes of the opening half. He caught Giovani dos Santos’ close-range bullet in the 44th minute and denied defender Diego Reyes with a save that set up a corner kick in stoppage time.

The U.S. finally broke through in the 49th minute as Johnson scored. Donovan sent a corner kick in the middle of the penalty area and Johnson out-jumped Reyes and headed the ball past keeper Jose Corona as the stadium erupted in loud cheers.

“We worked on our running in the box yesterday, on who goes to the first post or second and third,” Johnson said. “A lot of the focus was going to be on our bigger guys. Clarence made a good run to the first post and Omar checked away. They were more focused on them and Landon does what Landon does. It was an unbelievable cross. I got a head on the first one in the first half and this time I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity. I saw the ball was right there and tried to keep it down.”

The Americans doubled the lead in the 78th minute. Clint Dempsey set up Donovan at the far post and the veteran midfielder slotted it home for a two-goal advantage as the stadium erupted again.

“They looked relatively timid and shy throughout,” Donovan said. “I’ve never seen a Mexico team look that way. When we scored a goal, it was pretty clear that we were either going to get a second or a third or it was going to end 1-0. It was nice to be able to beat them.”

The U.S. almost had a third goal — a penalty kick by Clint Dempsey late in stoppage time. He hit his attempt well right of the goal, making many media members wonder if Dempsey had done it on purpose to keep the score at dos a cero, now a legendary phrase and numbers in U.S. Soccer history.

The Mexicans will have to wait another four years before they will be able to break what has become a jinx and an embarrassment for the country, losing to the Americans in the north by the same score every four years. This time, however, it could be worse. El Tri could be sitting home come next June when the rest of the world is focused on Brazil.

While the Americans revel in the capital of Ohio, the Mexicans might see it as cruel and unusual capital punishment every four years.