Jurgen Klinsmann took a roster full of non-starters and did what was the most difficult thing to do. Win a CONCACAF World Cup qualifier on the road against a team that was motivated by the opportunity to qualify for the first time in history.
It almost didn’t happen. What was most difficult for 90 minutes for the Americans (scoring goals) against Panama became easy in three minutes of extra time.
Graham Zusi tied the game 2-2 on a header in the 92nd minute, and Aron Johannsson delivered the improbable game-winner less than a minute later.
In a flash, the CONCACAF hexagonal final standings were altered. Panama seconds away from a home-and-home series against New Zealand for the final World Cup berth, was heartbroken by the American victory.
Mexico, which lost on the road against Costa Rica, was out of the World Cup between the time the final whistle blew in their game and the time it took for the U.S. to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
For Panama it was devastating for the players, coaches, fans and the entire country. The moment was not lost on the U.S. players and coaches.
“Our players gave everything they had, kept pushing and were rewarded,” said Klinsmann. “Obviously, you feel for the people, you feel for the entire country, you feel for (Panama head coach) Dely Valdez, who I admire a lot, but this is football, it’s not over until it’s over.”
Now it is Mexico, with only two victories in 10 final round regional games, that is meeting New Zealand in November.
Television and print media expressed “love and good wishes” for the USA win. The Mexico players and coaches knew they “backed into a second chance” and were less gracious.
Klinsmann’s team had wrapped up a berth in the World Cup with two qualifiers left to play. They secured first place in the final standings with a 2-0 win over Jamaica in Kansas City, four days before the match in Panama City.
Ranked #13 in the FIFA World Rakings, the U.S. is outside consideration for one of the top eight seeds at the 2014 World Cup draw, Dec. 6, in El Salvador.
Klinsmann made seven lineup changes for Panama after the win over Jamaica. Several starters were released back to their clubs, and Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey were injured and not called in for the last two games.
Nevertheless, finishing first in the region was a goal, and one attained for the third straight World Cup cycle. Next year the U.S. will play for the seventh consecutive World Cup when the games are played in Brazil.
That the win was earned despite a lack of starters in the lineup, was testament to the depth and the determination of those who were on the field in the closing minutes of a game that was looking more and more like a loss.
Jozy Altidore and Zusi provided second-half goals in the 2-0 win over Jamaica. Down 1-0 at halftime against Panama, Michael Orozco equalized in the 64th minute. Brad Davis, a second-half sub, assisted on both goals by Orozco and Zusi.
The U.S. is now 27-9-6 under Klinsmann, and the 27 wins moves him past Steve Sampson into third-place all-time as the U.S. MNT coach. The team is 16-3-2 on the year and the 16 victories are a record for a calendar year.
The U.S. finished the hexagonal on a 12-game home winning streak.
The U.S. finished on top of the hexagonal with a 7-2-1 record and 22 points. Costa Rica (5-2-3) and Honduras (4-3-3) earned the other two World Cup berths. Mexico still has life with a 2-3-5 record, while Panama (1-4-5) and Jamaica (0-5-5) are finished for this cycle.
“We could have played a lot better than we did, especially in the first half,” said Klinsmann. “The second half was much better.
Klinsmann also addressed the closing minutes of the game, and the result the U.S. earned.
“We played our game,” he said. “We came here to play simply just a game against Panama and the players went all 90-plus minutes to get a win and get three points. They believed in it all the way until the end. This is our job. We were focused on our job.
“We understand that tonight so much was at stake for both Mexico and Panama. We respect that, but we were solely focused on ourselves. We said that before the game and after the game. Mexico played their game in Costa Rica and we were here, and experienced an unbelievable finish of a game.”
The game-winner was the first international goal for Johannsson, who was making his fourth U.S. MNT appearance.
“We just equalized 2-2, and they pushed everyone forward,” Johannsson said. “Some of them just stopped playing, I don’t know what happened. It seems like they just gave up, and we continued. We showed how strong we are, got that third goal and won the game.”