Super-sub Bobby Wood keeps U.S. alive with late goal against Honduras
SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras -- Some forwards have a knack for coming off the bench and delivering the kind of killer goal that secures points for their team and makes their manager look like a genius. Fortunately for the U.S. men's national team, Bobby Wood remains that guy.
It was back in 2015 that Wood first earned his super-sub stripes, coming off the bench to score winners against the Netherlands and Germany, and later equalizing against Mexico in what would ultimately be a losing effort in the CONCACAF Cup.
On this day, with the U.S. trailing Honduras 1-0, Wood popped up in the 85th minute to score one of the biggest goals for the U.S. in this World Cup cycle. It was as ugly as it was valuable, as he fired home from close range after Matt Besler and Jordan Morris had done some heavy lifting to keep alive the rebound from Kellyn Acosta's wicked free kick.
"You just want to help the team, you know?" Wood said. "We knew what type of spot we were in, we knew we needed one point, and that's what we did."
And the U.S. did it as the pressure mounted and it looked increasingly likely that the Americans would make it two defeats in two straight World Cup qualifying matches.
Wood added, "We knew we just needed one goal and that would change everything. We kept our heads in the game and we got the point."
It was a goal that did more than just earn the U.S. a point in the standings. It prevented a bad week from turning into an unmitigated disaster. Think about where the U.S. would be in terms of its World Cup qualifying campaign without that goal; in fifth place in all likelihood, needing help heading into the final round of fixtures in October.
"I was thinking we might have an early vacation at the end of this year," U.S. manager Bruce Arena quipped. "Really, I thought we had enough momentum and understood how we had to try to get a goal. We were at least putting pressure on them."
As it stands now, Panama's 3-0 win over Trinidad and Tobago has seen it take third place from the Americans. The prospect of finishing fourth and facing either Syria or Australia in a World Cup qualifying playoff remains a possibility for Team USA. But now Wood's goal has allowed the U.S. -- for the most part -- to remain in control of its qualifying destiny after surviving a day of steamy conditions and a boisterous crowd at the Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano.
Arena said afterward it had been his plan all along to bring Wood in with 20-30 minutes to go given where he is in his season as well as the stifling conditions. It ended up being 17 minutes left on the clock when the Hamburg striker came on, but it worked thanks to Wood, who was the last of three very impactful substitutions, the others being Geoff Cameron and Paul Arriola.
Up to that point, the U.S. team looked short of attacking ideas and was having problems finding a way to keep the ball. And it wasn't as if either Cameron or Arriola helped much in this regard, but they brought an energy and a tenacity that helped tilt the field a bit more in the U.S.'s favor.
A bit of honor is due Christian Pulisic, as well. It was by no means his best game, but a day after Arena said Pulisic needed to "find the next play in the right spots on the field to draw fouls, and maybe he'll get a penalty or free kick that's dangerous," he did exactly that before Wood's goal.
But this is a U.S. team that continues to have its flaws exposed. In this match it was flank defending, as both Graham Zusi and DaMarcus Beasley struggled mightily to contain the Honduran duo of Romell Quioto and Alberth Elis.
Arena indicated that he spoke at length with his side in the run-up to this match about providing cover for both Zusi and Beasley so they wouldn't be isolated in one-on-one situations. Yet both players found themselves in those situations during a first half in which Honduras threatened to bury the U.S., but managed only Quioto's 27th-minute opener.
The second half was better, as help was quicker to arrive. It also helped that Honduras appeared to outfox itself with the decision to play in the afternoon heat, as both wingers tired and Quioto was ultimately subbed. But it still left one with the feeling that DeAndre Yedlin can't heal up quick enough.
The attack looked plenty disjointed as well. All told, the U.S. completed just 63.2 percent of its passes on the day, and before you can say "long, spongy grass," Honduras was about 10 percentage points better. At times there was just an overall lack of composure to the Americans' game.
The U.S. increasingly looks like a team that is relying on Pulisic to create a bit of magic, and the young U.S. star often looked as if he was forcing the issue when he shouldn't, rather than take what Honduras was giving him. Those were on the rare occasions when the U.S. managed to get the ball in the attacking half.
Yet the U.S. managed to survive all of this ... for the moment.
"This is what qualifying is all about," midfielder Michael Bradley said. "There are so many days where it's not pretty. Honestly, in a lot of moments it has nothing to do with football. It's about finding a way to survive, and dealing with everything that gets thrown at you, having a group that can hold up in the toughest moments, taking three points when you can take three, finding a way to get one and keep other teams from getting three on other days.
"This is what it's all about. It's never been easy, it's never going to be easy, but we just gotta keep going. Today was big time."
That is a valuable trait to have, though it raises the question of why this U.S. team keeps backing itself into difficult situations. But thanks to the super-sub, this American side is still breathing, even if it has become increasingly labored.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.