COLUMBUS, Ohio — Needing a victory over Mexico and a little help from Honduras to punch its ticket to next summer's World Cup, the U.S. took care of business Tuesday, riding second-half goals by Eddie Johnson and Landon Donovan to a 2-0 victory in front of a raucous 24,584 at Columbus Crew Stadium.
Then the Americans retired to their locker room, where they watched Honduras and Panama play to a 2-2 tie, assuring the U.S. one of CONCACAF's three berths in Brazil. So when the dressing room opened again an hour later, it smelled of champagne.
"Obviously, this is a huge, huge evening for all of us," said Coach Juergen Klinsmann, who emerged wearing a crisp white T-shirt with "Qualified" across the chest. "And they're enjoying the moment. It's a huge milestone when you make it to the World Cup, the biggest event in the sport."
And they made it largely because of Donovan, the Galaxy striker who set up Johnson's goal in the 49th minute then scored 29 minutes later, and goalkeeper Tim Howard, who were playing together for only the second time this year.
Donovan began the current qualifying cycle on the sidelines, sitting out the first six games after taking a three-month winter sabbatical he said he needed to renew his passion for soccer. Howard captained the U.S. at the start of the cycle.
But both men put the team on their backs and carried it over the finish line Tuesday.
"They're experienced players. They've played these games before," Klinsmann said of the two veterans. "They know what it's all about. I told them I expected their leadership."
And he got it.
Howard was brilliant in goal, getting the only score he would need from Johnson, whose header just after intermission was his 12th in 21 World Cup qualifiers. But it wouldn't have happened without Donovan's perfectly placed service, a corner kick that found a leaping Johnson at the edge of the six-yard box.
"When we scored the first goal, you could see it in Mexico's eyes, that they were defeated," said defender Omar Gonzalez, who plays for the Galaxy.
For Donovan, the assist was his 57th for the national team, equaling the combined total of the next three players on the all-time U.S. list. He scored his 57th goal, also best in national team history, in the 78th minute off a nice feed from Mix Diskerud, who had entered the game two minutes earlier in place of Johnson.
The Mexicans, needing a victory under interim Coach Luis Fernando Tena to keep its flickering World Cup hopes alive, played desperately in the first half but Howard frustrated them three times with spectacular saves, stretching out to deflect Christian Gimenez's solid shot from the right wing in the 19th minute, turning away a dangerous chance from Giovani Dos Santos from inside the box late in the half and then, in injury time, pushing away Diego Reyes' try at the far post.
Howard was tested only once in the second half, by Jesus Zavala on a corner kick in the 58th minute. He stopped that one as well, preserving the third shutout in as many games for the U.S. against Mexico. It was also the Americans' fourth consecutive 2-0 victory over Mexico in Columbus.
The loss dropped Mexico to fifth place in the six-team regional qualifier. Only the top three finishers are guaranteed a spot in Brazil, and the U.S. and Costa Rica, which played Jamaica to a 1-1 tie Tuesday, have clinched two of those spots. That leaves Mexico to contemplate the possibility of playing New Zealand in a two-leg playoff to earn one of two play-in berths to the World Cup.
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