• U.S. ends Panama world cup hopes; saves Mexico
     | October 17,2013

    Aron Johannsson, center, of the U.S. celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal against Panama in a 2014 World Cup qualifying soccer match, in Panama City, Tuesday, Oct. 15. The United States rallied for a 3-2 win at Panama on Tuesday night that left Mexico’s World Cup hopes alive and knocked out the Panamanians.

    It was the perfect end to a bizarre day of World Cup qualifying: the United States saved Mexico.

    The longtime rivals rarely do anything to help the other out, but on Tuesday there was no mistaking what took place. Mexico, which has struggled throughout the CONCACAF qualifying tournament, was just minutes away from losing to Costa Rica, 2-1, and failing to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1986. El Tri’s only hope was that the U.S., which was also losing to Panama at the time, would somehow rally for at least a tie.

    Ultimately, the U.S. did even better, scoring two late goals to beat Panama, 3-2. The result knocked the Panamanians out and gave Mexico an unexpected — and some might say undeserved — reprieve. Mexico, which has won just two of its 10 qualifiers and is on its third coach of the cycle, will now face New Zealand in a two-game playoff for a place at the World Cup next summer in Brazil. The U.S., of course, clinched its place last month after beating Mexico in Columbus, Ohio.

    The final moments on Tuesday were thrilling. The U.S., which was playing without many of its top players, had little to play for but was game for most of the match and tied the game at 1-1 in the 63rd minute — a development that coincided almost exactly with Costa Rica taking the lead on Mexico in its game.

    Undeterred, Panama bounced back to reclaim the lead in the 83rd minute and looked set to go through to the playoff only to collapse in the final seconds, allowing Graham Zusi to score in the second minute of added time and Aron Johannsson to score a minute later to complete the turnaround for the United States and, for at least this night, its biggest rival, too.

    Meanwhile, three years later and thousands of miles away from South Africa, the former U.S. team coach, Bob Bradley, was still — still — haunted by Ghana.

    Bradley had another World Cup dream punctured by the Black Stars on Tuesday as Ghana blasted Bradley’s current squad, Egypt, in the first leg of Africa’s qualifying tournament playoffs.

    The 6-1 score was a fair representation of a game in which Egypt was dominated.

    Bradley and the U.S. were bounced from the World Cup in 2010 by Ghana, though at least that match in Rustenburg had some drama to it; Tuesday’s defeat did not. Asamoah Gyan, who also scored the decisive goal for Ghana against the Americans, scored twice Tuesday, and the host Black Stars ran away in the second half.

    Technically, the Egyptians are still alive, but they will need to overcome a five-goal deficit in the second leg of the playoff on Nov. 19 in Cairo. Even Bradley conceded the outlook was bleak.

    “Our dream of qualifying for the World Cup has become nearly impossible,” he said at a postmatch news conference, according to Egyptian news media.

    The seemingly inevitable elimination is a harsh ending to Bradley’s time in Egypt. Bradley, a New Jersey native, had been cast as an uplifting figure during a time of strife in Egypt, which was rocked by the Arab Spring as well as the riot in Port Said in which 74 soccer fans were killed at an Egyptian league match.

    Despite the unrest around him, Bradley led Egypt to a 6-0-0 record in the group stage, only to stumble, again, against Ghana.

    “I apologize to the Egyptian people for Tuesday’s loss,” Bradley said at his news conference. “I know that reaching the World Cup is the dream of all Egyptians, but I failed to realize that dream.”

    It was not the only stunning result on a predictably wild day of qualifying matches around the world. Bosnia and Herzegovina clinched its first World Cup spot; Iceland advanced to the European playoffs in its effort to become the smallest nation to compete in a World Cup; and England avoided disaster by beating Poland at Wembley Stadium to assure its place in Brazil with minimal fuss.

    England struggled at times during qualifying under manager Roy Hodgson, but the team delivered when it mattered most, beating Montenegro on Friday before dispatching Poland on Tuesday behind goals from Wayne Rooney and the captain, Steven Gerrard.

    Afterward, Hodgson said he was nervous throughout the match, which longtime England fans had rued as a possible tripwire because Poland spoiled England’s bid for a place in the 1974 World Cup in a qualifying match at Wembley.

    “I died a thousand deaths every time they crossed the halfway line,” Hodgson said at a news conference.

    Asked about England’s chances in Brazil, he said: “You always have a chance. If you want to win the lottery buy a ticket. And we have a ticket.”

    While England managed to dodge the often-treacherous European playoffs, as did Spain and Russia, other established soccer powers were not so fortunate. France, Portugal and Croatia are among the eight runners-up in their groups that now face a two-game aggregate playoff to earn a World Cup berth. The draw for the playoffs will be Monday, with the games scheduled for November.

    In South America, there was little drama on the final qualifying day. Uruguay had an outside chance to gain an automatic qualifying spot if it beat Argentina and the Chile-Ecuador game was lopsided. Though Uruguay did its part, winning, 3-2, Chile beat Ecuador by only 2-1, ensuring both teams qualified.

    Uruguay will now need to win a two-match playoff with Jordan if it hopes to join those two teams, and Argentina and Colombia, in Brazil next year.

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