By Kevin Baxter
Los Angeles Times
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, missing the first six matches after insisting on a three-month winter sabbatical to renew his passion for the game. Howard, meanwhile, captained the U.S. at the start of this qualifying cycle.
But both men combined to lift the team on their backs and carried it over the finish line Tuesday.
The only goal Howard would need came from Johnson, whose header just after halftime was his 12th goal in 21 World Cup qualifiers. But it wouldn’t have happened without Donovan’s perfectly placed service, which found a leaping Johnson at the edge of the six-yard box.
For Donovan, the assist was his 57th for the U.S., equaling the combined total of the next three players on the all-time national team list. He added his 57th career goal – also best in national team history – in the 78th minute off a nice feed from Mix Diskerud, who had entered the game in place of Johnson two minutes earlier.
Howard made three spectacular saves in a scoreless first half, taking some of the steam out of a desperate Mexican team that hasn’t beaten the Americans in a World Cup qualifier on U.S. soil since 1972.
Mexico, playing its first game under interim coach Luis Fernando Tena, saw its chances of qualifying for Brazil take a big hit with the loss. To avoid missing its first World Cup since 1990, Mexico likely will need to win a two-leg playoff with New Zealand in November.
Howard’s first save came on a fluke shot when a dangerous cross from Mexico’s Giovani Dos Santos struck U.S. defender DaMarcus Beasley and ricocheted toward the net where an alert Howard gathered it in.
His next test, in the 19th minute, was more difficult with Mexican midfielder Christian Gimenez getting off a solid shot from the right wing. But Howard stretched out and deflected ball away with both hands.
Then, in the closing minutes of the first half, Howard turned away a dangerous chance from Dos Santos, who walked into the box and drilled a shot on goal that Howard knocked away. Moments later, in injury time, Diego Reyes nearly slipped a shot in at the far post but a Howard dive pushed the ball wide.
Howard was called on just once in the second half, by Jesus Zavala on a corner kick in the 58th minute.
The shutout extended a number of streaks for the U.S. in its storied rivalry with Mexico, pushing Mexico’s scoring drought against the Americans to 343 minutes and leaving the U.S. unbeaten in home qualifiers against Mexico dating to 1972.
It was also the fourth consecutive 2-0 win over Mexico in Columbus – which is rapidly becoming its preferred home – while American Coach Juergen Klinsmann has never lost to Mexico anywhere, going 4-0-4 against El Tri as a player and coach.