Two players suffered serious injuries, one in an automobile accident and one in a game. Yet the Americans also earned a World Cup berth for the sixth straight time and finished their qualifying campaign with an emotional comeback, scoring two late goals to tie Costa Rica 2-2 Wednesday night at RFK Stadium.
"It felt like a huge win," goalkeeper Tim Howard said, "which it wasn't."
The U.S. team was playing for Charlie Davies, who remains hospitalized following the Tuesday morning one-vehicle accident and is all but certain to miss the World Cup. Recovering from several broken bones and other injuries, Davies was able to communicate with simple gestures but due to medication had not yet spoken since the surgery when coach Bob Bradley visited the hospital before the game.
"Our players would have all been there with me," Bradley said, "but it's not possible at the moment."
Late in the game against Costa Rica, defender Oguchi Onyewu tore the patellar tendon in his left knee and is expected to be sidelined three to four months. It's a bad blow, but at least he can remain in the team's World Cup plans.
"We've had two days of tough news," Bradley said.
There has also been joy. The World Cup bid was secured with a victory at Honduras on Saturday, and on Wednesday the Americans showed resiliency and resolve when they easily could have counted the game meaningless and coasted to a loss. Down 2-0, Michael Bradley put in a rebound in the 72nd minute and Jonathan Bornstein headed in a corner kick from second-half substitute Robbie Rogers five minutes into stoppage time.
Afterward, the players took a victory lap. They carried a banner with the No. 9 _ Davies' jersey number. Jozy Altidore, who started in place of Davies, wore a No. 9 shirt under his own No. 17 during the game. In the ninth minute of the first half, fans throughout the lower bowl of the stadium held up cards with the No. 9.
"Charlie is like a brother to me, so it was really tough news for me to hear," Altidore said. "We all wanted to try and go out and play for him tonight. I think the energy was there for a lot of guys. We were a little bit unlucky at times. I know myself, I was a little excited. I had the shirt on underneath, I wanted to show it to him badly."
But he couldn't. Altidore received a yellow card early in the game and had to be reminded by Bradley not to lift the jersey in any kind of celebration _ because that would yield a second yellow card and an automatic suspension for the U.S. World Cup opener in June.
"We used Charlie's situation to motivate us," Howard said. "We're happy he was alive, and that in itself gave us a lift. Charlie would give anything at this moment to put on a jersey and have it all back."
After Bryan Ruiz beat Howard in the 21st and 24th minutes, it appeared Costa Rica was well on its way to handing the United States its first home loss in qualifying since 2001.
But Costa Rica lost its composure in the second half.
New Costa Rica coach Rene Simoes was given a red card in the 88th minute after arguing with officials and faces a possible suspension by FIFA for one or both games against Uruguay.
He said the ejection arose from a dispute over a substitution, but he also acknowledged being in a grouchy mood for much of the match. He said he told the officials at halftime: "You never blow your whistle."
"And I don't know what happened in the second half, we never received a foul," Simoes said.
The United States (6-2-2) topped the North and Central America and Caribbean group for the second straight qualifying cycle. The U.S. team finished one point ahead of Mexico (6-3-1), which tied 2-2 at last-place Trinidad and Tobago.
Honduras (5-4-1) won 1-0 at El Salvador to take third in the group, qualifying for the World Cup for the first time since 1982. The Americns' late surge caused Costa Rica (5-4-1) to drop to fourth because of a weaker goal differential. The Ticos face a two-match playoff against Uruguay, hosting the first leg Nov. 14 before playing in South America four days later.
"Give us a day to recover from this before we start thinking about Uruguay," Simoes said.