PANAMA CITY, Panama – Move over Jonathan Bornstein. There’s a new CONCACAF arbitrator wearing red, white and blue, and his last-second Hexagonal edict may be the most dramatic, well, ever.
For the second straight World Cup qualifying cycle, a header from an unlikely American turned the region on its head. In 2009, it was Bornstein winning the hearts of Hondurans after his shocking goal against Costa Rica ensured Los Catrachos a place in South Africa. On Tuesday night at Estadio Rommel Fernández, Graham Zusi accomplished a similar feat, ending Panama’s playoff hopes with a leap and a nod that sent Mexico to a two-legged matchup with New Zealand thanks to the USA's eventual 3-2 win.
In the aftermath of that famous goal at RFK Stadium, one that relegated Costa Rica to an ultimately unsuccessful two-legged playoff against Uruguay, Honduras president Manuel Zelaya offered Bornstein an all-expense-paid trip to one of the nation’s swankiest resorts.
Zusi’s a bit more ambitious, even if he was speaking tongue in cheek after the most influential goal of his career. If reports are to be believed, it preserved nearly $1 billion in revenue for the Mexican federation, TV networks and advertisers. That’s worth more than a one-off vacation, right?
“Hopefully,” Zusi said, stifling a laugh, “I get free vacations to Mexico whenever I want.”
Honestly, he’s probably not asking for enough.
While the Costa Ricans still had a shot at the world’s biggest sporting event four years ago, the Sporting KC man unceremoniously ended Panama’s greatest soccer hope and gave the US’ primary rival – a desperate and dire Mexico side that hadn't done much to deserve any favors – a clear path to Brazil.
In the process, Zusi ripped the heart out of a stadium that was on the edge of delirium after Luis Tejada’s go-ahead goal less than 10 minutes prior. What was once a building busting with genuinely tender hugs among complete strangers and jubilation of the highest order, was suddenly an emotional morgue for the nation’s World Cup aspirations.
“You could definitely hear a pin drop [after Zusi’s goal],” midfielder Kyle Beckerman said. “Their guys were pretty upset.”
They’ll be even more upset knowing it was Zusi’s first-ever headed goal as a professional, though you’d never know based on the form and the finish.
Meanwhile, some US fans expressed disappointment that the US – and by extension Zusi – served as saviors for their biggest rivals. It’s a little strange to be put in that position, Zusi said after the match, having had little to no time for the far-reaching implications to sink in.
“It’s a little weird being the rivals that we are for us to kind of save them, save their future,” he said. “It’s a little strange to think about.”
Even stranger considering the level of talent that flows through the Mexican youth ranks each year. But talent isn't always the end all, be all in these matter, not when the US makes the habit of spoiling World Cup parties at the very last moment possible.
“I think we gave [Mexico] a lifeline,” Sacha Kljestan said. “For CONCACAF and for everybody, we want them in the World Cup. It’s better. Hopefully they take care of business against New Zealand.”