The United States men’s national team, for the first time since 1986, will not qualify for the World Cup in 2018. They lost to Trinidad and Tobago on the road on Tuesday night, and coupled with wins by Honduras and Panama, dropped out of all CONCACAF qualifying places.
Two fluky goals from Trinidad were what did it. First, a cross deflected off the shin of US center back Omar Gonzalez and drifted over the top of an increasingly unathletic Tim Howard and into the corner, putting the hosts up 2-0. In the 37th-minute, Alvin Jones (brother of Joevin, Seattle Sounders’ left back) ripped a knuckling screamer over 30 yards away that beat a helpless Howard, putting the US in a shocking early hole.
Still, Costa Rica and Mexico were leading or in the process of tying Panama and Honduras, who both needed to win in order to eliminate the US. Not all hope seemed lost, and things got better when Christian Pulisic fired one into the roof of the net just after halftime to cut the deficit in half.
Clint Dempsey was on, Benny Feilhaber eventually came on, and the US desperately pushed for an equalizer, which would have qualified them regardless of other results. Then Honduras bizarrely came back from a 2-1 deficit against Mexico to go up 3-2, dropping the US to a playoff spot against Australia. As Bruce Arena’s men continued to search — hitting the post and forcing a number of big saves — Panamanian center back Roman Torres (of the Sounders in MLS) charged forward against Costa Rica and notched a last-second winner, with the final whistle in Trinidad officially signalling outright disaster for the USMNT.
I don’t have some grand post-mortem, because I can’t immediately pinpoint a huge number of factors in this epic failure. Reasons are vague and scarce. You can argue the players didn’t perform up to par, which is mostly true, and you can argue that Arena didn’t do enough as manager, which is also a legitimate argument.
But the players generally weren’t that bad, and Arena did a lot of things correctly (very similar to how I and many others would have done them). We shouldn’t pretend this is some huge indictment of systematic failures, or that the entire system should be torn down. We should rue the struggles of the previous regime (i.e. Jurgen Klinsmann), which obviously set them back from the beginning, we should give the players their share of criticism (which I’m sure they themselves will recognize), and we should try to look to the future, which is bright.
This is a cycle that will go down in the history of American soccer as an opportunity hugely wasted. The first World Cup opportunity for the 19-year-old wonderkid Pulisic will go to naught, and a squad with arguably the best depth of any in this national team’s history will not get the chance to improve upon a generally impressive World Cup 2014 performance. This is very bad, even if I guess we can take solace in the Weston McKennies and the Tyler Adamses who will be the stars of the 2022 cycle.
Arena’s time as coach will also almost certainly be up, so his replacement a discussion for another day. Be sure not to put a ton of blame on Major League Soccer, the vastly growing domestic league that probably will see some flack from some whackjobs on the fringes of the sport in this country. They have done a lot of things right and have been absolutely massive for the development of the USMNT and American soccer in general.
For right now, we can feel sorry for ourselves. You’re allowed, without having to immediately start playing the blame game. Sometimes there is no obvious answer. Bad things happen, and you have to move on. There are a lot of good people in US Soccer, and those people have done a whole lot of good for the sport in this country. Things are working well. Do not blow it up.
Hopefully, we’ll be fine. Hopefully, MLS will continue thriving, and we will continue to produce talented domestic players. I have confidence, and I hope you do too.