COUVA, Trinidad and Tobago — Let’s be perfectly clear: The most embarrassing failure in U.S. Soccer history was consummated on Tuesday night in a near-empty stadium in the Caribbean tropics, culminating in a soul-crushing 2-1 defeat to a last-place opponent in which the U.S. men’s national team had only needed a win or a tie to qualify for World Cup 2018.
But this miasma of futility—causing the U.S. to miss the World Cup for the first time since 1986—was only the endpoint of a long series of felonies and misdemeanors over the last 12 months in Columbus, Ohio, and in San Jose, Costa Rica; in Harrison, N.J., and in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. The dateline for the autopsy of this U.S. team may read Couva, a tiny town that no U.S. soccer fan will ever forget, but the seeds for this dark day were planted in several locations.
When it comes down to it, CONCACAF is a frighteningly forgiving region for World Cup qualifying. Mexico qualified for Brazil 2014 after winning just two of 10 Hexagonal games. The U.S. was eliminated from Russia 2018 after just three victories in 10 qualifiers. The Americans started with a giant margin for error and then proceeded to whittle it down, in chunks large and small, from two opening defeats to last month’s home loss to Costa Rica to the finishing blow on Tuesday—a catastrophic capitulation to a team that had lost six straight Hexagonal games.
Afterward, players fought back tears. One of them was defender Omar Gonzalez, who saw the hosts’ first goal bounce off his shin and into the U.S. net for an own goal.
“It’s one that will haunt me forever,” he said. “I never thought I would see this day. It’s the worst day of my career … What was supposed to be a celebration is now … I don’t even know what to say. It’s terrible. I just want to say sorry to all the fans that were pulling for us, that wanted to go to Russia, that believed in us. We let down an entire nation today.”
Another player who was disconsolate was forward Jozy Altidore, who made little impact on the game.
“If you don’t look at yourself after this individually,” he said, “I think you’re f—ed up in the head.”
U.S. captain Michael Bradley had 90 minutes by himself in doping control after the game to digest the doomsday scenario that had just played out; a U.S. loss combined with Panama and Honduras wins was the only way the Americans could be eliminated.
“It was a perfect storm kind of night,” he said after emerging. “Everything that could have possibly gone wrong did, in this stadium and in two other stadiums across the region. To give away the first goal like that [on an own goal] is a killer. It comes from nothing and it ultimately gives them life, gives them energy. It means that all of the sudden they believe, that there’s something there for them. The second goal, the guy [Alvin Jones] hits a great shot that flies into the far corner … We got back to 2-1 and at that point couldn’t make a play to unlock them, couldn’t get the final pass, the final shot, the final action. You can go around in circles a million times over again. But the reality is it was all there for us, and we have nobody to blame but ourselves.”
He’s right. The U.S. deserved to drop all the points it did during this miserable qualifying campaign. There were no horrible referee calls that changed results, no bad bounces that somehow rolled into the goal. Trinidad and Tobago, like Costa Rica before it, realized that this U.S. team could be beaten if you sat back, soaked up pressure and picked the right spots to move forward and threaten the goal. The U.S. proved time and again that it didn’t have the ability to break down a team defending that way. You can’t ask 19-year-old Christian Pulisic—who scored the U.S. goal on Tuesday—to do everything.
“Teams certainly have shown they’re going to sit back and frustrate us,” said U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard. “So you’re probably going to need to break some teams down. Until we do that, teams won’t come out of their shell.”
Under Arena, the U.S. had appeared to recover much of its old identity—namely, being hard to play against as a unit—between March and June. But that identity mysteriously disappeared again in three of the last four qualifying games over the past month.
“Collectively one through 11, we weren’t able to defend well enough,” said Altidore. “You can’t go and score four or five goals every game. We have to be able to be hard to play against. We weren’t hard enough to play against too many times.”
Most of the U.S. players appeared shellshocked. When the Netherlands was eliminated from the World Cup on Tuesday, the Dutch players knew it was coming, since they had to win by an unrealistic seven goals over Sweden. But the Americans fully expected to qualify for Russia on Tuesday, and at the very least they thought they’d be heading to the intercontinental playoff against Australia. Full elimination wasn’t in the picture, and their dazed looks suggested they were having trouble processing it.
A full reckoning will now have to take place by U.S. Soccer. Arena’s days are numbered, for one thing. He took responsibility for the failure after the game, as he should have: The home loss to Costa Rica and Tuesday’s fiasco were inexcusable.
“I’m clearly very disappointed,” he said. “We had everything there for us today … We should not be staying home from this World Cup.”
But Arena wouldn’t go so far to say that major changes should take place in U.S. Soccer.
“There’s nothing wrong with what we’re doing,” he argued. “Certainly, I think if our league continues to grow it benefits the national team program. We have some good players coming up. Nothing has to change. To make any kind of crazy changes I think would be foolish. We’re building a consistent professional league. We have players playing abroad of a certain quality. There’s enough there. There’s no excuses for us to not qualify for the World Cup.”
As Arena spoke, U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati sat nearby with a blank look on his face, as if he didn’t know what had hit him.
“Extremely disappointed,” he said. “We certainly expected to qualify throughout the process and especially after Friday night [a 4-0 win over Panama]. So it’s a huge disappointment for everybody: The players, the staff, the coaches, for the federation. It’s not good enough, obviously.”
But when Gulati was pressed on whether wholesale changes were necessary after this debacle, he shook his head.
“So wholesale changes aren’t needed if the ball that hits off the post [from Clint Dempsey] goes in?” he said. “You don’t make wholesale changes based on the ball being two inches wide or two inches in. We’ll look at everything, obviously, and all our programs, both the national team and all the development stuff. But we’ve got a lot of pieces in place that we think are very good and have been coming along. Tonight obviously wasn’t what we hoped for.”
Yet this American failure wasn’t due to one shot hitting the post. It was due to repeated fatal flaws that were exposed time and again over the last 12 months. If you can’t qualify from one of the easiest and most forgiving regional competitions on Earth, how are you going to compete at a World Cup? It remains to be seen now whether Gulati will run for reelection in February—and whether he’ll have a chance to win if he does. The drumbeat for change, real change, will ring loudly now.
At the same time, be wary of those who promise easy answers for complex problems. Too many people in the U.S. soccer community think there are lightning-bolt answers—Promotion and relegation! Send all the youngsters to Europe!—that will solve everything. They won’t. There should be an honest discussion, though, of the factors that led to this day that will live in infamy. It will take some time.
On Tuesday night, though, everyone was still processing the shock and what had led to it.
“We dropped too many points on too many days,” Bradley said. “We put ourselves at a disadvantage from the very beginning when we lost the first two games. When you lose the first two games and drop points on too many days, your margin for error goes. So you know you’re at the mercy of a night like this where everything possible goes against you, both here and in the two other games.
“That’s just reality. That’s on us.”
And then Bradley walked away, by himself, into the darkness and an uncertain future for U.S. Soccer.