This article is the first part in a three part column about the U.S. men’s national team and its failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Parts two and three will be available in the coming weeks.
Oct. 10, 2017. Remember that date; it will go down as the worst day in the history of U.S. soccer.
It was the day when the men’s national team lost 2-1 to Trinidad and Tobago, failing to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in 32 years.
“This is an utter embarrassment,” an enraged Taylor Twellman, former U.S. national team member and current ESPN soccer analyst, said after the loss. “That should have never happened . . . every single person should look themselves in the mirror.”
After defeating Panama 4-0 in Orlando, Fla. on Oct. 6, the U.S. was sitting pretty in the “Hex” — the six-team final phase of the North American World Cup qualifiers. With one game left to play, the U.S. was in third place of the group, in which the top three countries automatically qualify for the World Cup. The fourth-place team would face off against Asia’s fifth-place finisher in a playoff for qualification.
According to ESPN statistician Paul Carr, before the final game there was a 3% chance that the U.S. would not make it to the World Cup. All the team had to do was draw against the 99th best country in the world, according to FIFA’s rankings.
So how did it all go wrong?
Let’s start with the lineup. Defender Geoff Cameron, one of two current American players that gets regular playing time in the English Premier League, was left on the bench. His talent and composure in the back four was sorely missed.
Wingback Fabian Johnson, who boasts 57 caps including the 2014 World Cup, was not even called up for the game. In his place was Jorge Villafaña, who possesses just 14 caps, and whose inexperience was evident after being rendered useless in attack and forced to defend the whole game.
The game itself got off to a disastrous start for the U.S. after an Omar Gonzalez own goal gave Trinidad the lead in the 17th minute. Gonzalez deflected a cross from Trinidad’s Alvin Jones, accidentally sending it looping straight over his own goalie, Tim Howard, and into the back of the net.
“One of the most unlucky goals ever,” a dejected Gonzalez said after the game. “It is one that will haunt me forever.”
Jones then doubled Trinidad’s lead in the 37th minute. He received a pass from teammate Khaleem Hyland and, finding himself with miles of space, unloaded a beautiful shot from about 30 yards out. Suddenly, the Americans found themselves trailing 2-0 in a do-or-die game.
Christian Pulisic, the 19-year-old American sensation, gave the U.S. hope when he scored in the 47th minute, but the U.S. still needed one more goal.
U.S. forward Clint Dempsey’s 69th minute shot came close to getting that goal when it deflected off both the Trinidad goalie and the crossbar. Yet still, all was not lost.
Due to the U.S.’s advantage before the game, even losing against Trinidad and Tobago could have still sent the team into the World Cup. The U.S. could lose as long as either Panama did not upset Costa Rica, or Honduras did not upset Mexico.
Mexico was beating Honduras 2-1 until the 54th minute, when Honduras forward Eddie Hernandez’s shot came off the crossbar, deflected off of Mexico goalie Guillermo Ochoa’s head and flew into the side netting for the equalizing goal. Six minutes later, a low shot from Romell Quioto gave Honduras a 3-2 lead that they would not relinquish.
Panama, meanwhile, tied its game against Costa Rica in the 53rd minute on a controversial play. The referee called Panama forward Gabriel Torres’ shot from a corner kick a goal, despite video evidence that the ball never crossed the line. However, North American qualifiers do not employ goal-line technology, and the call could not be reversed.
In the 88th minute, Panamanian substitute Luis Tejada sent a through-ball to his teammate Roman Torres, who calmly outran his defender and volleyed the bouncing ball into the goal, completing the nightmare for the Americans.
There are a plethora of excuses to choose from when trying to designate blame for the horrors of Oct. 10. The goals that Trinidad scored were freak goals, unlikely to be recreated if given another chance — not to mention the horrible conditions of the pitch in Couva, Trinidad, which was flooded just hours before kickoff. And it’s not fair that Panama and Honduras played against two teams that had already clinched qualification and therefore may have been less motivated to win.
The team played a game in which the objective was simple: Do not lose. When the chips were down, the pressure proved too much and things fell apart. They have no one to blame but themselves.
The U.S. should have never even been in this position to begin with. On paper, the squad is more talented than the one we saw during this campaign, and certainly more talented than a team still even with the bottom half of the Hex on the final matchday. But throughout the entire span of their two-year qualification process, the Americans have underperformed.
Even before the Hex started, the warning signs were there. In March of 2016, during the fourth round of World Cup qualification, the U.S. lost 2-0 to Guatemala. Granted, the team rebounded, won that group and qualified for the Hex, but this result went overlooked by many, and proved to foreshadow what was to come.
The U.S. stumbled out of the gate in the Hex. A 2-1 home loss to Mexico followed by a 4-0 thrashing in Costa Rica led to the firing of manager Jürgen Klinsmann, who was replaced by Bruce Arena. Arena led the U.S. back into contention, not losing a competitive match for almost a full year, despite a 1-1 draw in Panama.
However, last month, the team’s issues resurfaced when it lost 2-0 at home against Costa Rica, then needed an 85th minute equalizer to salvage a 1-1 draw in Honduras.
All of these previous struggles left the U.S. vulnerable to the events that occurred on Oct. 10, even after their 4-0 drubbing of Panama just four days earlier.
The responsibility for this abysmal and humiliating performance is not placed solely on the manager or on a few underperforming players. In fact, the only player who can be spared from the brunt of the criticism is Pulisic. The teenager was directly involved in 12 of the 17 goals that the U.S. scored in the Hex.
That was partly due to the incredible talent being shown by the player who is on track to becoming the best soccer player in American history. But it was also due to the rest of the team inexcusably falling off the face of the earth during important games. Pulisic was forced to single-handedly carry his team to the World Cup. The 19-year-old did as much as he could, but for all of Pulisic’s talent, too much was asked of the midfielder, and the U.S. fell short.
The harsh reality is that everything about this U.S. team (including the players, the manager and the media that surrounds it) is soft.
Following the struggles last month, former U.S. national team member Alexi Lalas lambasted the current team while broadcasting an MLS match for Fox Sports. He went down the line-up and individually criticized the manager’s and multiple players’ lack of effort and leadership ability during the qualifying campaign, and he challenged them to do better.
“So what are you guys going to do?” Lalas said. “Are you going to continue to be a bunch of soft, underperforming, tattooed millionaires? You are a generation that has been given everything. You are a soccer generation that is on the verge of squandering everything.”
Lalas understood that these players were not used to dealing with pressure from American media and fans. Therefore, when they were being confronted with the pressure of not qualifying, the players were crumbling. Lalas was trying to hold the team accountable for how poorly they had played, rather than fall into the trap of making the excuses that so many others around American soccer have made.
But his attempt to inspire mental toughness in the face of adversity ultimately failed, and that is why the U.S. men’s national team did not qualify for the 2018 World Cup.