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After one of the most devastating nights in the history of American soccer, the US will not be going to Russia next summer after a shock 2-1 defeat to lowly Trinidad & Tobago saw them finish fifth in Concacaf World Cup qualifying.
It was going to take an unlikely combination of results for the US to miss out on the World Cup finals for the first time since 1986, and that is exactly what happened, though the Americans only have themselves to blame for squandering a strong position with this catastrophic performance.
“We didn’t qualify for the World Cup,” coach Bruce Arena said after the game. “That was my job. To get the team qualified for the World Cup. This game in my view was perfectly positioned for the US team and we failed on the day. We have no excuses. We failed today. We should have walked off this field with at least a point.”
When the Americans went behind to the Hexagonal group’s bottom team and were unable to find an equaliser, they needed help from others. That made for a bitter twist: where four years ago Mexico were grateful to their arch-rivals for a result that saved them from disaster, here the US were hoping for a favour from Mexico.
They did not get it, as Mexico lost 3-2 to Honduras, while a late goal from Panama to beat Costa Rica 2-1 pushed the US out of fourth place, which would have sent them into a two-legged playoff with Australia next month (replays later showed that Panama’s first goal didn’t appear to cross the line).
So, for the want of an equaliser against T&T, there will be no eighth successive World Cup finals appearance for the US, dealing a significant setback to the sport’s progress in the country. The failure is surely the end for Arena and some of the senior players.
This was a dismal end to an uneven qualifying campaign that began last November with defeats by Mexico and Costa Rica which prompted the termination of Jurgen Klinsmann’s five-year tenure as head coach and the appointment of Arena. If that decision seemed understandable and logical at the time, it is now certain to be second-guessed. The future of Sunil Gulati, the president of the United States Soccer Federation, must also be in serious doubt.
Had the US reached Russia by finishing third in a six-team group with only three wins and 12 points from 10 games it would have been an indication of how forgiving the qualifying format is rather than indicating anything positive about a team that was, in truth, largely being kept in contention by the brilliance of the attacking tyro, Christian Pulisic. What a shame that he will be absent next summer.
Mexico and Costa Rica had already qualified – Mexico as group winners – while Panama take the third automatic spot courtesy of their 87th-minute winner. In the playoff for the right to join them in Russia, Honduras will face Australia, whose coach, Ange Postecoglou, will reportedly step down after the playoff games.
Arena will surely depart, too, given this sorrowful outcome to his second spell in charge. He picked the same XI that beat Panama 4-0 last Friday, dispelling speculation that he would omit Pulisic, who has graduated during this campaign from promising to indispensable but came off in Orlando with a calf injury.
Opting not to refresh the line-up proved a misjudgment. Prior to Tuesday, T&T had scored only five times in their previous nine Hex fixtures. But they were 2-0 up before the break as the US started like a team who believed the job was done last Friday, when the win over Panama seemingly relaxed Arena’s men into a state of stupefaction in Trinidad.
Sluggish and subdued, the conventional wisdom that playing for a draw is dangerous was born out by the US’s dismal first-half performance.
The match was held at Ato Boldon Stadium in the small town of Couva, where the running track ringing the field was so inundated with water on Monday that had the heavy rain continued it might have been necessary to issue the substitutes with snorkels.
But the lake had cleared by kick off, and any moat analogies were best resisted, despite the final score: here was no fortress but a largely quiet and empty 10,000-capacity arena, with the hosts picking an inexperienced line-up. And this a nation that before Tuesday had delivered one win and eight losses in the Hexagonal qualifying round, good for last place.
That said, T&T briefly led Mexico, on the road on 6 October before succumbing, 3-1. And back in June it was goalless between the US and Dennis Lawrence’s surprisingly spirited and organised side at half-time in Colorado before Pulisic scored twice to claim the points.
The biggest problem with the pitch was not the sodden grass but the fecklessness of the men in white shirts jogging, and occasionally running, on it. The US went behind thanks to two memorable goals – albeit only one was intentional. After 17 minutes an Alvin Jones cross from the right prompted a sensational finish from Omar Gonzalez into his own net, as the US defender stuck out a shin and looped the ball over goalkeeper Tim Howard.
Jones needed no help from the visitors 20 minutes later, the 23-year-old defender lashing a wonderful swerving strike beyond Howard from outside the area. Time to start anxiously tracking events elsewhere, which initially were encouraging for the Americans, as for a while both Mexico and Costa Rica held leads.
Two minutes before the break, Jones was inspired to try again from a preposterous distance. It summed up the American display that the bouncing ball almost embarrassed Howard, who misjudged and fumbled it, ultimately conceding a corner.
Arena brought on Clint Dempsey for Paul Arriola at half time. With less than 90 seconds gone in the second half, Pulisic scored from the edge of the area with a deflected shot. Who else but the 19-year-old? No, seriously, who else? It was his fifth goal of the phase, and he also contributed four assists.
Then Honduras took the lead over Mexico, pushing the US down into fourth, and meaning that unless the US scored again, one Panama goal spelt doom.
Finally, the US found some urgency and constant threat, and scoring so early in the second period it seemed like they had plenty of time to find the all-important second goal. But with 68 minutes gone, T&T goalkeeper Adrian Foncette saved from Dempsey. Eight minutes later he denied the forward again, tipping a shot on to the post. With three minutes left, he made a fine stop from a Bobby Wood header.
There were chances, sure, but no onslaught. No desperate assault on T&T’s goal, no overwhelming pressure, no saving moment of individual genius. Still, the US were about to reach the play-off, even with a defeat. There was still hope.
Then came the news from Panama City.