The unthinkable has happened. The United States will miss the 2018 World Cup.
Needing just a point at Trinidad and Tobago – or even a slice of luck in Panama or Honduras – the U.S. fell behind 2-0 in the first half and watched a nightmare unfold.
Honduras came from 2-1 down to beat Mexico 3-2. Panama came back from 1-0 down to draw level with Costa Rica, and then, in an instant, fired themselves into their first ever World Cup with an 88th minute goal from center back Roman Torres.
That was it. For the first time since 1986, the U.S. will miss the world’s greatest sporting event. The party will go on without them. But for soccer in this country, time has stopped.
Failure to qualify for the World Cup is cataclysmic. The result – a bloodbath unlike anything U.S. Soccer has ever seen – is forthcoming.
Bruce Arena will be gone. The international careers of a cadre of U.S. legends – Dempsey, Howard, and Beasley – will be over. Sunil Gulati, the boss for more than a decade, might not survive either.
His favorite son, Jurgen Klinsmann, lost the team to start the Hex and put the U.S. in a hole. His handpicked replacement, Arena, never quite figured out the fix.
Arena had a particularly bad night. His decision to name an unchanged team from the win over Panama on Friday backfired. The U.S. was painfully sluggish to start, and paid dearly.
Squad selection – and Omar Gonzalez over Geoff Cameron was a disaster – was one thing. More than that, though, the team didn’t come out with any kind of desire. The effort in the first half was anemic. Whether that was pressure or a lack thereof speaking, we don’t know. Not that it matters much.
This team’s failure went beyond its managers. This was one of the most talented groups of players the U.S. has ever had. It featured a transcendent player in Christian Pulisic, but it also was also stacked with World Cup veterans and emerging talent.
Those players didn’t get the job done. Trinidad came into Tuesday night 1-8 in the Hex, losers of six straight. They had nothing to play for. They barely had anyone to play in front of.
As far as qualifying closeout games go, this was a gift. The U.S. blew it.
All told, the U.S. took just three points from their five away games. They lost more Hex qualifiers than they won. They finished behind two teams – Panama and Honduras – who they beat by a combined score of 10-0 in home qualifiers.
In the end, they let themselves down. Qualifying for the World Cup is no country’s divine province, and the U.S. – under the direction of two drastically different coaches, across nearly a full year – weren’t consistent or tenacious enough.
That stings. No matter what kind of shape they’d been in over the last several decades, the U.S. had always been reliable. They’d have their good and bad moments, but they could be counted on when the chips were down in CONCACAF. Not anymore.
It is, of course, a different story today if we have video review and Gabriel Torres’ phantom goal for Panama isn’t given. It’s a different story if Clint Dempsey’s shot hits the other side of the post, or Benny Feilhaber’s header sneaks in.
But you don’t always get lucky, and the game has a funny sense of justice. After knocking Panama out in 2013, Panama tonight returned the favor. After the U.S. saved Mexico in 2013, Mexico tonight in Honduras did not.
Gonzalez said post-game that his own goal “will haunt [him] forever.” Jozy Altidore couldn’t speak above a whisper. Those players will never get over this. Never. It will be with them, no matter what, for the rest of their lives.
For everyone else, the enormity of a missed World Cup – in dollars and eyeballs and experiences – will reverberate in the coming days.
Pulisic, perhaps the only American player above reproach on Tuesday night and throughout qualifying, will have to wait for his bow on the world’s biggest stage. Some of these players, the McCartys, the Villafañas, will never get theirs.
Whether or not the team deserved to qualify, that’s heartbreaking. The World Cup is a universal touchstone in world soccer. Without it, a page from the story of countless careers will be missing.
The wind has been strongly at the back of soccer in the United States since Paul Caligiuri’s Shot Heard Round The World – also in Trinidad, also on the final day of qualifying – nearly thirty years ago.
There have been squabbles and missteps, but progress has been steady. The game has grown immeasurably, with the national team, every fourth summer, rousing the nation and leading the way.
That progress has been broken now. Not dismantled, by any means, but broken. In the long run, that might be a good thing. It might not. We’ll be sorting the repercussions from this failure out for years to come.
In the short run, though, it is nothing but agony. For the players, the coaches, and everyone who has ever banged the drum for the game in this country, it is boundless devastation.
The next World Cup the United States will have a chance to participate in will be hosted by Qatar in 2022. It feels a lifetime away.