Tuesday night, the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team met Trinidad and Tobago in a final group stage match to fight for the right to play in next summer’s World Cup. At the end of 90 mins of play, they fell to Trinidad 1-2, a striking result that shocked fans and commentators alike across the country.
With the loss, for the first time since 1986, the U.S. men have failed to qualify for the highest level of competition soccer has to offer, the World Cup.
Three final group stage matches were played last night in Couva, Trinidad; in San Pedro Sula, Honduras; and in Panama City. With the first touch of the ball in play underway in Trinidad, the U.S. set out knowing they simply needed a win or a draw. Either result was sure to push them into the next round of play and qualify for the World Cup. As Trinidad was placed last in the qualifying group, with just one win in nine games, a positive result seemed a sure one for the U.S. If the Americans lost to Trinidad, and Honduras and Panama won their own matches against Mexico and Costa Rica respectively, the U.S. campaign would end.
The United States fails to reach the World Cup for the first time since 1986. pic.twitter.com/KoVLEn9ex7
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) October 11, 2017
At 17 minutes into the first half, Trinidad scored their first goal when a cross into the box was poorly cleared off the shin of defender Omar Gonzalez. With a rather lazy swing of his leg towards Trinidad offender Shahdon Winchester, the ball first grazed Winchester before ricocheting off Gonzalez’s leg. The ball popped up and over the stretching fingers of goalkeeper Tim Howard, dipping into the back corner of the netting. 1-0 to Trinidad.
“One of the most unlucky goals ever, I think,” The New York Times writes Gonzalez saying post-match, “and it’s one that will haunt me forever.”
At the same moment Gonzalez swung at the ball, Mexico also capitalized. They went up 1-0 against Honduras with an Oribe Penalta goal. At this point, U.S. fans, perhaps beginning to lose faith with their side already, begin cheering on Mexico and Costa Rica.
The bad news only got worse when Honduras pulled even with Mexico after scoring off a set play.
Not long after, Costa Rica scored against Panama. With U.S. fans mindful that a Panama loss would at least guarantee a playoff spot for the Americans, hope seemed to be on the horizon.
Until the 37 minute when Trinidad scored another goal, this time off the golden boot of Alvin Jones. Down 0-2, the Americans looked “lethargic” and “extremely nervous.”
Halftime couldn’t come soon enough to give the U.S. men some time to regroup. Starting off the second half with renewed energy, the golden boy of the American squad, Christian Pulisic, scored just 90 seconds in. The U.S. pulls closer, with the score at 1-2 to Trinidad.
Controversy erupts in Panama City as the ref allows a goal to Panama when the ball never actually crossed the line. After the contentious call, Panama is tied with Costa Rica 1-1. Meanwhile, after an own goal, Honduras and Mexico are also tied. If Panama and Honduras score again, and the U.S. result remains the same, the Americans are out.
After an excruciating 25 more minutes of play, the U.S. finally makes a change to the lineup and subs in midfielder Kellyn Acosta in the 72 minute. Clint Dempsey was also subbed in at the half.
The fresh sets of legs were meant to bolster the lagging U.S. squad. Although they seemed to give the team a lift, with two near misses, one bouncing off the post, it turned out they weren’t enough to get the team an equalizer.
After five minutes of extra time, which produced three yellow cards, the Americans lost to Trinidad and Tobago in an embarrassing turnout. With play in the other two matches also not going their way, the U.S. was forced to face their failure.
Devastated. But we are forever grateful to our supporters. We will persevere. pic.twitter.com/9ATsjtE7o7
— U.S. Soccer MNT (@ussoccer_mnt) October 11, 2017
After the game, several U.S. players scurried under cover, heads down, to the team bus to avoid reporters. Gonzalez shared a few words, his face racked with guilt.
“I just want to say sorry to the fans,” he said. “All the U.S. fans that were pulling for us, that wanted to go to Russia, that believed in us. We let down an entire nation today.”
Michael Bradley, the American captain, had his own set of excuses for the end result.
“It was a perfect storm kind of a night,” Bradley says to reporters post-match, “where everything that could have possibly went wrong did, in this stadium and two others.”
As a team leader and a USMNT veteran, Bradley’s answer is pretty abysmal. He appears to immediately place blame on everything but the team’s performance (not to mention his own). His response makes it appear as if the team wasn’t fully responsible for the loss, but instead, some supernatural chain of events caused them to fail so spectacularly.
To be fair, Bradley did finally own up to the defeat in his interview with reporters after the match.
“You can go around in circles a million times over again, but the reality is that, um…we…it was all there for us, and we, we have nobody to blame but ourselves,” Bradley told reporters, his shell-shocked eyes still wide as he processed what happened to his team.
— Grant Wahl (@GrantWahl) October 11, 2017
So what caused the team with all the experience to lose? What happened to the U.S. heroes, whose team manager already led them to the World Cup twice before?
ESPN cites Howard conceding that it was “nerves.” Bradley, comparing the match to their previously rousing win against Panama on Friday night, called them “different games.”
While both may certainly prove true, their answers just aren’t good enough to support why the team with all the resources, experience and talent couldn’t pull off a win or a tie against Trinidad and Tobago.
Jeff Carlisle with ESPN gives his own response to such questions, claiming a “lack of ruthlessness,” for one, played into the final result. However, this isn’t the only factor that came into play. Carlisle cites a “teamwide frailty” as the real reason the men lost, as time and time again the U.S. failed to satisfactorily play against a team that was “content to sit back and soak up pressure.”
The strength of the USMNT style of play has always come from their collective whole. Some countries pull through on the backs of their star players, like Lionel Messi for Argentina or Brazil’s beloved Ronaldinho. Other countries have squads that are simply stacked with raw talent—take Spain’s 2010 World Cup team or Germany in 2014. U.S. soccer has birthed some stars in its history, the most recent being Landon Donovan, or perhaps a younger Clint Dempsey, who at 34 has lost much of his sharp-shooting skills. Before, such players were always enough to capitalize on special plays, bringing some crucial creativity and imagination to the game.
On Tuesday though, that spark to bring all the individual pieces was missing. Some went searching for it in the young Christian Pulisic, the Borussia Dortmund attacker who has proven to be a “once-in-a-generation” type of player; but it wasn’t there on Tuesday. Some looked to veteran goalscorer Clint Dempsey to clinch an equalizer; he missed the mark.
Quite frankly, a lackluster team, built from a program that has won games by the skin of its teeth for years, took the field on Tuesday and received their just deserts.
Taylor Twellman, former USMNT and MLS player and now commentator, had a nearly eight-minute-long passionate speech on Sportscenter over the result.
There was so much passion in Taylor Twellman’s rant about the U.S. team.
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) October 11, 2017
Twellman’s fury centered around the fact that there simply was no excuse in the world that should satisfy anyone in answering for the complete failure of the team. At one point, he exclaimed incredulously, “Belgium played Bosnia on a cow pasture, but we can’t beat Trinidad with water on the field?”
Tuesday’s defeat may be the team’s worst nightmare come true. But make no mistake, this catastrophe was years in the making.
From last Thursday: pic.twitter.com/Qr2pMIwLCf
— Grant Wahl (@GrantWahl) October 11, 2017