The night, and its lamentable outcome, groaned under the heavy irony.
It was ironic that of all places for the United States to miss out on its first World Cup since 1986, it should happen in Trinidad and Tobago. That was the very country where the Yanks qualified for the 1990 edition, played in Italy, with a last-minute goal by Paul Caligiuri that broke a World Cup drought dating back to 1950 and began what we consider the modern era.
It was ironic that one of the teams to benefit from the USA’s unfathomable 2-1 slip-up in Couva on Tuesday was Panama. Four years ago, late goals by an already-qualified U.S. in Panama kept the Canaleros out of the 2014 World Cup, as Mexico squeezed in instead.
It was ironic, too, that whereas the U.S. bailed out archrival Mexico then, El Tri lost only its second game of this final round of qualifying just when the Americans needed them to win. The Mexicans twice gave up leads to their Honduran hosts before losing 3-2. Coupled with Panama’s 2-1 home win over Costa Rica – which, like Mexico, was already through to Russia – and the American defeat, that sealed the USA’s unthinkable fate.
But irony is never any consolation. If anything, it worsens the sting.
So now follows a period of deep mourning for a national soccer community that had come to assume that this sort of humiliating absence from a World Cup was no longer a possibility. After all, seven straight appearances at the biggest event in sports had turned the Yanks into a regional juggernaut – albeit never a global one.
For years, the conversation had been about when the Americans would finally compete for the title at the World Cup. Not about when they would miss one altogether. But here we are.
Time for deep introspection; an honest assessment of a failure that was unexpected and yet entirely avoidable. Tuesday night, which instantly became infamous, was a final nail in the coffin that the U.S. didn’t even realize it was laying in, but had also fashioned with its own hands.
The loss was the culmination of a disastrous qualifying campaign in which the Americans didn’t reach the final round with much comfort and then proceeded to win just three games out of 10 and switch managers mid-cycle for the first time in three decades. For as many awful displays as the U.S. gave, perhaps the remarkable thing is that it only fell a single goal short of reaching Russia – an equalizer against T&T would have ensured a direct berth and even avoided a playoff.
It had been evident for years that the senior national team program had grown stale under Jurgen Klinsmann. So when the first two games in the so-called hexagonal round were lost last November, he was ousted in favor of Bruce Arena, the veteran manager who had coached the team at the 2002 World Cup with great success, and then in 2006, when his side had flamed out.
The team responded with a brief resurgence – a 6-0 pantsing of Honduras at home, followed by credible away ties in Panama and Mexico and another home win over T&T. But a gold medal at a B-team Gold Cup over the summer was followed by an embarrassing 2-0 loss to Costa Rica in New Jersey and a flat 1-1 tie in Honduras. Still, Friday’s 4-0 hammering of Panama in Orlando saw to it that the U.S. needed no more than a tie.
That, as it turned out, was out of its reach.
It’s important to keep in perspective that the Soca Warriors are an awful national team, underscoring how bad all of this really is. Just two of their players are good enough to play in Major League Soccer. They hadn’t won a game of soccer since March 24 and lost six straight hex games. They were winless in eight. The last time they didn’t lose? Against puny Grenada, when they scraped a 2-2 tie.
T&T had long since been eliminated, and the game drew a sparse crowd to a stadium where the field had been submerged by rain water the day before the game.
Yet the Americans mustered no pace, no urgency, no ideas and no demonstrable interest in winning.
A flukey own goal by Omar Gonzalez and an unlikely rocket goal from a hopeful spot are an unfortunate way of going down. But then the U.S. was also spared two credible penalties. And only the veteran substitute Clint Dempsey and teenage prodigy Christian Pulisic occasionally forged danger, the latter getting the only American goal on a deflected shot. Not even five generous minutes of injury time were enough to get that liberating equalizer.
This fiasco is exacerbated by the knowledge that the CONCACAF qualifying region is probably the most forgiving one in the world. Three of the six final round entrants qualify directly. A fourth goes to a playoff – with Australia this time around. And while conditions and travel can be challenging – although this is just as true on most other continents – the opposition is generally forgettable.
A failure to reach the World Cup represents an existential crisis for U.S. Soccer, which will now question absolutely everything it does. Or at least it should. It must examine an institutional arrogance that saw World Cup qualification and a continued ascent as a given. And it has to assess an ossified leadership, from president Sunil Gulati on down, that has been lodged in its jobs for years and years, with very rare injections of fresh blood or ideas.
But in the stunned aftermath, it didn’t sound like this necessary self-awareness had imposed itself yet. “There’s nothing wrong with what we’re doing,” Bruce Arena said at his press conference after the game.
Gulati, meanwhile, indicated to ESPN that this was no time for rash decisions.
This isn’t about two inches though. It’s not about Gonzalez’s bad touch. Or an improbable goal. Or Dempsey’s shot pinging off the bottom of the far post in the second half. Or even about Panama’s phantom goal, or the Honduras goal that caromed off the crossbar and then the back of the Mexican goalkeeper’s head and in.
It’s about a federation that stuck with Klinsmann for far too long. One that can’t seem to get out of a years-long rut in spite of benefiting from players of ever-increasing caliber.
It’s widely believed that this might be the most talented U.S. team ever – or at the very least the deepest. Yet whereas a team of semi-pros and college players qualified for 1990, this one didn’t. Add to that the fact that two straight Olympic tournaments have been missed, and that the youth national team program has seen its results regress steadily, and you have a crisis that’s much bigger than a few inches or bad bounces.
Certainly, there were failures at every level. At the federation level. At the coaching level and the players’ level. At the media level, surely, for failing to recognize problems or sound the alarm sooner. At the youth level perhaps. But all of that begins at the top.
The legacy of this administration, and of this generation of coaches and players, will be stained forever by the failure to reach the 2018 World Cup in spite of a very manageable qualifying region, ample talent to get the job done, a budget previous generations could only dream of, and no greater obstacle than getting a single point in Trinidad.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.