A fans' oral history of U.S. Soccer’s nightmare in Trinidad
One year ago Wednesday, the American Outlaws were preparing for Russia. The largest unofficial supporters group of U.S. Soccer’s national teams had hostels reserved; it had its 2018 World Cup travel package ready for launch. And around 50 of its roughly 30,000 members were in the remote city of Couva, Trinidad and Tobago, anticipating a party.
Instead, they lived out the worst night in American soccer history. They were the first-hand witnesses. They bore the emotions of an entire soccer nation – the emptiness, the despondence, the fury. And back in April, they told Yahoo Sports the story of a night that they – and the millions who were there with them in spirit – will never forget.
CHAPTER 1: NORMALITY
The U.S. men’s national team’s rousing 4-0 win over Panama on Friday, Oct. 6, 2017, in Orlando left the Americans needing just a draw against a Trinidad and Tobago B-team – or expected results elsewhere – to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
Robert Huschka (AO member since 2008): We were in full-on party mode. Everybody was pretty confident. We were enjoying early-morning mimosas, getting ready for the flight out. I’m known as the nervous pessimist in the group, and it didn’t even really occur to me that things could go badly in Trinidad.
Justin Brunken (AO co-founder): We came into the game thinking that there’s no way all of it could go wrong. Everyone knew that there was a slim possibility, but wasn’t thinking about it. There’s no way that all this can happen.
Donald Wine (AO member since 2008, AO national board member): Look, there were 27 scenarios. This is how nerdy we are. Before the game, we [knew], there were 27 scenarios, and only one of those 27 leads us out of the World Cup.
Brian Davis (AO member since 2012, former AO Louisville president): After we shellacked Panama, I thought, we’ve got this thing in the bag.
Donald Wine: We partied Saturday night. Sunday, a few of us went to Tobago. We made a point to see that island and take in its beauty. It was tremendous.
Brian Davis: There’s a world-famous beach there in Trinidad that we went to. We were out in the ocean with our friends. We had bake and shark. We had a whole afternoon to sit by the pool and drink mojitos.
TJ Underwood (AO member since 2010, AO Dallas president): We played soccer on the beach, like 20 of us. We started getting locals involved.
Brian Davis: We were at the same hotel all the U.S. Soccer people were at. … We ran into some of the players, and chatted with Geoff Cameron, who’s always been great with AO.
Robert Huschka: Typically on away trips, they try to keep the American Outlaws out of the team hotel. And they had sent AO leadership an email saying, Tell your fans not to talk to our players. We don’t want any of that intermingling before the game. But that night [before the match], Cameron was sitting out by the coffee stand, and he was talking to a couple of friends of mine, and even then, he seemed pretty annoyed. I got the impression then and there that he wasn’t going to start. That he didn’t seem particularly pleased with how things have been going.
Still, though, when both team and fans departed their Port-of-Spain hotel to make the 45-minute trip to Couva for the game …
Brian Davis: Everything felt really normal.
Cameron Norris (AO member since 2009, co-founder of AO Tallahassee): A few of us had coolers on the bus. One of the AO people said they did bring a couple bottles of champagne for the ride back.
Robert Huschka: We basically did a pub crawl down the coast. We would drive for 20 minutes, stop at a bar, drive for another 20 minutes. We stopped at this weird bar-casino where all the American Outlaws were grouped around this strange little digital poker game from the 1990s.
Donald Wine: At the last bar, around a mile before the stadium, we were having fried chicken and drinking beers. It was a great time.
TJ Underwood: We were all in there with a bunch of locals watching other World Cup qualifiers.
Chelsea Valz (AO member since 2012): The trip to the stadium was definitely cool. And then … [sighs] … yeah.
CHAPTER 2: ‘SLOW TORTURE’
Brian Davis: We pulled into the stadium, and it was already dark. It’s just this stadium that’s lit up. It felt like when you see these Texas football stadiums out in the middle of nowhere. It’s the landmark there. And it’s not a huge stadium, but around it was absolutely nothing. It was a really cool scene.
Cameron Norris: The weirdest thing about the place was that they put this giant projector screen up on scaffolding and found a flash-free website where you could make a scoreboard. And it was just some dude clicking start clock, stop clock. That was their clock. Freescoreboards.com or whatever they found.
Robert Huschka: Once I got into the stadium was the first time I actually began to fear about the game.
Brian Davis: When I saw the U.S. lineup, that gave me pause. Because there were no changes. They left Geoff Cameron on the bench. I didn’t look and say, Oh my gosh, what are we doing? But, I don’t like the way this is laid out. I don’t think it’s going to make a difference, but I really don’t like the way this is laid out.
Robert Huschka: That’s the only game I’ve ever seen that, at kickoff, was absolutely quiet. There was no energy. It felt like a training game. It had the strangest vibe. And I remember turning to Brian and saying, “This is really weird. I don’t have a good feeling about this.”
And the U.S. began to play like it was a training match. They had no thrust to their movement. It just seemed flat. The whole experience seemed flat. Even the Trinidadian fans weren’t into it. It was so painfully quiet. It didn’t feel like a real soccer match.
Brian Davis: In the first half, Trinidad put together a 20-plus-pass sequence, at least. I remember watching that, screaming. And thinking, This is really bad. We can’t even get the ball back from ‘em? They’re playing keep-away from us? We looked like the B-team.
Robert Huschka: And then the own goal came, and Trinidad was into it. Their fans were up, they were rowdy. And you could see the Trinidad players gain energy, and bite to their attack. And then they got another goal. I just remember thinking, This can’t be happening. We can’t be living through this.
Donald Wine: We’re all just standing around, like, What just happened?
Robert Huschka: But even then, we got to halftime, it was 2-0, and I just thought, there’s no way they’re gonna blow this. They’re gonna come out, they’re gonna regroup, they’re gonna at least be able to get a draw. … And both Mexico and Costa Rica had halftime leads. So that provided an air of calm.
Justin Brunken: We’re thinking, We’re not going to get the result here, but at least the other games are going right. But you start to have this sinking feeling when you have to rely on other [teams]. When I heard somebody say Panama and Honduras just scored, I think that’s when people were getting anxious.
Christian Pulisic pulled a goal back for the U.S. early in the second half. But Honduras scored twice in quick succession, and Panama equalized on a phantom goal, meaning the U.S. was one more Panamanian goal away from facing elimination.
Brian Davis: At this point, you’re starting to get that dread feeling.
Chelsea Valz: It was probably the longest 90 minutes I have ever watched. It was just slow torture.
Robert Huschka: The game just kept ticking on, and the U.S. kept sort of carving out a chance here, a chance there, they’d hit a post, or they’d shoot just wide. And I remember my phone buzzing. And I knew before I even looked at it. I knew that Panama had scored. And I picked it up and looked, and that’s indeed what had happened. I said it out loud. And everyone just froze for a second. We all knew what that result meant.
Donald Wine: It was the 86th minute when we found out. That one scenario was now happening. And I’ll never forget this. Everybody ran to the fences and started banging on the fences and yelling at the players, “Guys, we need to score, if we don’t score we’re out of the World Cup.” Half the team kind of looked over and had a perplexed look on their face, as if they had no idea what we were talking about.
It was all tense. People were yelling just to let some of that tension out. It was disbelief. It was the Twilight Zone. We weren’t watching it on TV, we were living it. It was us watching something unfold, and the only way we could contribute was to yell helplessly. And all these thoughts are going through your mind, of where this journey had taken us, where this whole four years had taken us, how four days ago we were celebrating. And now we’re standing there, watching our team lose, and all the emotions are coming forward.
Justin Brunken: I was in a bad place. I was so anxious and nervous that I couldn’t even talk. I was pacing the sideline away from the section. The last 10 minutes is a different world for me. It was surreal. I couldn’t even speak. I was just pacing back and forth, living on every single touch. I’ve never been like that before.
Robert Huschka: The final whistle blew, and I remember sitting down. The Mexico-Honduras game was still going on. But I’ll always remember my buddy’s text: “Full time. We’re out.”
Donald Wine: When the final whistle sounded, I collapsed.
CHAPTER 3: DESPAIR
Donald Wine: I just fell to my seat, sat down and stared for five minutes.
Robert Huschka: It wasn’t even despair. It was just disbelief. It wasn’t even anger. It was simply raw shock that we were absorbing.
Brian Davis: I was speechless. I was really taken aback.
Chelsea Valz: I was kind of numb. It was this stunned, everything stopped kind of feeling. An absolutely agonizing feeling.
TJ Underwood: I had a ’98 World Cup jersey on. I immediately took it off. I felt like the crest didn’t deserve to be worn right then and there.
Donald Wine: I look off into the corner and I see Justin just inconsolable, crying.
Brian Davis: I remember seeing Justin sitting off to the side. This is a really positive, upbeat guy, one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. And he was just sad.
Robert Huschka: He just looked stricken, he looked white. And I remember giving him a hug, and he started to cry. It was just this very emotional moment. And then I started to cry. And that’s when you felt the raw pain.
Justin Brunken: When it was done, I couldn’t really be by anyone. I was in a daze. Like, What happened? I was off on my own, hunched over, not even knowing what to do. I had different members come over and console me. I was just gonna sit there. It was a weird moment. It’s hard to explain.
Donald Wine: We were all crying. We were all angry. We were in disbelief. Everybody was going through every single negative emotion you could possibly have in a human being.
Brian Davis: We went through those stages of depression pretty quick. I was stunned. I was sad. I was disappointed. I was mad. But who do you get mad at? You get that internal agitation. And then you get sad again.
It was quiet. It was really quiet. It was really funeral-esque as we left.
CHAPTER 4: AFTERMATH
Donald Wine: The bus was silence. You could hear some sniffles. People were drinking whatever alcohol was left.
Chelsea Valz: We had two buses. And the transmission on one of the buses went out on the highway. And we were crawling at maybe 10 miles per hour.
Donald Wine: It took two hours to get back to the hotel.
Chelsea Valz: At one point, the first bus had stopped to put more fluid in their transmission, and we all looked out the window, and there went the motorcade with the team. Perfect. This pretty much sums up exactly how this game went.
Donald Wine: [When we got back to the hotel,] it was just us out on the patio, trying not to cry in front of everybody, but at the same time everybody knew that it was OK. It was one of the saddest moments in AO history. There was not one person on that trip who wasn’t completely upset, and looking back over the last four years of the journey of qualifying and thinking, Never, ever did we think it’d be at this point. But here we are.
Cameron Norris: The players were staying at our hotel. One of the people with AO told us, “Don’t be jerks to them. They’re just as unhappy as you are.”
Donald Wine: Bruce Arena was down there with a couple of the coaches, drinking, but he wasn’t talking to anybody. We weren’t talking to them.
TJ Underwood: He’s sitting in the corner with two bottles of wine in front of him, with his wife, and [goalkeeper coach] Matt Reis, and somebody else.
Robert Huschka: They sat down and looked kind of like we looked, just shrugging. They didn’t look distraught. They weren’t over there crying in their wine. I think they had wry smiles on their faces. To me, they looked stunned. They looked like they didn’t have the answers, just like the AO bus on the way back. They sort of knew where they were, and understood that they were in the middle of the biggest disaster in U.S. Soccer history. It didn’t anger me. I think they were just trying to decompress.
At one point Michael Bradley came down, and [he and Arena] engaged in a fairly animated conversation at the bottom of the stairs. I have no idea what it was about. But Bradley was gesturing, and Arena’s just kind of shaking his head. And finally Bradley went back up the stairs, and Arena went back to finish his wine. It was really bizarre.
Donald Wine: The thought quickly shifted: What are we going to do now? How do we talk to members to keep them engaged?
Brian Davis: What do we do to keep interest in American soccer, so it doesn’t just cave in over the next two or three years?
Robert Huschka: What do we do from here? How do we keep the momentum going? We just sort of shook our heads.
Donald Wine: Tired. Angry. Sad. Confused. Distraught. … I think we went to bed at 4. We weren’t going to sleep anyway.
CHAPTER 5: PROCESSING
Cameron Norris: The next day, the American flight back to Miami was the saddest flight in the world.
Robert Huschka: You sort of go over it all in your head again. You don’t just do it for one game, you do it for the whole Hexagonal. Just one more point! One more point somewhere along the way would’ve been enough.
Brian Davis: I hated going back to work. Because I knew I had to spend a day explaining what happened. Repeating the same story. I just didn’t want to deal with that. I didn’t want to relive it over and over and over again. So that sucked, a lot.
Cameron Norris: The next couple days, people would come up to me and they’d all talk to me like my parents had died. Like, Are you OK? Are you going to be fine? And I was like, Yes, I’ll be fine. But I remember thinking at one point, If one more person asks me if I’m OK, I am not going to be OK. I have a friend who said he had a white board behind him, and he wrote on there, “1. Yes, I know. 2. I’m very upset about it. 3. Don’t ask me about it.”
Chelsea Valz: Definitely the worst part was people in the soccer community who wanted to ask our opinion. And we just kind of looked at ‘em, like, we can’t even comprehend it right now. We’re still trying to digest what happened.
Cameron Norris: I remember we were in a meeting [at work] and one person said, “So are you still gonna go to Russia?” And I was just like, “And why the [expletive] would I do that?”
Robert Huschka: When you count your life in four-year increments, it’s brutal to lose one. … I turned 42 in the airport in Sao Paulo. I’ll turn 50 before the next World Cup kicks off. When you think about it through that prism … how different is my life gonna be? It’s these epochs of time that pass in world soccer. “There’s always next year” doesn’t apply.
Cameron Norris: The hardest part is this time of year. It’s not gonna be the World Cup itself. It’s this stuff. The sticker book just came out. The lead-up, and the previews. It’s the one thing on the world calendar that everyone’s going to be talking about. The next couple months are going to be hard.
Robert Huschka: There’s this incredible excitement that comes in the buildup to a World Cup. It’s the one time that U.S. soccer is front and center on the American sports landscape. And we’re just missing it. It’s all gone. And it’s the one time, as a diehard soccer fan, that your passion is everyone’s passion. And we’ve lost that.
Brian Davis: I’m still not 100 percent sure that I’ve totally processed everything – that I totally understand the U.S. isn’t going to be playing in the World Cup. I’m not sure it’s gonna sink in until I’m watching games in June.
Donald Wine: But it’s one of those things, I will always remember that moment [in Trinidad].
Robert Huschka: Fans, in the seeking of results, shouldn’t lose sight – it’s not always about the destination, it’s sometimes about the journey. I had so many amazing moments the last four years following the national team that I wouldn’t trade for anything.
Justin Brunken: Without experiences like this … I do wish that every experience was a positive experience, but if they were all like that, it wouldn’t make the victories so memorable. If you win every time, there’s no roller-coaster excitement or passion about it. The roller coaster is a reason to be a fan.
Donald Wine: I said this to Justin right before we were getting on the bus [after the game]: Today was a [expletive] day. This was a moment that we’d never thought would happen. But I’m glad I was there with the people that were on that trip. Whether it was good or bad, we were going to experience that together. We were a family, and family goes through tough times, too. It can’t be all sunshine and roses. That made all our bonds stronger.
And if there’s one thing that we do over the next four years, it’s going to be this: In 2021, when this team rebounds from its lowest point and [qualifies for] the World Cup, whenever that match is, I want everybody who was at that game in Couva to be there. I want us all to be there together. We will cry together, we will celebrate together, and we will lift this demon. Only we know what that feeling was like. Only we will know what that redemption song will sound like.
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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer, and occasionally other ball games, for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.