The result in Trinidad and Tobago completed a slow-starting and, ultimately, devastating campaign for the United States. The path through qualifying had been full of pivotal moments; the team switched coaches after losing its first two qualifiers of the final round, firing Jurgen Klinsmann and rehiring Bruce Arena for a second stint leading the team. While Arena’s arrival initially seemed to steady the team, the Americans ultimately won only three of the eight qualifiers he coached.
“We didn’t qualify for the World Cup,” Arena said after Tuesday’s loss. “That was my job.”
He added: “We have no excuses. We failed today.”
Sunil Gulati, the president of U.S. Soccer, echoed his coach’s disappointment.
“We certainly expected to qualify, throughout the process, and especially after Friday night,” he said, adding, “It’s a huge disappointment for everybody; the players, the staff, the coaches, the federation.
“It’s not good enough.”
Gulati, who is expected to face his first contested election for the U.S. Soccer presidency in February, said he would make no decisions about the future of the program in the immediate aftermath of the defeat.
“That’s for tomorrow,” he said. He declined to say whether Arena would coach the team through the end of his contract, which runs through the end of the 2018 World Cup.
Arena and his team entered Tuesday’s game needing only a win or a tie to qualify, and — after a 4-0 win over Panama on Friday had helped Arena and his team keep control of their qualification destiny — even a loss would have done the trick if the results in the other two games went the Americans’ way.
But an uncharacteristically listless first half on Tuesday put them back on perilous footing, and soon Panama and Honduras were rallying from early deficits, and then it all unraveled for the U.S.
Trinidad and Tobago forward Shahdon Winchester and United States defender Omar Gonzalez converged on a looping cross in the penalty area in the 17th minute, and the hopeful ball knuckled off Winchester’s foot and Gonzalez’s shin before sailing over goalkeeper Tim Howard, who was caught off his line.
“That goal,” a crestfallen Gonzalez said later, “will haunt me for the rest of my life.”
The day, one Gonzalez called “the worst of my career,” soon got worse. Twenty minutes later, Trinidad and Tobago right back Alvin Jones, sauntering up the right side and looking for a passing option, realized he had no pressure and decided to shoot instead — a rocket from nearly 35 yards that screamed past Howard. The tiny crowd that bothered to show up to Ato Boldon Stadium roared again.
The Americans had lost control of their fate, and suddenly needed goals — or help elsewhere — to save them. Christian Pulisic grabbed a goal back less than 90 seconds after halftime, and the press for a second — which would have been good enough to clinch qualification — was on.
It never came, though, and despite Clint Dempsey’s hitting the post in the final minutes — one of several late chances that could have meant survival — the Americans were out.
The defeat could mean the end of the national team careers of several national team mainstays, including Dempsey, 34, and goalkeeper Tim Howard, 38. But those decisions, too, are for another day.
On Tuesday night, there was just the hard truth of qualification. In international soccer, Bradley had noted on Monday, “you either qualify for the World Cup, or you don’t; there’s no extra points for how you qualify.”
There is no relying on other teams to help, either. So as the scores turned bad in the other two matches, and the time ticket down on the tiny scoreboard at Ato Boldon Stadium, the increasingly desperate Americans could sense what was coming. Arena said he did not check the other scores, but Gonzalez said he could read the body language on the bench from his position at center back, and he knew the news wasn’t good.
When the final whistle blew Tuesday, he and Bradley and the rest of the team were, for the first time since the 1986 World Cup, on the wrong side of the qualifying line.
“The reality is that it was all there for us,” Bradley said. “And we have nobody to blame but ourselves.
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