With a shocking defeat to Trinidad & Tobago on Tuesday night, the USMNT has been eliminated from the 2018 World Cup for the first time since 1986.
COUVA, Trinidad and Tobago — Some of the United States players made their way over to the bench, begging for information that then broke their hearts. Others quizzed a nearby television crew for updates, praying for a miracle.
At the end of a bizarre and ultimately catastrophic night for American soccer, that is what it came down to, seeking salvation in news from Panama City and San Pedro Sula, after the national team was unable to save itself.
It wasn’t just a soulless 2-1 defeat to already eliminated Trinidad and Tobago, loser of eight of its previous nine games, that means the USA will not be at a World Cup for the first time since 1986. It is a whole bunch of reasons stretching back a couple of years, and no one involved is blameless.
The players knew it as word reached them that Panama and Honduras had both held their nerve as their own failed them, and you could see it in their faces. They had only needed a tie, and it was beyond them. Some stood, some had hands on knees and there were plenty of dipped and shaking heads.
Omar Gonzalez just sat, his backside planted on the sodden field at tiny Ato Boldon Stadium. This game didn’t matter much to the locals, and only 1,000 or so of them turned out. It mattered for the USA, for its immediate soccer future, and for this current crop of players left with dreams shattered.
Gonzalez was the last of a number of fall guys, dating back to the doomed Jurgen Klinsmann era and encompassing Bruce Arena, federation president Sunil Gulati and scores of players. A small shred of luck here or there — Clint Dempsey hit the post late on when an equalizer would have sent the team to Russia next summer — could have changed everything. Yet it should never have gotten to that stage, whereby upon such small margins everything hinged.
It was Gonzalez’s mishap that set the tone for a possible shocker and had reverberations all around this geographic region. It was the tall defender’s own goal on 17 minutes, as he flicked out at a cross and sent it accidentally looping over goalkeeper Tim Howard, that made the visitors nervous, buoyed T+T, and empowered Panama (who will reach the World Cup) and Honduras (which secured a playoff spot).
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Gonzalez’s disappointment was raw and heartfelt and oh so real. He is deserving of blame as a player, but worthy of sympathy as a man, especially when he showed the courage to send a message of apology to the fans after the game.
“I never thought that I’d see this day,” Gonzalez told reporters. “It’s the worst day of my career. I am extremely sad right now. What was supposed to be a celebration is now … I, I don’t even know what to say. It’s terrible. We let down an entire nation today.”
He was stunned and so too were others. Jozy Altidore and Tim Howard struggled to find the right words and in all honesty, what could they hope to say? Altidore said it would be easy to walk away from the national team after this but wants to be part of the rebuilding instead. At 38, Howard won’t see World Cup action anymore and he had a rough night here. He was powerless to stop Gonzalez’s twirling deflection, was beaten by Alvin Jones’ thunderbolt on 37 minutes to put the hosts two up, and had some tough moments amid tricky conditions.
Christian Pulisic got the only USA goal early in the second half, but for such a vital game, far too few chances were created.
Arena took over from Klinsmann a year ago and there was an element of early glee in his revival, generating strong home wins and gritty road ties. But both of those went away. The final five games were supposed to be when the spurt came that would lift them to safety and an eighth straight World Cup appearance. Instead, just five points were gleaned.
“We should not be staying home for this World Cup,” Arena said. “And I take responsibility for it. We didn’t qualify for the World Cup that was my job to get the team there.”
Gulati admitted he was stunned and said that looking for answers would start “tomorrow.” They need to be found, and quickly.
The USA has missed the World Cup before but that was back before hardly anyone cared, before the USA figured to have the biggest travelling support of any nation.
Forget that now.
Now this new army of fans has to wake up to a new reality. The World Cup will go ahead, just like it always does. And the USA will be watching on television.
Follow Martin Rogers on Twitter @RogersJourno.
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