Lost amid the disbelief, fury, and disappointment of last night was the wildly unfortunate chain of events that led to the unthinkable: The USMNT missing the World Cup for the first time since 1986. These events — a fluky own goal, an unlikely wonderstrike, and a phantom Panama goal — all took place within less than an hour of each other, sealing the United States’ fate.
After their convincing 4-0 drubbing of Panama last Friday, it was all set up before the U.S. men. Win or draw vs. lowly Trinidad and Tobago and you are automatically qualified. Lose, and you could still get in as long as both Panama and Honduras don’t win. Before the matches, ESPN projected only a 3 percent chance that the United States wouldn’t make the World Cup. Once the games started, all hell broke lose.
In the 17th minute, Trinidad sent a harmless cross into the box that U.S. defender Omar Gonzalez lazily swung at, only to have the ball skip off his leg and perfectly loop over keeper Tim Howard into the net. It was a disastrous start, and it would only get worse.
Twenty minutes later, Trinidad’s Alvin Jones lined up an improbable, preposterous, ridiculous shot from about 30 yards out, one that is almost always easily saved by the keeper or ends up nowhere near the goal. This one, however, rocketed past Howard and just inside the post to make it 2-0. It was Jones’ first career goal for Trinidad.
Even though 19-year-old wunderkind Christian Pulisic pulled one back for the USMNT early in the second half, things continued to spiral elsewhere for them. Panama scored to go level with Costa Rica. The only problem? The ball never crossed the goal line.
— Deadspin (@Deadspin) October 11, 2017
For reasons unknown, the ref in Panama City decided to award this phantom goal. With Honduras beating Mexico and the U.S. trailing Trinidad, things were looking dire. In the 77th minute, Clint Dempsey hit a low roller from outside the box that bounced off the post. Even at this point, the USMNT’s World Cup hopes were still alive as long as Panama didn’t score again. Well, you know what happened next.
In the 88th minute, Panama scored the game-winner in dramatic fashion and that was it for the United States.
And yet, despite the 3% chance and the crazy own goal and the impossible Trinidad strike from the parking lot and the fraudulent Panama goal, the USMNT have zero excuses. None. Trinidad deserved to win this match, but if the USMNT can’t get at least a draw with the World Cup on the line against a country that had lost 8 of their 9 qualifying matches, then they don’t deserve to qualify. The truth is the problems with this team started long before Tuesday night.
The United States has always been fortunate to play in CONCACAF, a confederation of smaller countries (besides Mexico) that have not typically been world-class. Since 1994, the USMNT has qualified out of CONCACAF with relative ease. Admittedly, their competition has been getting better, as Costa Rica proved at the last World Cup, but with the United States’ talent pool and money it should be an afterthought that they qualify. Instead, they dropped valuable points to Honduras and Trinidad at crucial moments.
Under Jurgen Klinsmann’s direction, the USMNT lost the first two matches of World Cup qualifying, forming a sizable hole to lift themselves out of over the next eight matches. Bruce Arena was brought in after Klinsmann’s firing to do one thing and one thing only: Qualify for the World Cup. Arena had begun his second tenure as USMNT coach with a 14-match unbeaten streak. Just over two months ago, I was praising Arena in this space for stabilizing the USMNT after their rocky start. After that, they would only win one of the next four matches. Now, he will be out of a job, as US Soccer tries to figure out where to turn after such a full-on disaster.
It’s no wonder they failed when their defense was porous, their goalkeeping was spotty, and their best player throughout qualifying was a teenager. Maybe we were all so excited about Pulisic’s exhilarating play that we failed to note that it was a serious problem when he’s your only true creative playmaker.
In fact, that’s part of what hurts so much about missing out on Russia 2018. Next summer was supposed to be Pulisic’s coming out party as a mainstream American sports star, a household name even your grandmother knows. The kid’s still a transcendent talent with Chosen One written all over him, he’s just missing out on the valuable experience of starring in a World Cup at age 19.
We can only pray that this utter debacle will lead to a revolutionary wake up call for the entirety of US Soccer, from President Sunil Gualti on down to the youth ranks. Things need to change, be it style of play, coaching, Major League Soccer, the pay-to-play youth system — you name it. This embarrassment reveals the structural rot underneath the U.S. men’s senior team, even if the specific result falls squarely at the feet of Arena and the players.
It took a wild Tuesday to end up here, but if one night can unravel your dreams in such a hurry that just proves how poorly you have played throughout qualifying. This should not have been a failure that totally blindsided us. But it did because, throughout my lifetime, qualifying for the World Cup has almost been a given. Not anymore. October 10th, 2017 will forever live in infamy for US Soccer.