USA’s loss to Trinidad and Tobago in the Russia 2018 qualifiers was the last of a long series of failures
by Kevin Skiver
With the World Cup about to kick off, a lot of Americans are about to commence their quadrennial tradition of following international soccer. However, once you start paying attention to the coverage (or maybe you already have if you’re not a casual fan), you may notice something off. No one is talking about the United States. The reason is simple, so don’t overthink it: The United States didn’t qualify for the World Cup in Russia this year.
So how did this happen after the United States made it to the round of 16 in 2014? What happened in four years that caused the United States to fail to reach the World Cup for the first time since 1986? Thirty-two teams qualify, so just what the hell happened?
To answer that question, we need to go back to 2016, the beginning of the qualifying tournament. Out of six teams in the North American, Central American and Caribbean region, the top three seeds reach the World Cup. Fourth place, meanwhile, plays an interconfederation playoff — a home-and-away aggregate round — against the fourth-place winner of the Asian Football Confederation.
There are six confederations, each with a certain number of teams and spots available. The American’s confederation, CONCACAF, for example, has 35 teams and 3.5 spots available. The half a team comes because fourth place isn’t guaranteed. It requires the aforementioned interconfederation playoff. In order to examine the United States’ collapse, we must dive into each qualifying match. Here’s how the USMNT failed to reach the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
Nov. 11, 2016: 2-1 home loss to Mexico
The United States’ road to failure started early. At Mapfre Stadium in Columbus, Ohio, the United States lost its first CONCACAF qualifying match to Mexico 2-1. Tim Howard suffered an injury in the 40th minute of the match, a fracture in his groin that kept him out for four months until March 2017. Howard’s injury was felt, with Brad Guzan also struggling in net. Rafael Marquez struck the game-winner on a beautiful header in the 88th minute.
Nov. 15, 2016: 4-0 loss to Costa Rica
Costa Rica was already known to be a solid team. The team was a surprising quarterfinal representative at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, and the always-excellent keeper Keylor Navas shut down USMNT in a blowout. Joel Campbell closed the match with two goals within five minutes of each other, putting an exclamation point on the loss. Christian Pulisic, an emerging teenage American star, came off the bench in the 70th minute. When the first leg was over, the United States and Trinidad and Tobago were the only teams that didn’t have a win to their names through two games.
Nov. 21, 2016: Jurgen Klinsmann out; Bruce Arena eventually takes over
After the 0-2 start, the United States Soccer Federation had seen enough. Manager Jurgen Klinsmann was relieved of his duties after just shy of five and a half years on the sideline. Klinsmann, who was already under heavy scrutiny for cutting Landon Donovan prior to the 2014 World Cup, finished 55-28-15 with the United States, but had just the 2014 World Cup appearance to his name. Bruce Arena, who coached the team in the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, was hired the next day to replace him.
March 24, 2017: 6-0 win over Honduras
Arena’s stint started out much better. The United States came out swinging against Honduras, crushing its Central American neighbors 6-0. Getting Tim Howard back in play proved to be huge, and Clint Dempsey put together a hat trick, while Pulisic scored a gorgeous goal from Jozy Altidore. The win restored some hope, as people wondered if Arena might be a difference-maker and if Pulisic could be the star.
March 28, 2017: 1-1 draw to Panama
After a first half that saw each team net a goal, including Dempsey’s fourth goal of the qualifying campaign, the second half of this match was largely uneventful. Panama, coming off of a loss to Trinidad and Tobago, didn’t look like the same team, but Howard proved to be huge once again. The slow start still didn’t allow the United States to put itself in the driver’s seat, and the standings weren’t favorable despite not losing in the March portion of qualifying. However, it did put the team in striking distance, which would be huge moving forward.
June 8-11, 2017: 2-0 win over Trinidad and Tobago; 1-1 draw to Mexico
Just another fantastic set of days for Tim Howard, who continued to look dominant. Pulisic continued his excellent run, scoring two more goals for the United States, and it looked like things were coming together. Against Mexico, Howard played another fantastic match at Estadio Azteca, with Carlos Vela picking up a wicked grounder goal for Mexico.
Michael Bradley opened the scoring in the 6th minute with an amazing goal from near midfield, but that Vela equalizer would stand, and the match ended in a draw.
The United States sat in third place (behind Costa Rica and Mexico) with two wins, two losses and two draws, with only four games remaining. The draw put the team in position to snag a World Cup berth for the first time since its poor start.
Sept. 1, 2017: 2-0 home loss to Costa Rica
The loss just a month later to Trinidad and Tobago was devastating. Had the United States defeated Costa Rica here, it may have punched a ticket to Russia long before the final match of the qualifying campaign. The USMNT just didn’t look good in this match, squandering countless opportunities. There were two shots on goal from both sides, but only Costa Rica could convert. Despite holding 61 percent possession and a strong showing from Pulisic, nothing seemed to go towards the net. Two goals from Marco Urena gave Costa Rica the win, and the USMNT squandered a golden opportunity to draw itself even with Costa Rica in the standings.
Sept. 5, 2017: 1-1 draw to Honduras
This match was big for the United States, and it looked like it could make or break the team heading into the last two matchdays. Although a win would have been huge, a draw was not insignificant. The USA was still tied with Honduras in the standings, and the 6-0 stomping earlier in the year kept the United States in position to at least play in past CONCACAF qualifiers.
Oct. 6, 2017: 4-0 win over Panama; a win next match and the U.S. is in
The United States finally pulled another win at the most opportune time. This win put the United States at 3-3-3. Pulisic had a goal while Altidore had two, and Bobby Wood one as well. The win came alongside a Honduras tie, so all the United States needed to do was draw with Trinidad and Tobago, losers of eight out of nine qualifying matches, to get itself into World Cup play. Which, of course, leads us to …
Oct. 10, 2017: 2-1 loss to Trinidad and Tobago, Arena resigns shortly after WC elimination
In an absolutely stunning upset, the USMNT failed to put together any type of effort against Trinidad and Tobago. With Honduras going on to defeat Mexico 3-2 in a stunning upset of its own, the United States not only fell out of third place, it fell out of the World Cup play-in round. The loss was utterly demoralizing, and Arena resigned, calling the loss a “major setback for the men’s national team program.” He added that there were “[n]o excuses. We didn’t get the job done, and I accept responsibility.”
Dave Sarachen has been the acting manager since November, but the team’s future is now in a strange place. Obviously, Pulisic is the future of the team, but managerial turnover and aging stars have the future in flux. CONCACAF competition shouldn’t be underestimated. Mexico and Costa Rica are teams to look out for, and to Panama’s credit, it’s now in its first World Cup. But those are excuses, as any USA fan would tell you. The team simply wasn’t good enough.
So that’s why the team isn’t in. A lot of people don’t pay attention to CONCACAF qualifiers, and some may not even know that there’s a qualifying process. A lot of American fans may have learned that the hard way when the team was eliminated. Some of it was not being good enough, some of it was losses at inopportune times, and — of course — some of it was just rotten luck.
With that being said, don’t turn it off just because of that! There’s a lot of exciting soccer to watch. Obviously, I mentioned Panama making its inaugural appearance, but we’ve compiled a guide for who to cheer for if you’re bummed about the United States missing out. Until then, just wait for Qatar in 2022. The team will have another go at qualifiers, after all.