The shock is just now beginning to subside after the US men’s national team was eliminated from contention for the next summer’s World Cup in Russia. Every result that could have doomed them on Tuesday night came about, with Honduras and Panama’s respective wins combining with the US’s own 2-1 loss at already eliminated Trinidad & Tobago to knock Bruce Arena’s men out.
The list of what didn’t doom the United States’ qualifying campaign is lengthy – vastly greater resources and spending power relative to the rest of the Concacaf region, first and foremost – but before the autopsy begins in earnest, below are four things that consigned the US to desperate failure.
Home defeats to Mexico and Costa Rica
Coach Bruce Arena’s comment that the “hotshot” European powerhouses should try to qualify out of Concacaf, and the insinuation that it is somehow more challenging than in other federations, inspired much guffawing.
Those scorning Arena had justification. (Good luck surviving a bad draw in Uefa or CAF, Bruce). There’s a case to be made that Concacaf has the most lenient road to the World Cup. In few other regions could Mexico have made it to Brazil three years ago with just two wins out of 10 qualifiers, for example, or with just three, as the US would have if El Tri and Costa Rica had done them a favor on Tuesday night.
What Arena was alluding to, however, were the logistical and practical concerns that are unique to Central America and the Caribbean. In few other regions, for example, do visitors have to wade through a moat to get to practice the day before the match. Stories of inhospitable kickoff times and late-night phone calls to team hotels are legion.
What that all means is that taking care of business at home is paramount. Win your home games, and you’re in, no matter what happens on those pesky road trips.
The United States failed to obey that cardinal rule. The USMNT fell to Mexico in what had previously been the fortress of Mapfre Stadium – two days after the election of President Donald Trump, some of a certain political persuasion will remind you with the same dark comedy that inspired Omar Gonzalez’s own goal on Tuesday – and lost to Costa Rica in New Jersey last month.
That Costa Rica loss, especially, coming when it did, put the US in a position in which they absolutely needed an away result. As we saw so vividly, that can come back to bite teams.
Lack of difference-makers in their primes
As explained in depth by Brian Sciaretta over at American Soccer Now earlier this month, the USMNT are plagued by a puzzling dearth of talent between the ages of 23 and 27. The reasons behind that glaring development gap are myriad – that players those ages were born before Major League Soccer came into existence, that every nation ebbs and flows with its talent production – but its impact was clear enough this campaign.
The US leaned too heavily on veterans who had clearly lost a step, like poor Tim Howard, who was so lauded for his heroics against Belgium in Brazil but has lacked his former reflexes for a while now. It has also heaped far too much responsibility onto the shoulders of 19-year-old Christian Pulisic.
Pulisic has legitimate, game-changing quality. He’s already as gifted as just about any other American soccer player, ever, and it is a great shame for football fans everywhere was that he has been robbed of a turn on the World Cup stage. Pulisic was dominant last Friday night against Panama and scored a world-class goal against T&T. He’s also young, and sometimes inconsistent, like when he struggled to establish himself in that aforementioned Costa Rica match.
Such are the dangers of leaning too heavily on players either on the back end of their careers or still growing into their prime.
A stubborn willingness to stick with coaches through more than one World Cup cycle
To write off this collapse as merely a function of a down talent cycle is to be far too lenient on the powers that be. Even without difference-makers in that age group, this team had more than enough talent to qualify. MLS, the domestic league, is as strong as it’s ever been. Pulisic plays for Borussia Dortmund, one of the biggest club teams in the world.
Blame should also be pointed squarely at Arena, at former coach Jürgen Klinsmann, who oversaw the home loss to Mexico and the 4-0 hiding in Costa Rica, as well as at federation president Sunil Gulati, who hired both of them.
This has been a trend since the first time Arena was in charge.
His 2002 squad made the deepest run of any US team in the modern era, taking Germany to the wire in the World Cup quarter-finals. At the end of his second cycle in 2006, though, the team flopped, going three-and-out in Germany. Bob Bradley also guided the US to the World Cup knockout rounds a year after a stirring run to the 2009 Confederations Cup final … and was let go midway through his second cycle after the team’s form fell off.
So Klinsmann’s trajectory should’ve been easily to chart when he inked a contract extension the year before his US team reached the round of 16 in 2014. Instead, he stuck around long enough to dig the hole this group could not climb out of.
A couple of bad breaks
Any of the three fluky plays that sank the US would’ve been extraordinary on its own.
First, Gonzalez sliced an attempted clearance off the outside of his boot and into his own net, an own goal that would’ve been stylish even if he had been attempting to score. Then Honduras boinked their game-winner off the crossbar, off the back of the Mexican goalkeeper’s head and over the line. Panama’s tying goal didn’t even make it that far – replays conclusively showed that Blas Perez’s shot next made it completely over the goalline – but it was credited anyway.
Taken together, it’s fine to acknowledge that this was a remarkable bit of ill fortune to strike in the same night.
It’s also fair to point out that the US has so much going for it relative to its peers that it never should have been so susceptible to bad luck so late in the campaign – and that this result will have repercussions for years to come.