The United States men's soccer team will not be at the 2018 World Cup because of a stunning, disastrous, 2-1 loss at Trinidad & Tobago on Tuesday.
"We failed on the day. We have no excuses," American coach Bruce Arena said after his team lost to a Soca Warriors squad that had long since been eliminated from World Cup contention. "We should not be staying home for this World Cup and take the responsibility for that."
Trinidad took the lead in the 17th minute when U.S. defender Omar Gonzalez scored an own goal by mis-hitting a cross by Trinidad's Alvin Jones into his own net.
Jones doubled Trinidad's lead in the 36th minute, blasting a shot from 35 yards past American goalkeeper Tim Howard.
At halftime, there was consolation for the United States from other results in the region. Honduras was losing at home to Mexico, and Panama was losing at home to Costa Rica.
And there was optimism for the United States in the 47th minute, when Hershey native Christian Pulisic finally got the U.S. team on the scoreboard.
But within seconds, that optimism was gone, as Honduras came from 2-1 down to take a 3-2 lead.
Panama had also scored against Costa Rica — with a goal that was given despite never actually crossing the line.
That meant the Americans were in fourth place at the moment, and ticketed for a home-and-away playoff against Australia. One more Panama goal would eliminate the U.S. team entirely.
That goal came in second-half stoppage time, as Roman Torres — who plays for Major League Soccer's Seattle Sounders — scored to give Panama a 2-1 win.
At that point, the U.S. team had five minutes of stoppage time in which to score one more goal.
There was even a last-ditch hope of salvation when Mexico won a free kick 20 yards away from goal in the final seconds in Honduras. But that free kick was blocked. That was the end.
"We let down an entire nation today," Gonzalez said.
Within seconds of the final whistle, the knives were out for almost all of the central figures at U.S. Soccer headquarters. Many fans called for coach Bruce Arena to go, which he was always going to do after the 2018 World Cup anyway. Others put the blame on Arena's predecessor, Jurgen Klinsmann, who was fired after the Americans lost their first two games of the final round of qualifying.
And there was plenty of criticism for the players, whether on account of desire, execution, or simply not being talented enough.
"It wasn't good enough from the players, it wasn't good enough from the staff," said Cobi Jones, the all-time leader in U.S. national team appearances, on beIN Sports after calling the game for the network. "They were positioned perfectly to get a result, but failed on multiple accounts. And I think a lot of people are going to be looking to play the blame game, but a lot of people have to look at themselves first and foremost."
Jones concluded by asserting that "there are going to be frustrations and a lot of questions to players, [and] a changing of the guard, so to speak, not only at the player level but up the line."
That line ends at the desk of U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati. A member of FIFA's powerful executive council, the Columbia University economics professor and former executive with MLS' New England Revolution and the league office has held American soccer's most powerful job since 2006. Gulati hired Klinsmann to revolutionize American soccer in 2011 after pursuing the German star's services for years, made the call to sack him last autumn, and brought back Arena for a third turn at the helm.
ESPN analyst Herculez Gomez, a former U.S. national team player who played at the 2010 World Cup, called for Gulati's departure. That sentiment was widely echoed.
Speaking to reporters in Trinidad, Gulati said the loss was "a huge disappointment for everybody: for players, for the staff, for coaches, for the federation. … It's not good enough, obviously. In some sense, 2022 starts tomorrow for us."
ESPN's Taylor Twellman unleashed a barrage of criticism of the American soccer establishment during an interview on his network after the game ended.
"It's not about tonight, it's not about Jurgen Klinsmann, it's not just about Bruce Arena. As a whole, U.S. Soccer is not prepared," Twellman said. "They have not done a good enough job of getting this group ready to play," he said. "If this failure does not wake up everyone from U.S. Soccer to Major League Soccer, from pay-to-play [youth soccer clubs] to broadcasters to everything, then we're insane. If we don't change it — and I mean we, everyone in U.S. soccer — then what are we doing? What's the point? Because that should have never happened with the billion-dollars plus that are going into Major League Soccer and youth devleopment. That should have never happened, and it did, and every single person should look themselves in the mirror — myself included."
Twellman called the loss to Trinidad "an utter embarrassment … Iith the amount of money that is within Major League Soccer and in this sport, you can't get a tie against Trinidad? You don't deserve to go to the World Cup, plain and simple."
That is exactly what happened. Because of it, the U.S. men's team will not on soccer's biggest stage for the first time since 1986. And even with all of the night's other craziness, this country's national team has only itself to blame.
"It was almost as if the pressure got to them," Twellman said on air later at night. "And we all sit here and say, 'Pressure?' But the reality is, the majority of this roster, week in, week out in Major League Soccer, how much pressure is really on them? They're going to land in the United States of America, and I can guarantee you Thursday, Friday, Monday of next week — how many American sports fans are going to look at them on the street and say, 'That was embarrassing'?"
ESPN host John Buccigross responded: "I think more than in the past."
"That's fine," Twellman said. "But it's still much smaller than it should be if we're really trying to put players in proper spots to succeed. I just feel like the pressure got to them tonight, and that's the most surprising thing to me."