For soccer fans in the United States, the worst case scenario unfolded on Tuesday night.
The United States men’s soccer team will not be going to the World Cup.
“If I said this is a disappointment, that would be an understatement,” Tim Howard, U.S. goalkeeper said after the match.
Combined with Honduras’ 3-2 win over Mexico, and Panama’s 2-1 win at home against Costa Rica, coupled with a 2-1 U.S. loss at Trinidad & Tobago, the last place team in the Hexagonal, the Red, White and Blue will not be making the trip to Russia, and won’t be a part of the soccer’s biggest event for the first time since 1986.
It was a perfect storm of what would be a disastrous qualifying Hexagonal for the U.S.
In four games against CONCACAF front-runners Costa Rica and Mexico, they could only muster one point, going 0-3-1.
Okay, fine, then take care of business against Honduras, Panama and Trinidad & Tobago.
With a roster selection that often times continued to rely on players entering the downsides of distinguished careers along with a bright young budding international superstar — Christian Pulisic — the U.S. should still have been able to navigate its way through these qualifying games.
Instead, they underachieved, and ultimately, picking up only three road points, and loss at Trinidad & Tobago on the final night would eliminate the U.S. from the World Cup finals for the first time since 1986.
It was a year of many ups and downs.
Some very embarrassing downs.
Sure, maybe it was time to sack a coach, Jurgen Klinsmann who was critical of a lot of things that we’ve doing in terms of player development and quickly created some rifts with many in United States soccer circles.
And sometimes, the cold-hard truths spoken by Klinsmann did hurt. And they created a divisive U.S. soccer community.
Ultimately, losing to Mexico at home, in Columbus where they’ve never lost, followed by an embarrassing 4-0 result at Costa Rica in November would finally give the U.S. Soccer Federation no choice to please many in its circles — and send Klinsmann packing.
Bruce Arena was the safe choice to replace Klinsmann. After all, Arena had guided the USMNT to the World Cup twice before, and after a positive start in March, with a 6-0 triumph over Honduras and a draw at Panama, all seemed right again.
But the ups were followed by more downs, and ending with the worst possible scenario, even in a forgiving CONCACAF qualifying process where the top three teams qualify, and the fourth gets to play in an elimination two-game aggregate playoff against Oceania qualifier Australia.
On Tuesday night, on a field that had been water logged for days following storms, the U.S. started in the worst possible way — giving up an own goal.
Yes, on yet another Omar Gonzalez mishap.
Moments later, Gonzalez looked awfully guilty of a foul in the box. Fortunately, for the U.S. — the head official thought it was a clean tackle.
In the 37th minute, the U.S. wouldn’t be so lucky.
Alvin Jones made sure of that.
Having dug a big hole away from home, but still in position at half time to advance based on the results of the other games, and who knows, maybe the U.S. players simply thought that they would get through, right?
After all, there wasn’t going to be any way that both Honduras and Panama could both come back to beat the front-runners already heading to Russia next summer: Costa Rica and Mexico.
But, as a wise ‘American’ football coach once said:
This should have been Arena’s speech before the game. Well, if that message didn’t get through then, it should have been fire and brimstone at the half.
Many former U.S. players such as Carlos Bocanegra, Cobi Jones, Alexi Lalas and Taylor Twellmen to name a few, were dogging this U.S. team for lack of effort and playing without a sense of urgency for much of this match.
Here’s Twellman’s rant after the game tonight.
Forwards were not getting any solid touches. The attack lacked consistent build-up.
And the back line, while conceding tons of space, were unable to play the ball out of the back with any kind of confidence.
And yet, despite all of this, the U.S. turned to that budding 19-year old international superstar from Hershey, PA, Pulisic, to put them right back into the match, just as he’s done for much of this final qualifying round.
Again, this team has been lifted, time after time in the past 16 months by its young phenom.
It wouldn’t be enough though.
In its final maybe-not-so-desperate-enough-according-to-cynical U.S. critics comeback effort — two thirty-something year olds gave the U.S. its best chance for the equalizer: the warrior Clint Dempsey (35) who sent a shot that pinged off the right post, and Benny Feilhaber (32), who hadn’t played in USMNT match since early in the year, connected on a header that was saved from a Michael Bradley (oh yeah, also age 30), corner kick.
And the end result, the U.S. lost to the worst team in the Hex.
They lost at the worst possible time — and in the most heartbreaking way.
And both Panama and Honduras scored late goals of their own, against the two best teams in the region, to jump up the standings.
“It’s a blemish for us,” Arena said. “We should not be staying home for this World Cup.”
Oh no Bruce, yes, you deserve to stay home for the World Cup. You didn’t do anything to earn it.
And that’s the cold, hard truth that U.S. Soccer players, coaches, leadership and its fans have to swallow.
Quite simply, it should hurt and you have a right to be angry if you love soccer and you’re from Pittsburgh, PA.
That’s because the bar for soccer in our country has been raised in the past 25 years. It’s been raised by the likes of the Dempsey, Howard, and DeMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan.
And that’s why it should sting. Because we’ve come to expect to qualify for the World Cup every time.
Regardless of how far we’ve come — it’s still not that easy. It wasn’t going to be easy with the mess that was U.S. soccer in the past year. It wasn’t going to be easy with CONCACAF being a tough region that Arena pointed out on Monday that he would love to see some “European hot shots” come try to compete in.
But the generation of Dempsey, Howard, Donovan’s time has now passed. Bottom line here is that this current pool of players in the U.S. — led by a dysfunctional leadership in the Federation didn’t get the job done.
There won’t be any contributions from the likes of those guys on the field any more. And the roster talent hasn’t been deep enough to overcome injuries to top-level players like Fabian Johnson and John Brooks.
Instead, we have no choice but to turn our attention and hope to the next generation of players. Will they be the real deal as many are proclaiming?
Only time will tell.
Yes — there will and needs to be a complete rebuild. And maybe that’s just what’s needed. The last two Olympic qualifying cycles produced failures too. This meant another major competition where our best young players didn’t compete.
Some of soccer’s best countries have missed World Cups and have had down periods. Germany is the best example, and after hitting a low point when not qualifying for 2000 Euros, they won the World Cup 14 years later.
Changes are going to have to start at the top — as U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati may have to look for another job.
Oh, and there will be a new coach, as the 66-year old Arena himself even said he was only coming back for this World Cup cycle.
And, we’ll be watching to see how our U-17 team does at the World Cup (take note, they’re already 2-0 in group stage, and have clinched a spot in knockout rounds).
So, yes — there is hope.
But right now — Tuesday’s loss and the disastrous qualifying campaign is still going to sting for a while.
At this moment, U.S. Soccer has hit rock bottom.