On Oct. 11 for the second time in a bit less than a year, I woke up on a Wednesday morning aghast at what had happened the previous night This was no cruel nightmare but rather an ugly reality likely to plague my world for years to come.
For many, of course, this second trauma didn’t pack as much punch as the cosmic unsettling of Nov. 8, 2016; but for the USMNT organization and supporters, the shock, agony, disbelief and rage caused by failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup is now a part of its collective psyche that no set of future events will eradicate. It was (and continues to be) the USMNT’s worst nightmare come to life.
While “wait until next year” provides most teams and their fans the needed dose of solace mixed with encouragement at season’s end, there’s no “next year” for the US men. The squad’s next meaningful game is some 20 months off; the as yet unscheduled 2019 Gold Cup. The next important matches for the US will be the World Cup qualifiers in late 2020 and 2021; and then, maybe, the WC in 2022. That’s five years from now. Just five of the 16 US players fielded last month will be under 30 then, so don’t expect to see many familiar faces.
Since the US men bombed out, coach Bruce Arena has resigned, honorably, but 12-year US Soccer president Sunil Gulati sounds like he plans to run for another four-year term in February. With the avalanche of USMNT post-mortems, perhaps it makes sense to break down an assessment into three sections: the night of matches; this round of WC2018 qualifiers; and a long view of the USMNT.
Oct. 10 Perfect Storm. After the USMNT steamrolled Panama 4-0 Oct. 6, the only way for the US to lose out on qualifying for Russia was for Honduras to beat top-ranked Mexico, Panama to beat #2 Costa Rica and the US to lose to last-place Trinidad and Tobago.
All three matches played simultaneously, went against the US by a single goal. If any of the three games had been a draw, the US would still be playing.
Honduras came from behind twice to top Mexico, including an own goal that ricocheted off the crossbar, hit the goalie in the back of the head and bounced into the goal. Panama’s win over Costa Rica included a “phantom” goal—it was undisputed that the ball never crossed the goal line.
The US loss also was plagued by an own goal by Omar Gonzalez, when the tall defender made a careless swipe at a cross that popped the ball over the keeper and into the goal. It was strange that Arena had started the hapless Gonzalez over Geoff Cameron, a Premier Leaguer widely regarded as the more reliable central defender.
Strange also that Arena chose to go with the same starters against T&T as four days earlier vs. Panama, since he had made a point of changing the lineup to keep players fresh in the previous pairs of qualifying matches.
If fatigue was a factor, it showed. Before a miniscule crowd of maybe 500 in Couva, Trinidad, the US men came out lethargic and never found their intensity. Jozy Altidore looked like he had somewhere else to be and many of his teammates appeared to be waiting for someone else to get the job done.
Even after Christian Pulisic pulled the team within a goal just minutes into the second half, there was no apparent urgency. After the 1-2 loss, no one could say the USMNT had at least “left it all on the field.”
2018 Qualifying Cycle. After its first three qualifying matches—in Round 4 played in 2015-16—the USMNT was an anemic 1-1-1, with a loss to Guatemala and a draw vs. T&T. Then in the final Hexagonal round, again the team sputtered off the mark, losing its first two matches–and provoking the dismissal of coach Jürgen Klinsmann. That seemed to provide the desired wake-up call …until the unsightly 0-2 loss to Costa Rica, at home in New Jersey.
In the end, the USMNT posted a record of four wins, one draw and one loss in Round 4 and 3-3-4 in getting bumped from the Hex. Despite how close the team did come to qualifying, the USMNT was pedestrian at best throughout the WC qualifying process. Sporadic glimpses of skill and energy were overshadowed by lackluster play by a team thinking it could qualify simply by showing up.
The Long View. After a lengthy absence, the USMNT qualified for the 1990 World Cup and had been one just seven teams to compete in the past seven WCs. Playing in the shallow CONCACAF helped; during that run some stronger teams from Europe or South America stayed at home. As the US became more comfortable with the false notion that it was destined to always join the WC party, critical indicators to the contrary were overlooked, such as the Olympic Games. The US missed the cut in 2004 and then watched the last two Olympics on TV in 2012 and 2016. The Olympic squads are generally a country’s under-23 team and the competition provides a meaningful assessment of a program’s rising talent. The US’s has been unremarkable.
Within CONCACAF it’s the same story. Since the WC in 2014, the USMNT has played 26 non-friendly games against the other top seven countries and its record of 10 wins, 7 draws and 9 losses does not suggest dominance. Likewise, when the US placed fourth in the confederation’s biennial Gold Cup in 2015, marking the first time in 14 tournaments that the US failed to finish among the top two CONCACAF teams.
A likely explanation for the US’s downward migration to the middle of the pack is the MLS. Created as a FIFA requirement for the US to host the 1994 World Cup, the league and its 22 clubs are thriving, averaging the third highest per game attendance among US team sports. Much of the attraction of the league comes from the 40-plus players from USMNT rivals, including nine from Mexico, seven from T&T and five each from Costa Rica and Panama.
The influx has clearly improved those national teams. At the same time, the MLS success has drawn many of the top US players back from the more-competitive European leagues. The MLS effect has been to narrow, or eliminate, the gap between the US and its regional competitors. For now, it’ll be an excruciatingly long four years to find out whether the USMNT can adjust, revamp and earn an invitation to Qatar 2022.