It hadn’t been a qualifying pool to remember but, with one game to go, the US Men’s National Team just needed to tie their game with Trinidad and Tobago to secure at least fourth place and a play-off spot. In that event, it would have ensured direct World Cup qualification as third-placed team in a six-team pool. They wake up this morning knowing they have missed out completely, and they have nobody to blame but themselves for that. A woeful display against the pool’s bottom side – eliminated some time ago, with eight defeats in their previous nine games – means that the USA joins Holland and Chile (who finished sixth in the free-for-all South American pool) in not needing to dust off their Russian phrasebooks.
Some will point to the squad’s slow start to the campaign, their poor form under previous coach Jurgen Klinsmann, the failure to pick up any more than a single point in four games against fellow qualification favorites Costa Rica and Mexico. Those things sure didn’t help, but Christian Pulisic and ten other people kicked off in Couva’s Ato Boldon Stadium with qualification in their own hands. It took seventeen minutes to start throwing it away. By the end of the match, they had been overhauled by Panama for automatic qualification and seen Honduras take fourth place with a two-legged playoff against Australia as their reward.
The USMNT were two goals behind by the half here in Couva, Alvin Jones adding to his assist of the first goal with a breathtaking second. Ninety seconds into the second half, Pulisic had pulled one back; another fine goal from the team’s undoubted MVP of the qualifying phase. Between then and the final whistle, there were occasional chances for the USA to test home goalkeeper Adrian Foncette, who made some fine saves, but in the end had a calm evening. The expected siege of T&T’s penalty box never materialized; the game looked like a run-of-the-mill exhibition game, not a crucial World Cup qualifier.
With three minutes left, and Honduras leading Mexico by 3-2, then, it looked as though the USA would cede third place to the Hondurans and face Australia in the play-off. Then came news from Panama City that the home team had come from behind to lead Costa Rica. Pushed down to fifth place, Bruce Arena’s men had fallen out of contention. As all three matches ended, Panama joined Mexico and Costa Rica as automatic qualifiers. Honduras was fourth. The USA was nowhere.
At the beginning of the week, Arena told the media he would “love to see one of these hotshot teams from Europe come here and play in our CONCACAF qualifying and really get a taste of this and see what that’s about”. Maybe he could ask Switzerland – who won their first nine games in qualification and were bumped into the playoffs in their last game by defeat in Portugal. They, surely, would have loved a pool where they could have lost three of those nine games, never picked up a win on the road, fired their coach halfway through and still gone into their last game, against the bottom team, only needing a point to go through.
Or he could possibly ask Iceland, which if it were a US city would only be the 58th-most populous one and yet topped out their group ahead of Croatia, Turkey, and Ukraine. In last year’s European Championships they knocked out England, and few would bet against them pulling off a shock or two in Russia. There really is no point in Bruce Arena, or anyone else, complaining about the severity of the task that faced the USMNT in qualifying. It wasn’t that tough and it was loaded with failsafes. They still failed.
A final word of consolation, perhaps, should be retained for Christian Pulisic, the 19-year-old who scored here, notched five goals and four assists (playing a part in more than half of his team’s goals) in the pool, and was let down by more experienced teammates who have already played in the big one. It’s not a teenage winger’s job to put a team on his shoulders and carry it over the line — and much as he nearly did it, he needs and deserves better support than he got this time around.
It is presumed that this game will bring the curtain down on Arena’s second stint as USMNT coach. Whoever is selected to replace him has a lot more to work with than some previous managers — among other things, a functional professional soccer league — but they will also need players who show more motivation than was on display at the Ato Boldon Stadium. Even if that means dropping experienced internationalists.
[Featured Image by Ashley Allen/Getty Images]