In a World Cup qualifying process filled with embarrassment and disaster, the United States saved its worst for last. The U.S. men's national team will not compete in the 2018 World Cup. Let that sink in.
Needing a win or draw against Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday, the Americans got neither, losing 2-1 in Couva, Trinidad. Combined with a 2-1 win by Panama over Costa Rica and a 3-2 win by Honduras over Mexico, the U.S. finished the hexagonal stage of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying in fifth place. And there are no prizes for fifth place.
Disaster first struck the USMNT in the 17th minute. The Americans were flat defensively for the first quarter-hour and it bit them in a bad way with a mixture of bad defending and worse luck. Alvin Jones swung in a cross to Shahdon Winchester from the right flank. U.S. defender Omar Gonzalez flanked Winchester tightly and stuck a foot in in an effort to deflect the cross. And he did deflect it ... just not how he wanted. The ball ricocheted off Gonzalez's boot, looped over Tim Howard and fell perfectly into the net for a 1-0 Trinidad lead.
With so much at stake, you'd figure this opening salvo from the home team would serve as a wake-up call from the sleep-walking Americans. But no dice on that front. For whatever reason, the USMNT lacked rythym and energy. Perhaps it's the fact that Bruce Arena trotted out the exact same lineup he used in the emotional win over Panama last Friday. Maybe those players were drained from a performance that they thought essentially punched their ticket to Russia. But that ticket wasn't punched yet and things only got worse.
In the 37th minute, the U.S. went down 2-0 on a spectacular goal from Jones. When Jones grabbed the ball way outside the box, the U.S. players continued to trudge around the field. No one closed down Jones, and he made them pay by pulling an incredible shot from his locker, firing a twisting shot into the top-left corner past the outstretched arm of Howard. It was 2-0, and the USMNT was in big trouble.
Down 2-0 and the possibility of a win or draw that would guarantee a place at the World Cup quickly dissolving, USMNT fans were relegated to scoreboard watching. With Honduras trailing Mexico 2-1 and Panama trailing Costa Rica 1-0 at halftime of their respective matches, the Americans were still in position to possibly automatically qualify, despite the terrible showing.
And things actually looked up for a moment on the other side of the half. Clint Dempsey came on for Paul Arriola, shifting Christian Pulisic out wide. Pulisic scored with a belter in the 47th minute to bring the U.S. back to 2-1 and give the Americans some hope of qualifying of their own accord.
But the energy levels never improved and a sharpness in attack never came. For another 45 minutes, the States attempted to mount attack after attack, but the malaise that's been rampant in this squad for months was too much to overcome. The U.S. got a few chances off, but eventually succumbed to the loss without putting up much of a fight.
Soon enough, the scores in the other games started going against the States. Honduras scored in the 54th and 60th minutes to take a 3-2 lead on Mexico, which it would hold onto. The U.S. would still make the intercontinental playoff match with Australia should Panama lose, but Roman Torres scored for the Panamanians in the 88th minute to beat Costa Rica 2-1 and complete the most embarrassing night in the history of American soccer.
There were a lot of folks who thought the U.S. soccer solved all its problems with the firing of Jurgen Klinsmann and hiring of Bruce Arena last fall, but that is clearly not the case. This loss is just another in a long string of terrible performances going back more than a year. Frankly, had the U.S. somehow scored and backed its way into the World Cup, it wouldn't have deserved it. This is the first time the U.S. has failed to qualify for the World Cup since 1986.
Now comes a long period of introspection, because it will be a helluva long time before the U.S. has a chance to even sniff redemption.
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Cy Brown writes about football, golf, soccer and other stuff for Sports on Earth. Follow him on Twitter@CEPBrown.