A miserable night capped off a miserable campaign that left soccer in the United States dealing with its worst nightmare and greatest embarrassment.
A 2-1 loss in Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday left the nation’s soccer fans shaking their collective heads and wondering how it could be that the team had somehow failed to escape from one of the globe’s weakest regions and will miss the World Cup.
Here is a snapshot look at some of the ways it all went wrong, both on Tuesday night and across the course of a doomed campaign.
There were plenty of leaders and plenty of leadership, just not enough good leadership. Jurgen Klinsmann was so unpopular that by the end the players could scarcely even tolerate him. Bruce Arena took a far more player-friendly approach, but could not either inspire or mastermind efficient performances in the biggest games.
Captain Michael Bradley did not rouse a response of sufficient fire and passion when things turned grim on Tuesday. U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati made the personnel decisions on management, and his organization ill-advisedly chose to play Costa Rica in New Jersey, where it felt like a home game for the visitors and defeat resulted.
The U.S. defends fairly well when teams try to swarm it. It counters quite well when faced with pressure. What it can’t do, no, what it’s absolutely horrible at doing, is breaking down teams that are content to sit back, defend and soak up pressure.
It doesn’t have personnel forceful enough to power through the massed ranks, resourceful enough to create a path through, or a tactical system imaginative enough to unlock a resolute and determined back line. We’d seen it before. And we certainly saw it on Tuesday.
That there was a more relaxed air about the USA camp going into the final qualifying game was perhaps natural. Having moved up into third place in the group automatic qualification beckoned, surely, and hey, the upcoming opponent was the supposedly hapless T+T.
The hosts had lost six straight, won just one out of nine in the final stage and were so uninspiring to their fans that only 1,000 bothered to show up. But the Soca Warriors were furious at what they perceived as USA’s disrespect and cockiness, and motivated to finish their campaign strongly. The USA was off the pace from the start and paid the price.
CAUGHT BETWEEN GENERATIONS
Some of the USA team is now past its best. Some have not yet reached their peak. Too few are in the sweet spot. Christian Pulisic is a thrilling talent, but he promises to be way better four years from now, despite being the country’s best player already.
Tim Howard has been a fine servant for the national team, but his most stellar days are behind him. Kellyn Acosta and DeAndre Yedlin could benefit from a couple more years under their belt. Clint Dempsey’s value has diminished significantly and he wears a near-permanent scowl these days.
Going on the road in CONCACAF is not a fun experience, but picking up valuable points on your travels is a critical part of the formula for success in this region. The first trip of the campaign was a 4-0 drubbing in Costa Rica and it only got marginally better from there.
Three away ties followed, before the debacle in the small town of Couva that ultimately sealed their fate. Getting better at handling the tough conditions, and heck, just getting tougher period, is a must for future campaigns.