COUVA, Trinidad and Tobago — A nightmarish 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign for the United States men's national team reached a fitting conclusion Tuesday night when the Americans lost to Trinidad and Tobago, 2-1. The defeat sent the Stars and Stripes into fifth place in the final round of CONCACAF qualifying and ensured they would miss out on the World Cup for the first time since 1986.
"Incredibly disappointed," team captain Michael Bradley said on a concrete concourse at Ato Boldon Stadium after the match. "I feel like we've let ourselves down—feel like we've let our fans and everybody who supports us back home down. There's not a whole lot to say. On nights like this, when things go wrong, you have no choice but to stand and face the music. So that's what we'll do."
While the defeat was surprising, especially after the Americans looked strong dispatching Panama four days earlier, it shared DNA with other disappointing results during a final-round qualification campaign in which the U.S. lost four matches for the first time.
"They won a lot of individual battles against us," head coach Bruce Arena said in a post-match press conference.
"[We had] a bad start to the game," forward Jozy Altidore, who tied for the team lead by appearing in 15 of 16 World Cup qualifiers, said. "We were not able to get ourselves in the game. We were not good enough. We didn't create enough to get back in the game."
Later, the forward continued: "We were just not able to deal with the teams this time around, collectively, one through 11. We were not able to defend well enough. You can't go and score four to five goals every day. We were not hard enough to play against too many times in this Hex."
Two problems—lost one-on-one battles and slow starts—plagued the Americans throughout the cycle. In 10 final-round matches, they conceded the first goal five times: on the road against Costa Rica, Honduras, and Trinidad and Tobago and in home fixtures vs. Costa Rica and Mexico.
From those five matches, the Americans managed to earn just a single point. In the two road games where the U.S. went up first, they quickly conceded (after four minutes against Panama and 17 versus Mexico), settling for draws on both occasions. After a poor start to qualifying in which the Americans lost the first two matches of the Hexagonal and Jurgen Klinsmann lost his job, these were not the results the Red, White and Blue needed.
The U.S., favored in most games of the final round, also failed repeatedly to break down opponents who were ready to defend.
"When you're playing against a team that is going to concede so much in terms of the ball and territory, then right away the game is going to play out in a different way," Bradley said of the staunch and organized opposition Trinidad and Tobago presented. "Against a team that is mobile and good in transition and good countering into space in moments, one way to take that away is to just come back in your own half and make sure there isn't any space to counter into.
"In certain moments, we needed to be able to unlock a team that sat back very deep in their half with a lot of numbers behind the ball, and we weren't able to do that. That part wasn't there on a night like this."
It wasn't there all qualifying. Bradley could have been talking about any one of half a dozen matches over the two-year cycle. The Americans lacked ideas in the final third and frequently lacked the first touch that would allow the team to initiate the attack. It was Altidore failing in his duties as the target man, Bobby Wood missing a key pass or another player being slightly off.
There goes the World Cup.
This was a flawed team, one that never had a solid center back or central-midfield pairing. No. 1 goalkeeper Tim Howard, a rock during the World Cup in Brazil, fell off his game, and second-stringer Brad Guzan didn't thrive, either.
Left-back continued to be a revolving door of mediocrity for the Americans. Near the end, Christian Pulisic was carrying most of the attacking load by himself. There was little assistance from the generation of players now aged 24 to 27, leaving it to the older veterans and the young kids to pick up the slack.
And yet, it might have been the best group of American players ever. (Arena wasn't sure: "Is this the most talented? I don't know how you come up with that. The only way that you evaluate your program and the quality is the World Cup.") But even if they weren't the most talented group, they were close and shouldn't have failed to qualify in such spectacular fashion.
There are exciting players coming down the pipeline, such as Schalke's Weston McKennie, Monterrey's Jonathan Gonzalez, the New York Red Bulls' Tyler Adams and an under-17 squad that is undefeated at its age-group World Cup. Don't forget that a little over 18 months ago, Pulisic hadn't played for the senior team. In international soccer, a lot can happen in a short time.
Tuesday night, however, U.S. men's soccer was not yet ready to focus on the future.
"We'll start looking at all of that tomorrow," U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati said when asked what happens now, generally and with Arena, the national team coach who was only set to manage through the World Cup. "Tonight is get over the shock a little bit. Start thinking about tomorrow. In some sense, 2022 starts tomorrow for us. But not tonight."
For the players, getting over the loss is going to take more than a night.
"What was supposed to be a celebration is now..." center back Omar Gonzalez said before pausing, gathering himself, then eventually continuing. "I—I don't even know what to say. It's terrible."
Added Howard: "If I said disappointment, it would be an understatement. Not how we anticipated tonight going, that's for sure."
This was not an ending to the 2018 qualifying cycle that anyone imagined. Not here, 20 miles south of Port of Spain in a stadium that was maybe a quarter full. Not now, eight months before the biggest soccer tournament every four years kicks off.
"We should not be staying home for this World Cup," Arena said. "I take responsibility."
He's the coach, and he was right to take the blame, especially on a night when the Americans looked uninspired and unprepared. But the fault for the calamitous World Cup qualifying effort and a failure that won't destroy the U.S. program but does represent the most embarrassing result ever falls on everyone involved.
"It would be easy to walk away now and say enough is enough, but we have got to use this as motivation," Altidore said. "Everybody will be coming after us. That is the nature of the beast; we have to take it all in and try to reverse this. It is going to take time."