The wildest night in CONCACAF history? How the U.S. exit played out
Over the years, to go "full CONCACAF" has been an inside joke in some corners of soccer social media due to the region's seemingly constant periods of farce and sheer drama. From curious refereeing decisions to uniquely challenging travel, it's part of what makes World Cup qualifying in North and Central America so much fun. (Well, depending on your rooting interest.)
And yet, the events of Oct. 10 might go down in the annals as the confederation's wildest evening yet. Over the course of 90 nerve-wracking minutes, the region's World Cup qualifiers shifted and swung until finally settling on a scenario that was thought to be impossible in the sport's modern era: The U.S. were left out of the World Cup for the first time since 1986.
So how did it play out in real time?
All times approximate and ET.
8:00 p.m.: OK, this is fine. The table has the U.S. in third place of the Hex as the three games -- Honduras vs. Mexico, Panama vs. Costa Rica and Trinidad & Tobago vs. the Americans -- kick off. At this point, the U.S. is still in the World Cup even if they lose, just as long as Honduras and Panama don't win against the top two in the table.
As long as that doesn't happen, we're good.
Table: MEX 21 points, CRC 16, USA 12, PAN 10, HON 10, TTO 3
8:17 p.m.: Trinidad & Tobago take the lead! An awkward cross from the right flank finds Shahdon Winchester one-on-one with Omar Gonzalez, and in the ensuing tussle, the ball takes a looping deflection off Gonzalez's outstretched boot and over Tim Howard. The sparse crowd at Ato Boldon Stadium erupts with joy. At almost the exact same time, Mexico have a lead in San Pedro Sula over Honduras via Oribe Peralta: a bit of breathing room for the U.S. at least.
MEX 24, CRC 16, USA 12, PAN 10, HON 10, TTO 6
8:34 p.m.: Honduras equalize against Mexico! Alberth Elis (who plays club soccer in the U.S. for the Houston Dynamo) gets the vital goal. Minutes later, a stunning, once-in-a-lifetime goal from T&T's Alvin Jones -- a rip-snorting long-range effort that swirls and spins past a befuddled Tim Howard -- doubles the U.S.'s deficit in Couva, Trinidad to increase the stress.
Thankfully, a Costa Rica goal from Johan Venegas keeps the U.S. in an automatic spot. It's about the only thing, too: The U.S. look heavy-legged and woefully short of ideas against a T&T side that had lost its last six qualifiers heading into Tuesday night.
MEX 22, CRC 19, USA 12, HON 11, PAN 10, TTO 6
8:40 p.m.: Mexico lead again in San Pedro Sula thanks to the mercurial Carlos Vela, who's already signed up to join MLS expansion team Los Angeles FC next summer. Is he the El Tri equivalent of "San Zusi" to rescue the U.S.?
MEX 24, CRC 19, USA 12, PAN 10, HON 10, TTO 6
9:05 p.m.: After a nervy half-time break, the U.S. surge out of the blocks in Couva. After the half-time sub of Clint Dempsey (who has rescued the Americans many times over his career) for the struggling Paul Arriola, the wonder boy Christian Pulisic makes his mark, beating two defenders and firing beyond T&T goalkeeper Adrian Foncette to cut the deficit in half. It's a big goal, but not quite enough.
MEX 24, CRC 19, USA 12, PAN 10, HON 10, TTO 6
9:12 p.m.: We're approaching full CONCACAF ...
¡¡¡NO BAJEMOS LOS BRAZOS!!! pic.twitter.com/PQROcL0Fc6— Otro Futbolero™ (@ElOtro10Hn) October 11, 2017
A shot pings off the Mexico crossbar, down onto the back of Guillermo Ochoa's head and in for the Honduran equalizer! The U.S. haven't shown any signs of grabbing a second goal since Pulisic notched the first ... and then ... in Panama ...
The ball never crosses the line, but Panama get their equalizer within a minute or two of Honduras pulling level against El Tri. Amid all the drama and confusion, it might be the most stunning 60 seconds in U.S. soccer since Landon Donovan's goal against Algeria at the 2010 World Cup. And this time, the ball didn't even go in.
The goals mean that if Honduras or Panama score a go-ahead goal, the U.S. drop down from automatic qualification to the fourth-place playoff spot against Australia. But if they both score ...
MEX 22, CRC 17, USA 12, PAN 11, HON 11, TTO 6
9:20 p.m.: Honduras have the goal they need! Romell Quioto (who also plays in MLS) makes it 3-2 to the hosts in San Pedro Sula!
MEX 21, CRC 17, HON 13, USA 12, PAN 11, TTO 6
The hot takes are already flowing on Twitter given that the U.S. are a goal away from missing their first World Cup since 1986. On the balance of their performance against the Soca Warriors, it would be deserved. Insipid possession, blown opportunities and a failure to build on the back of Friday's 4-0 victory over Panama would be alarming on their own but are compounded by the resilience and desire shown by their closest rivals in the Hex.
DeAndre Yedlin makes a questionable tackle in the penalty area that looked like a foul, but the referee waves play on. Another close call.
9:40 p.m.: Bruce Arena summons Benny Feilhaber, who made his last competitive appearance for the USMNT in 2014, from the bench for a final push in search of a much-needed equalizer. If it feels like desperation, that's because it is. The U.S. has staggered through World Cup qualification with some luck and plenty of timely interventions from Pulisic, but he can't do it alone. The issue is that a long-exiled playmaker from Sporting Kansas City might not be able to do it either.
And just like that ...
9:45 p.m.: Roman Torres (who also plays in MLS, spotting the theme yet?) gives Panama a 2-1 lead at home to Costa Rica! It's the goal everyone feared and the goal that has the U.S. staring at an empty summer.
Lost amid the impending USMNT disaster is the fact that Torres' goal is putting Panama in their first-ever World Cup. It's a brilliant moment for the tiny nation and one that shouldn't be overlooked. The World Cup is built on such stories, and after Iceland punched their first ticket to FIFA's big party on Monday, we want to see more such celebrations involving the sport's minnows.
MEX 21, CRC 16, HON 13, PAN 13, USA 12, TTO 6
9:55 p.m.: Five minutes of injury time in Trinidad pass without much incident, and Andres Guardado blows a late free kick for Mexico that could have made it 3-3. And so the U.S. experience the unthinkable.
All in all, they weren't good enough across the course of the Hex campaign, but things were seemingly OK as long as the two best teams in CONCACAF didn't lose to the only two teams that could ruin the U.S. team's road to Russia 2018. And it came to pass.
Whatever your feelings about what should come next for U.S. Soccer, it was a night that reaffirmed one's belief that World Cup qualifying and international breaks can be what we need them to be.
Final Table: MEX 21, CRC 16, HON 13, PAN 13, USA 12, TTO 6
Mexico, Costa Rica and Honduras advance automatically; Panama to face Australia in playoff.
James Tyler is a senior editor for ESPN FC. He can be found on Twitter @JamesTylerESPN.