U.S. World Cup hopes end after shambolic loss to Trinidad and Tobago
COUVA, Trinidad -- With World Cup qualification seemingly in their grasp, the Americans lost 2-1 to Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday night. Coupled with Honduras' 3-2 victory over Mexico and Panama's 2-1 victory over Costa Rica, the U.S. finished fifth in CONCACAF's Hexagonal round, out of the running to qualify for Russia 2018.
Here are three thoughts on a humiliating night in Trinidad.
1. World Cup dream is over
There's no other way to describe it: This was a debacle on a countless number of levels.
The task seemed straightforward enough -- avoid defeat and you're in. But as it has so often during this World Cup cycle, the U.S. insisted on making life as difficult as possible and now has paid the ultimate price, failing to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since the 1986 cycle.
The Americans fell behind in the 17th minute on an own goal by Omar Gonzalez. Alvin Jones doubled the home side's advantage 20 minutes later with a 30-yard blast that cleanly beat U.S. keeper Tim Howard.
Even worse was that Trinidad and Tobago was fully deserving of its lead. U.S. striker Jozy Altidore missed a massive opportunity in the seventh minute when he blasted a shot over the crossbar, but after that, the Soca Warriors were stringing passes all over the Ato Boldon Stadium pitch, making the U.S. chase. The home side was also finding opportunities in transition, which was the last thing the U.S. wanted given T&T's speed and athleticism.
The Americans looked slow and lethargic and showed none of the energy that characterized their 4-0 hammering of Panama four days earlier. Certainly, the sparse crowd meant there was little atmosphere in the stadium initially, though it grew more lively as the game wore on. But with a World Cup berth on the line, one would have expected more urgency from the U.S. players, yet not enough was on display.
Manager Bruce Arena brought on Clint Dempsey for the disappointing Paul Arriola, and the U.S. was soon back in the match as Christian Pulisic's drive from distance in the 47th minute halved the deficit.
The game became a track meet thereafter, with the U.S. pressing and T&T trying to strike on the counter. Howard kept the U.S. in the match, saving Shahdon Winchester's shot midway through the second half. Dempsey hit the post in the 77th minute with a shot from distance. Bobby Wood was denied late on a fine save by T&T keeper Adrian Foncette.
That was as close as the U.S. got. Now it will have the coming months to contemplate how this World Cup qualification got away.
2. The most embarrassing performance in U.S. history?
No doubt, yes.
Heading into the match, everything was lining up for the U.S. to qualify; only a massive collapse would prevent qualification. A win would clinch the third and final qualification spot, while the colossal U.S. advantage in goal differential over Panama (seven) and Honduras (12) meant a tie would almost certainly do the trick.
Only a loss and an outright win by either the Canaleros or the Catrachos could knock the U.S. out of third place. T&T, meanwhile, was already eliminated, with manager Dennis Lawrence opting mostly for younger players in a bid to build for the future.
Yet the U.S. somehow contrived to blow this opportunity. Yes, the Americans have suffered humbling defeats before. Heck, the 1980s were littered with them. But this defeat stands alone.
Yes, the U.S. has lost to T&T before, but that was during the 2010 cycle when progress from the semifinal round was already assured. This time the U.S had everything to gain. But it also had plenty to lose, and evidently that was too much of a burden for an emotionally fragile team to carry.
3. Arena's legacy will be tarnished
As brutal as this is on the players, it is also a humiliating moment for Arena. Yes, he took over this team when it was already in a two-game hole in the Hex, but looking at the totality of his tenure, he was no more effective in inspiring this squad than predecessor Jurgen Klinsmann.
At least Klinsmann could take solace in the fact that, against Mexico and in Costa Rica, he lost two games that are among the three most difficult in the Hex (only away to Mexico is tougher). Arena oversaw a loss to Costa Rica at home and this embarrassment to Trinidad and Tobago.
And for all the talk of the U.S. being unable to take care of business at home, the road did them no favors either. Arena has built an impressive legacy for himself over the years, but that will be dwarfed in many ways by this team's failure to qualify.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.