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Do the U.S. and Mexico care about the Gold Cup anymore?

Gold Cup
 By Ian Darke

Will failure to qualify for the World Cup give U.S. soccer the shakeup it needs?

It was Oct. 10, a doomsday forever etched into the memories of every fan and player of the United States. More than three weeks later, the pain of not qualifying for the World Cup still burns, as a deep depression hangs around the offices of U.S. Soccer in Chicago.

It leaves the U.S. men's national team looking at a barren landscape in terms of games that really matter for the next year or so.

Not to mention the massive setback to the worldwide reputation of the U.S. team, which had gained plenty of respect in a run of seven consecutive appearances at the World Cup, dating back to Italy 1990.

This was the nightmare scenario nobody had seriously considered possible. And that, by the way, was a substantial part of the problem.

Complacency? The players and then-coach Bruce Arena might deny it, but they must now realise it was indeed a factor that came to bite them when it mattered most. All the way through an unconvincing qualifying campaign, the smug feeling persisted that it would all be OK, but this time, the team's luck ran out.

What went wrong?

U.S. Soccer's decision to play a vital game against Costa Rica near New York has proved one of the most costly ever taken. Lifted by the support of thousands of their countrymen living in the area, the tough Costa Ricans made off with all three points.

But qualifying for the World Cup was still in the U.S. team's hands going into the final two games. But here, in retrospect, was where a crucial mistake was made. Ahead of the first of those matches at home to Panama, Arena told us: "It's all about winning this game. If we do that, the second one will look after itself."

The U.S. duly beat Panama 4-0 and looked good doing it.

Michael Bradley and his U.S. teammates must watch the World Cup on TV, having failed to qualify.

But it seems that heady victory left players and coach believing the job was just about done. After all, only a point was needed away to Trinidad and Tobago to send the U.S. to Russia. And this was where Arena's quote about not giving this game a second thought now has a haunting ring to it.

John Harkes, midfield man of glory days gone by, was sent to do a scouting report on Trinidad and Tobago in Mexico and warned that they'd played well and -- with no pressure on them -- would be capable of causing problems for the United States. And so it proved on a horrendous night for the Americans, who perhaps were emotionally spent after the Panama game.

Arena cannot take all the blame. Remember, the first two games of the Hex had been lost under Jurgen Klinsmann, so Arena was always playing catch-up.

Plus, the U.S. looked a modest team with an ever-changing, shaky defence and a lack of a steely defensive midfield shield.

Michael Bradley, a fine player and leader, was given that job, but it never seemed quite right. The failure to sort out that issue was crucial. An inability to lock the back door explains why the U.S. failed to register a single away win in the Hex.

And while Klinsmann's preference for European-based players riled a few people, perhaps the pendulum had swung too far when three-quarters of the latest squad were playing in Major League Soccer. Fabian Johnson was a notable omission and, with the team crying out for extra energy in the defensive midfield areas, more use could have been made of Danny Williams (recently in the Huddersfield team that beat Manchester United).

Those of us who had seen the likes of England, France and the Netherlands fail to qualify for the World Cup more than once in the past knew that no team had a divine right to play at the World Cup. Now a new U.S. coach must plot a pathway through the debris.

It might be for the best, too, if there is a change at the top, with a new U.S. Soccer president to replace Sunil Gulati, who should take the rap for the failure to get results. As the top man, the buck has to stop with him for an outcome that may cost an estimated £250M in lost revenues.

In a crisis like this, there is always a tendency to rip it up and start again.

Amid the gloom, the American game might be able to use this moment as a turning point to build a more effective set-up using the best soccer brains in the country.

It might feel like the end of the world to some U.S. fans, but it might just be the beginning of a new -- and better -- era.

One thing is certain: No one in the U.S. will take qualification for the World Cup for granted ever again.

Ian Darke, who called games for the network during the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, is ESPN's lead soccer voice in the U.S. Reach him on Twitter @IanDarke.


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