The U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team (USMNT) failed to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup for the first time since 1986 after a shocking 2-1 loss to Trinidad and Tobago.
The U.S. only needed a draw to qualify but could not succeed after it fell behind by two goals on Oct. 10 in Couva, Trinidad. Panama’s win against Costa Rica, combined with Honduras’ win against Mexico, eliminated the USMNT, which held a 93 percent chance of qualifying prior to the match, according to ESPN’s Soccer Power Index.
The U.S. fell behind by two goals before half time. Right after the break, American midfielder Christian Pulisic scored from the edge of the box, bringing the USMNT within a goal of pulling even. The U.S. saw a number of chances to equalize but lacked a sense of urgency. A last-minute goal from Panama versus Costa Rica finalized the USMNT’s fate.
The result brought significant criticism from those involved in U.S. soccer and the USMNT. Players were apologetic and defeated after the contest, according to an ESPN recap of the event.
“I just want to say sorry to the fans, all the U.S. fans that were pulling for us, that wanted to go to Russia, that believed in us,” Gonzalez said in ESPN’s report. “We let down an entire nation today.”
Several pundits and former players called for changes in the leadership of the USMNT, most notably Taylor Twellman, whose postgame rant quickly went viral. A few days after the match, Head Coach Bruce Arena resigned. However, Sunil Gulati, the president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, is staying put for now despite pressure to resign as well.
With the loss, few players can feel secure in their position on the team. This result cannot go without consequence, meaning the next head coach must make tough decisions when it comes to selecting the team’s future roster.
The U.S. failed to qualify not because of lack of talent among players but due to their inability to work together. With names like Pulisic, forward Jozy Altidore, and midfielders Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley, there’s little room for excuse in terms of player personnel. However, soccer games aren’t won by a collection of talent, but with teamwork and good chemistry.
Soccer super powers like Brazil and Germany have maintained a specific identity and expectation level over their years and years of play. The USMNT lacks this guidance, and it showed during this qualifying campaign.
Former USMNT defender and Fox Sports analyst Alexi Lalas says there’s no quick fix.
“The system we built is unique; it is complex and it is imperfect — just like our nation — but it is better than anything that we have had before,” Lalas said in a Fox Sports 1 report. “Despite what some people tell you, we don’t need to tear it down and start over.”
Lalas’s comments refer to the current pay-to-play model that starts at the youth level. Outside of the U.S., most countries have clubs with youth development academies. These are typically free and accept players from any background. While it’s easy to suggest the U.S. simply copy the structure of these other nations, it will take time to start a free academy given the current system’s reliance on private, paid youth clubs.
The three teams moving on from the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) group include Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama. Honduras earned a win over Mexico to move them through to a playoff against Australia.
The team’s failure to qualify is a major blow to U.S. men’s soccer. The inevitable changes that will result from this eye-opening embarrassment are the silver lining, with little excuse now for U.S men’s soccer to continue on its path of mediocrity.