The thing to know about CONCACAF’s World Cup qualifying is that it’s the easiest of any region in the world. For a semidecent national team—which, say, the United States purports itself to be—the Hexagonal qualifying structure, by which three teams out of six automatically reach the World Cup and the fourth-place finisher reaches an intercontinental playoff, offers a seemingly unlimited number of chances to mess up, freak out, and then recover to still play in the greatest athletic tournament in the world.
On Tuesday night, after nearly a year of such embarrassing emotional ups and downs, the United States men’s national team finally ran out of opportunities in its most embarrassing moment yet. The U.S. lost, 2-1, to Trinidad and Tobago. For the first time since 1986, the country won’t compete in the next World Cup. The latest national men’s soccer fiasco is the most acute, and disastrous, in decades, maybe ever.
To be clear, the United States did not play like a team on the verge of a real World Cup run for any of the qualifying cycle. A dream result in Russia in 2018 would have had the team advancing past the round of 16, where it had stalled in each of the past two tournaments, but for most of the Hex, the roster’s quality didn’t befit a World Cup qualifier, let alone quarterfinalist. The U.S. lost games, plural, at home. It lost 4-0 in Costa Rica—the country’s worst defeat in a qualifier since 1980—and didn’t defeat a single team twice. In both the 2010 and 2014 qualification cycles, the U.S. won the Hex, with three draws and four losses total across the two tournaments; it matched those totals with three draws and four losses in the 2018 cycle alone.
But until Tuesday, it still should have qualified. Again, in CONCACAF, it’s hard not to—only the U.S. and Trinidad are eliminated at this juncture. Even after months of spotty play, which spawned a midcycle managerial change and countless concerned punditry sessions, all the USMNT had to do on Tuesday was defeat Trinidad and Tobago, the minnow of the Hex, whom it had knocked off 2-0 in Denver in June. T&T were already eliminated, having won just one game in this qualifying round and lost six straight fixtures. Due to the U.S.’s superior goal differential over Honduras and Panama, even a tie would have essentially guaranteed a bid.
But Omar González shanked a clearance attempt, somehow depositing a harmless cross into his own net from 15 yards out in the 17th minute:
Then, Trinidadian defender Alvin Jones sent a laser past Tim Howard in the 37th.
Teenage wunderkind Christian Pulisic, already the most talented American male ever to lace up cleats, scored shortly after halftime, giving the USMNT renewed hope for the final, excruciating half of this excruciating qualifying cycle, but last-gasp opportunities to tie the score went wide, hit the post, or deflected off opposing keeper Adrian Foncette.
The U.S. lost to the worst team, at the worst time, in the worst and most deflating possible way, and both Panama and Honduras scored late goals of their own, against the two best teams in the region, to jump up the standings. The Panamanians (who benefitted from a questionable goal decision) are through to their first World Cup while Honduras is off to a two-leg playoff against Australia. The U.S., which had advanced from the 2014 Cup’s group of death and emerged from the 2010 tournament’s group stage on a dramatic Landon Donovan goal, will stay home, and the national-team careers of such mainstays as Howard and Clint Dempsey will, in all likelihood, end in ignominy.
Despite what some pundits think, this result is calamitous. As Matthew Doyle wrote for MLSSoccer.com last month, there is no convincing case that missing the World Cup will solve the national federation’s broader structural issues, while it almost assuredly will diminish American interest next summer and curtail the country’s ever-budding enthusiasm for the sport. Watch that fan video from 2010 again; watch those non-soccer fans react to a dramatic American soccer moment, and think of the missed opportunity to convert the potential next generation of athletes and supporters.
Eight years is a long time. During the last World Cup, Pulisic was not yet 16 years old; by 2022, he’ll be approaching his prime. As Doyle wrote, American soccer fans will “get to watch Pulisic for maaaaybe four World Cups, if we’re lucky.” Now that number is down to three, at best, as the USMNT squandered both a seemingly un-squanderable World Cup bid and the broader opportunity to continue its ascent up the world soccer hierarchy. For the entire qualifying cycle, as the losses mounted and the margin for error narrowed, it was easy to think, “It could be worse.” On Tuesday, that finally stopped being true.