In the end, only Michael Bradley was left in the bowels of Ato Boldon Stadium in Couva, Trinidad and Tobago. His teammates were gone, shattered after a 2-1 loss that, combined with last-minute wins by Panama and Honduras, meant that the United States men’s national team will miss its first World Cup since 1986. But there was Bradley, the captain of the team, dutifully talking to the press about the worst failure in American soccer history.
“It was a perfect storm kind of night where everything that possibly could have went wrong did in this stadium and in two other stadiums across the region,” he said.
It shouldn’t have ended this way. The Red, White, and Blue should be on their way to Russia, even after a World Cup qualification campaign that featured more lows than highs. They started off the Hexagonal round with two losses, and then replaced Jurgen Klinsmann with Bruce Arena, who quickly righted the campaign with eight points over the next four qualifiers. Christian Pulisic, who would end up figuring in 12 of the Americans’ 17 goals scored in the final round of qualification, emerged as the team’s best player. (And it’s not particularly close, which is a problem.) A loss to Costa Rica at home and a last-second draw away to Honduras meant that the Americans needed points in their final two matches, but if they took care of business, they’d still nab a spot in next summer’s tournament.
After the first of those fixtures, they were all but booking their plane tickets, thanks to a dominating performance against Panama at home last Friday. When Pulisic scored in just the eighth minute, the tension in Orlando City Stadium dissipated and the rout was on, eventually ending 4-0. The initial tally came via Route 1: a goal kick, a flicked-on header, a cute pass by Jozy Altidore, and a hell of an individual effort from the teenager. At least one site called it “Messi-like,” which is absurd (maybeeeee you could talk me into “Messi-lite”), but there’s no one else on the team who could replicate that run’s combination of technique, pace, and calm finishing. It was simultaneously brilliant and predictable, showing just how far Pulisic has come in the last year. He would have dictated how successful the U.S. was in Russia.
Oh well. Only needing a draw against the worst team in the Hexagonal, the Americans failed spectacularly. Arena started the same group that featured in the victory four days earlier, and they looked lethargic from the opening whistle. “Our energy level wasn’t there in the first half,” said center back Omar González, whose failed clearance ended up in the back of the American net for the opener. “You know, we couldn’t get close to them in the midfield. We couldn’t hold balls up top. Then unfortunately the ball that I put in. … The list goes on. We just weren’t sharp enough.”
Arena had similar thoughts.
“Our center backs were not confident enough with the ball,” the manager who led the U.S. to the quarterfinal in 2002 said. “Often in the first half we were playing eight against 10. They needed to carry the ball and bring a player to the ball and move a little bit quicker. Our forwards were not able to hold the ball. We weren’t able to get Pulisic into the game.”
The teenager did almost manage to save the U.S. once again, scoring on an individual effort just after halftime, but the Americans couldn't find an equalizer. Across CONCACAF, results turned against them: Honduras went ahead against Mexico and Panama defeated Costa Rica, thanks to a goal that shouldn’t have counted. But it did, Panama had its World Cup spot locked up, Honduras will play Australia for another slot, and the U.S., well, the U.S. needs to take a long-ass look in the mirror.
Not qualifying is a disaster, full stop, which is not the same thing as saying the program needs to be blown up. There’s talent in the youth ranks—if you want to feel better about the American program, watch the ongoing U-17s at the World Cup—and the development systems are starting to work. “You don’t make wholesale changes based on the ball being two inches wide or two inches in,” U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati said after the defeat, referring to Clint Dempsey’s late strike that struck the post. “We will look at everything, obviously. All of our programs. Both the national teams and all the development stuff. But we have a lot of pieces in place that we think are very good and coming along.” These are the words of a disappointed man who oversaw a massive failure (and is perhaps trying to save his job), yes, but that doesn’t make them untrue.
The truth is that this was always a flawed team, one that would have qualified due to the ease of the CONCACAF region, then undergone a significant makeover in the eight months before the tournament. “If we had qualified for the World Cup, there needed to be a number of changes for a World Cup roster,” Arena said during a postmatch press conference, which will likely be his last as the American manager. “We have some young, promising players that would have made a bid to be part of the World Cup in 2018.”
While those players won’t get to make a play for the Russia roster, they will get a chance to become part of the senior team as soon as possible. There’s nothing to do now except prepare for 2022. The most intriguing prospect is 19-year-old Weston McKennie, currently starting for Schalke in the Bundesliga. A product of the FC Dallas Academy, the pit bull defensive midfielder could be the answer to the perpetual question of who pairs with Michael Bradley in the center of the field for the near future and who supplants the 30-year-old on a slightly longer timeline.
Then there’s Jonathan Gonzalez, another teenage center midfielder who’s emerged out of nowhere to play a starring role at Monterrey, the best team in Mexico’s Liga MX. The 18-year-old from Santa Rosa, California, spent time with the U.S. U-17, U-18, and U-20 squads and got a phone call from Arena earlier this year. He’s a bit more of a connector than McKennie, but one who’s also willing to make a tackle when necessary. “I like to get the ball at my feet,” he said. “I’m a distributor, I attack and defend, but I’m mostly playing out of the back, being the spine of the team.” While there’s a chance Mexico will try to recruit Gonzalez, he sounds committed to the United States (though the result could have changed that calculus).
Further down the pipeline is Tyler Adams. The New York Red Bull star is only 18 and still commuting 75 miles each way from his childhood home for training every day, but anyone who can play a seeing-eye through ball deserves a look. The fact that he can fill in at fullback adds to the potential allure. He will, at the very least, get a call into the U.S.’s January camp. His future is bright.
Those are just three players, and there are at least a half dozen more who could emerge over the next 12 months. Defenders including Tottenham’s Cameron Carter-Vickers (currently on loan at Sheffield United) and recent Manchester City signing Erik Palmer-Brown aren’t far away. Others who played only a small role over the past two years should get a shot—guys like Seattle’s Cristian Roldan and New England’s Kelyn Rowe. Josh Sargent, currently starring at the U-17 World Cup after winning the Silver Boot at the U-20 tournament earlier this year, will get a senior-team call sooner rather than later, especially if he shines at Werder Bremen when he officially moves next year.
Exactly how much change to make will be up to the next coach, whomever that may be. (U.S. youth technical director Tab Ramos? Sporting Kansas City’s Peter Vermes? Oscar Pareja from FC Dallas?) They’ll get time and space in what is an excellent job in world football. There’s clay to mold. The worst thing to do would be to start shaping it too quickly.
Plus, there’s still Pulisic. He’ll miss out on his first chance for a World Cup, which is a shame for anyone who cares about soccer. He’s electric and only improving, capable of doing so many things his teammates can't accomplish.
He needs help, however, as the Americans struggled all tournament against bunkered-in squads, which cost them in Trinidad and elsewhere. “Teams have showed that they are going to sit back and frustrate us,” said Tim Howard, perhaps playing in his final World Cup qualifier. “We’re going to need to break some teams down. Until we do that, teams won’t come out of their shell.”
T&T stayed in its shell, stayed in position, and walked away with an upset. The Americans, who came in on a high, walked away with nothing.
“This game, in my view, was perfectly positioned for the U.S. team,” Arena said. “We failed on the day.”
“Anger. Frustration. Those are both good places to start,” said Bradley when asked about his emotions following the defeat. “Quite honestly, you’re on empty. You give so much through this whole qualifying campaign to try to navigate every part of it. ... We have a group that’s able to pull strong and pull tight in big moments. And every single guy did that. When you get to the end, and it ends like this, you’re empty.”
Moments later, he walked off, carrying two pairs of cleats in plastic bags. One pair still had grass and dirt from the field in the metal spikes. The other looked brand new.