U.S. out of excuses after defeat in Trinidad leaves it out of World Cup
COUVA, Trinidad -- Bruce Arena called it "disappointing." Michael Bradley referred to it as "a perfect storm." Omar Gonzalez said: "It's the worst day of my career."
No doubt, everyone associated with the U.S. national team is hurting in their own way, but Gonzalez's comment seemed to crystallize the pain that was a byproduct of the 2-1 defeat to Trinidad & Tobago -- a result that, when combined with scores from elsewhere, resulted in the U.S. being eliminated from World Cup qualifying for the first time since the 1986 cycle.
"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. "We let down an entire nation today."
It's a result that is difficult to process on many levels. But let's be clear: It's the most embarrassing defeat in U.S. soccer history and one that will be impossible for this group of players and coaches to live down.
CONCACAF is a massively forgiving region from which to qualify. And the Americans were in control of their destiny going up against a team that had nothing to play for. The U.S. roster and starting lineup had loads of experience compared to their T&T counterparts and the team had a manager, in Arena, who had led the U.S. to the World Cup on two previous occasions.
So what happened? The U.S. essentially sleepwalked through the first 45 minutes of the match, and was second best in too many phases. The half ended with T&T deservedly two goals up. The first came from a Gonzalez own goal in the 17th minute, in which T&T forward Shahdon Winchester got a faint touch to a cross, which deflected off Gonzalez's shin and looped over Tim Howard in the U.S. goal.
"It's one of the most unlucky goals ever I think for myself," Gonzalez said. "It's one that will haunt me forever."
Alvin Jones then unleashed a 30-yard dart that cleanly beat Howard, and the U.S. was in huge trouble. A Christian Pulisic goal two minutes into the second half pulled them back within one, but the players couldn't find an equalizer as Clint Dempsey hit the post.
At which point, the rest of the improbable dominoes began to fall. As the minutes ticked by, Honduras was already beating Mexico 3-2, proving the long-held sentiment that El Tri wouldn't return the favor from four years ago when the U.S. essentially saved Mexico from elimination by denying Panama.
As it turned out, Panama got its revenge thanks to a ghost goal equalizer and a late winner by Roman Torres, and when news of his effort wafted through the Ato Boldon Stadium, the U.S. was sunk. Players walked off the field in a daze, save for Matt Besler, who simply sat down on the pitch in disbelief.
And so the rampant inconsistency that plagued the U.S. throughout this World Cup qualifying cycle proved fatal. But it elicited a mystifying question: How is it that the U.S. team that took apart Panama on Friday night could play so poorly with a spot at the World Cup on the line?
"Nerves play into it, they had a good game plan, 1,000 different things," Howard said. Bradley added: "Different games."
That is certainly true, as T&T wisely sat in and soaked up pressure and then tried to exploit the spaces available on the counter. But there were also moments when the Soca Warriors pinged the ball around with ease, with the Americans unable to get near them.
So what was stopping the U.S. from doing the same? What was stopping them from converting more of their chances? What was stopping them from making the defensive plays that needed to be made, and putting their opponents under pressure?
A lack of ruthlessness at both ends of the field for one. Had Jozy Altidore converted early when given time to turn and shoot, who knows what would have happened. He didn't though, and T&T duly took advantage.
That was by no means the only time that teamwide frailty cropped up this cycle either. How else do you explain the inability of the U.S. to follow up dominating performances with impressive displays on the road? The away 1-1 draw in Panama is one example. And while dropping the first two games of the Hex put the U.S. in a hole, it was one they climbed out of relatively quickly, only for their inability to close the deal to return.
Perhaps the biggest problem of all was that the U.S. struggled to break down teams that were content to sit back and soak up pressure. It happened against Costa Rica and it happened for much of the game against T&T. To be fair, this is something that the U.S. has grappled with for decades. Yet previous U.S. teams always managed to do enough. Many of those teams had Landon Donovan, or a younger version of Clint Dempsey, players who could pull off a special play.
This team didn't have that creative magic, or at least enough of it to get through qualifying. This generation has been touted as the most talented team in U.S. history. Certainly it possesses a once-in-a-generation player in Pulisic, but this side proved to be entirely too dependent on the Borussia Dortmund attacker. The teenager played a part in 12 of the last 17 goals the U.S. scored. Against Panama he had plenty of help from his supporting cast, but on too many other days he didn't.
Something else was missing as well. The best teams -- or at least ones that qualify for World Cups -- are those that can fuse the individual pieces into a collective that was greater. That has long been a trademark of the U.S., but one that was lost during this cycle no matter who the manager was. This was felt acutely on the defensive side. "We weren't hard enough to play against on too many nights," Altidore said.
Without question, this night will haunt these players for years to come, and result in some introspection as well.
"If you don't look at yourself after this individually, then you're f---ed up in the head," Altidore said.
That is not to say Arena doesn't bear responsibility either: In the past two fixture periods, several of his decisions backfired.
For Tuesday's match his decision to not go with Geoff Cameron looms large. Yes, Cameron was just coming off an injury, but he had made it through a league game with Stoke City just prior to joining up with the U.S., and he remains one of the most talented players on the team. Fabian Johnson's exclusion, especially on a night when T&T repeatedly attacked Jorge Villafana, also can be questioned.
Arena and the team also seemed prone to making excuses, often speaking of adverse playing conditions or a lack of home support. On this day, the U.S. ran out of them. Now they will spend next summer watching the World Cup from home.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.