On final day of World Cup qualification Tuesday, Argentina needed a win in Quito, capital city of Ecuador, to advance to Russia. With everything to lose and a soccer mad country on pins and needles, legendary Lionel Messi recorded a hat trick and Argentina was safe. It is crazy to compare Argentina to United States because one country has the history and youth system to remain an international force and certainly don’t have and perhaps never will have a player on the level of Messi. But mission and pressure were the same and all Bruce Arena’s team had to do was earn a tie against tiny Trinidad and Tobago to keep USA’s World Cup dream alive. A shocking 2-1 defeat to Trinidad and Tobago, worst team in final round of CONCACAF regional qualifying and already eliminated, means no 2018 World Cup for the Red, White and Blue next summer. No trip to Russia, no grand stage for Christian Pulisic and no luck for Fox Sports, which paid a fortune for television rights. It took 90-plus minutes for United States soccer to regress 30 years. “It’s a blemish for us. We should not be staying home for the World Cup” US coach Bruce Arena said. The US finished fifth in group. CONCACAF sends 3 teams automatically to World Cup: Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama. The fourth, Honduras, heads to a playoff against an Asian confederation team, Australia.
Political backdrop was impossible to ignore. Mexico gave up an 88th minute goal and lost, 3-2, to Honduras. A Mexico draw would have moved US into fourth place and a playoff with Australia. United States needed help from Mexico. But really, United States has only itself to blame. A tie would have secured third place and spot in Russia. It was not asking much. “We had everything there for us today. No excuses for us not getting a second goal and at least a point” Arena said. US was poor throughout qualifying. Jurgen Klinsmann was fired as coach 11 months ago after losing at home to Mexico and getting embarrassed, 4-0, in a loss at Costa Rica over a 4 day stretch. Arena, who led US to quarterfinals of 2002 World Cup, was installed as head coach, but a home loss to Costa Rica, followed by a draw against Honduras, put the team in danger zone. US last missed World Cup in 86′. It clinched a berth in 90′ by winning at Trinidad and Tobago on the last day of qualification. That watershed victory sparked a growth for soccer in this country. Youth participation exploded, Major League Soccer started in 96′ and popularity of the sport grew. The best example is Pulisic, 19 years old budding star who scored lone goal after US had fallen behind, 2-0, in the first half. But didn’t have enough players to replace some of our aging stars. Tim Howard, a world class goalie 5 years ago, simply does not have it anymore. Clint Dempsey is no longer capable of playing 90 minutes. Michael Bradley has lost a step and center back play was abysmal. Poor Omar Gonzalez, burned last month for Honduras’ goal, had his attempted clearance sail over Howard and into net for an own goal.
“It’s one that will haunt me forever” Gonzalez told. Fallout from this will be epic, heads will roll, arena is done. Sunil Gulati, president of United States Soccer Federation, could be in trouble. Maybe United States needed a major setback to move forward. Good teams, even great teams, have missed World Cup. England and France did not qualify in 94′. Netherlands is out of 2018 World Cup. Italy has to win a playoff to get in. But it is also much tougher to qualify in Europe, same with South America. United States has a geographic advantage, especially with financial resources and population.