The US national team’s elimination from World Cup qualifying provided a stark contrast to the image of soccer’s recent success at the professional level in the United States.
Needing at least a draw against host Trinidad and Tobago, the US lost, 2-1, in Couva on Tuesday night. The result capped a qualifying campaign that began slowly under Jurgen Klinsmann, who was fired following a 4-0 loss at Costa Rica on Nov. 15. Bruce Arena, who guided the team from 1998-2006, rallied the US to third place in the Hexagonal group stage with one match remaining before things fell apart.
The top three teams automatically advance, and the US seemed set to qualify for its eighth successive World Cup finals appearance. After a 4-0 victory over Panama in Orlando, Fla., last Friday night, the chances of the US not moving on to Russia 2018 were less than 4 percent — only one set of results of a possible 27 would eliminate the team. But the US faltered against the Soca Warriors, who had already been eliminated from contention. Trinidad and Tobago opened the scoring on an Omar Gonzalez own goal, then took a 2-0 halftime edge on a 30-yard blast by Alvin Jones, his only goal of the Hex. Christian Pulisic’s 47th-minute score cut the deficit, and the US nearly equalized as former Revolution star Clint Dempsey’s 77th-minute shot hit the right post.
Even with a loss, the US (3-4-3, 12 points) would have advanced had not Panama and Honduras rallied for upset victories. The US finished a point behind both. Panama recovered for a 2-1 win over Costa Rica to move into third place and Honduras upset Mexico, 3-2, earning fourth place and a playoff berth against Australia.
The last time the US visited Trinidad and Tobago with a World Cup place on the line, it took a 1-0 win on Nov. 19, 1989. That was considered an upset. Now, expectations have risen as US Soccer has harnessed many of its resources, buttressed by MLS, which began two years after the country hosted the 1994 World Cup.
But the US soccer system has many flaws, and this failure provided a graphic example. The roots of the problem stem to a time when soccer was administered by amateurs and volunteers. The game is now big business in the US, but the transition has been slow.
The US has about 20 million registered youth players, far greater numbers than the combined populations of World Cup-bound teams such as Iceland, Costa Rica, and Panama, yet produces relatively few elite performers.
Klinsmann attempted to bring European influence to the development levels of the game, along with US Soccer president Sunil Gulati, but failed to have a significant effect. Arena and others have long been aware of the deficiencies of the US development system, but his pragmatic approach has been effective both at the international and MLS levels.
Arena ran out of magic on Tuesday night, but the US might not have started in such a deep hole had the Klinsmann situation been handled better. Klinsmann had been given a contract extension before the 2014 World Cup, a deal that proved costly as he was dismissed with the national team faltering last November.
The 4-0 victory over Panama seemed to signal the US had regained its mojo, featuring the veteran leadership of Toronto FC’s Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley, plus Pulisic, a 19-year-old Bundesliga starter. Arena then failed to refresh the lineup and the team seemed sluggish against Trinidad and Tobago.
But it should be noted several teams around the globe faced similar scheduling, yet did not feel compelled to revise their lineups. National teams that compete at high levels are able to pace themselves in order to get results. US players are most comfortable putting out 100 percent physical effort, going at breakneck speed for 90 minutes, a style that worked well against Panama. At times, the game calls for composed, heady play, as well, and the US proved unable to switch gears or to adjust to adversity, some self-inflicted, against Trinidad and Tobago.
After the game, Gulati said, “We certainly expected to qualify, throughout the process, and especially after Friday night. It’s a huge disappointment for everybody; the players, the staff, the coaches, the federation. It’s not good enough.”
But Boston attorney Steve Gans, who plans to run against Gulati for the US Soccer presidency, placed blame at the top of the organization.
“The result is symptomatic of problems I’ve been talking about and why I considered jumping in a couple months ago,” said Gans, a partner at Prince Lobel Tye LLC, who played collegiate soccer and has been an administrator for professional and youth teams. “This felt like 1990 and it shouldn’t be that way, in terms of judgment and leadership. It was stunning.”
“Giving Klinsmann an extended contract prior to a World Cup cycle, and look at the bind that put him in — [paying him] $6.2 million,” added Gans, whose campaign is being managed by Democratic party strategist Scott Ferson. “For a nonprofit organization that is shocking and troubling.”
What made this elimination more surprising is that the top four CONCACAF teams would move on. When the US visited Port-of-Spain in 1989, only two nations would advance.
The US has made quantum leaps since then, but others have improved as well. Panama has emerged as a factor after the Canaleros revamped their federation, nearly qualifying in 2014. Honduras has harnessed its talent under the coaching of Jorge Luis Pinto, a German-trained Colombian who guided Costa Rica to the 2014 quarterfinals. Mexico has also shifted gears, this generation’s top players establishing themselves in Europe, instead of being content to remain local (though well-paid) heroes.
After guiding the US to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup, Arena said the achievement might have provided a false measure of the effectiveness of the country’s soccer system. Now, there should be no illusions about the need for change.