Cup half empty after stun­ning out­come

Fail­ure to qual­ify for 2018 may bring new faces at coach and pres­i­dent

Houston Chronicle - - FOR THE RECORD | ETC - By Steven Goff

PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad and Tobago — The fail­ure of the U.S. men’s national soc­cer team to qual­ify for the World Cup — a feat it had ac­com­plished with­out con­sid­er­able trou­ble for two decades — will have se­vere im­pli­ca­tions for those in­volved in the botched cam­paign and a sport that has gained a grow­ing foothold on the Amer­i­can sports land­scape.

Need­ing only a draw Tues­day to se­cure a place in soc­cer’s qua­dren­nial cham­pi­onship next sum­mer in Rus­sia, the U.S. squad fell be­hind the last-place team from Trinidad and Tobago by two goals in the first half and lost 2-1.

Costly loss

After qual­i­fy­ing for seven con­sec­u­tive World Cups since 1990, the United States will have to wait un­til the 2022 event at the ear­li­est to re­turn to the sport’s grand­est stage. The cost of its ab­sence will al­most cer­tainly in­clude changes at the top of the or­ga­ni­za­tion, in­clud­ing its coach and per­haps its pres­i­dent. It will also af­fect the U.S. Soc­cer Fed­er­a­tion’s bot­tom line, from in­come lost for par­tic­i­pat­ing in the tour­na­ment, huge ex­pected rat­ings hits for tele­vi­sion broad­cast part­ners and in­creased dif­fi­culty in lur­ing spon­sors for the team.

In the mo­ments after the de­feat, the im­pact of the fail­ure hit the U.S. del­e­ga­tion like a Mike Tyson round­house.

Su­nil Gu­lati, pres­i­dent of the Chicago-based USSF, slumped in a chair in the front row of a me­dia con­fer­ence room, lack­ing ex­pres­sion as Bruce Arena, the Hall of Fame coach sum­moned last win­ter to res­cue a trou­bled cam­paign, tried ex­plain­ing what had gone so ter­ri­bly wrong.

“There’s no ex­cuses for us not qual­i­fy­ing for the World Cup,” Arena said.

Play­ers said this was the worst mo­ment of their pro­fes­sional lives.

“With time — a lot of time - (the team will) be ready to move on in a strong way,” cap­tain Michael Bradley said, “but this one isn’t going away any­time soon.”

The United States was one of seven coun­tries to have played in ev­ery World Cup since 1990, join­ing lu­mi­nar­ies such as Ger­many, Brazil and Italy. Com­pet­ing in a mid­dling soc­cer re­gion of North and Cen­tral Amer­ica and the Caribbean, the Amer­i­cans were again heav­ily fa­vored to earn one of the three au­to­matic berths — or, at the very least, get into a play­off.

The USSF was pre­par­ing an in­ten­sive buildup to the World Cup next spring, with train­ing camps, matches and mar­ket­ing cam­paigns. Of­fi­cials had vis­ited Rus­sia sev­eral times in the past year to se­cure a high-end prac­tice fa­cil­ity and ho­tels in St. Peters­burg be­fore other coun­tries could beat them to it.

In­stead, Panama, a firsttime qual­i­fier, will join Mex­ico and Costa Rica in Rus­sia, while Hon­duras will bat­tle Aus­tralia next month for an ad­di­tional ticket.

The Amer­i­cans fin­ished fifth with a 3-4-3 record, by far their worst show­ing since CONCACAF, the regional gov­ern­ing body, im­ple­mented a six-na­tion fi­nal qual­i­fy­ing round for the 1998 World Cup cy­cle. It was also their most de­feats since going 0-3-1 in a lost at­tempt to make the 1974 tour­na­ment in West Ger­many. Tues­day’s de­ci­sive loss came be­fore only a few thou­sand peo­ple in a town out­side the cap­i­tal of a Caribbean is­land na­tion with a pop­u­la­tion about the same as New Hamp­shire’s (1.3 mil­lion).

“If you look at the in­ter­est and pageantry over the last sev­eral World Cups, it felt like Amer­i­cans were re­ally em­brac­ing our national team and look­ing for­ward to it,” said David Carter, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Mar­shall Sports Busi­ness In­sti­tute at the Univer­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. “There was this mo­men­tum that made you feel as though this move­ment was on the verge of re­ally ar­riv­ing.”

With a well-es­tab­lished do­mes­tic league (MLS) and top young tal­ent such as Chris­tian Pulisic thriv­ing over­seas, the United States was primed to take an­other step in its quest to com­pete for a world ti­tle within a decade.

With this qual­i­fy­ing fail­ure, how­ever, changes are al­most cer­tain. Arena’s con­tract was sched­uled to ex­pire after the World Cup, but now he seems likely to leave ear­lier. On Tues­day, he de­clined to com­ment on his fu­ture.

‘Noth­ing wrong’

Arena, 66, had a sur­pris­ing re­sponse when asked what needs to change, say­ing: “There’s noth­ing wrong with what we’re do­ing. Cer­tainly, as our league grows, it ad­vances the national team pro­gram. We have some good young play­ers come up. Noth­ing has to change. To make any kind of crazy changes I think would be fool­ish.”

Aside from Arena’s likely exit, Gu­lati’s job is in jeop­ardy after lead­ing the charge to hire both Jur­gen Klins­mann, who was fired in Novem­ber, and Arena. Gu­lati is up for re-elec­tion in Fe­bru­ary. For the first time dur­ing his three-term, 12-year reign, he will face op­po­si­tion.

On Tues­day, Gu­lati echoed Arena’s odd com­ments about the di­rec­tion of the pro­gram.

“Whole­sale changes aren’t needed if the ball that hits off the post goes in,” he said of a late at­tempt against Trinidad and Tobago. “We will look at ev­ery­thing, ob­vi­ously. All of our pro­grams, both the national team and all the devel­op­ment stuff, but we’ve got a lot of pieces in place that we think are very good and are com­ing along.”

Ash­ley Allen / Getty Im­ages

The U.S. will have to find some help for ris­ing star Chris­tian Pulisic (10) if it wants to re­bound from a dis­mal show­ing in World Cup qual­i­fy­ing.

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