Cup half empty after stunning outcome
Failure to qualify for 2018 may bring new faces at coach and president
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.
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.
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.”
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.