Miss­ing World Cup big blow to growth of sport Loss to Trinidad & Tobago means U.S. won’t be in Rus­sia next sum­mer

Woonsocket Call - - Sports - By STEVEN GOFF The Washington Post

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 last­place 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 in­ten-

“With time - a lot of time - [the team will] be ready to move on in a strong way, but this one isn't go­ing away any­time soon.”

sive 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 first-time 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 six­na­tion 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.”

While the U.S. women are the most dec­o­rated pro­gram in the world, pi­o­neer­ing fe­male soccer in a glob­ally male-dom­i­nated sport and win­ning three World Cup tro­phies and four Olympic gold medals, the men have made hum­ble gains in a more es­tab­lished field.

Though they re­main far be­hind the pow­er­houses of the game, the men had be­come a re­li­ably strong team in the re­gion, one that could com­pete with honor, if not ma­jor vic­to­ries, on the world stage as well. They ad­vanced to the quar­ter­fi­nals of the 2002 World Cup and, in the past two tour­na­ments, got to the round of 16. In 2014, they es­caped the so-called “Group of Death,” which in­cluded Cris­tiano Ron­aldo's Por­tu­gal team.

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.”

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