A slow-walking death: How the US crashed out of 2018 World Cup qualifying

Bruce Arena - screaming on sideline - October 6, 2017

There’s an old saying that victory has a thousand fathers, while defeat is an orphan.

Though that particular phrasing appears to date back to an Italian proverb, it was uttered most famously by US President John F. Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961, one of the darkest chapters in the United States’ long and complicated geopolitical history in the Caribbean.

It fittingly applies to the US national team's disastrous Hexagonal visit to Trinidad & Tobago, which will suffer no rush for individual responsibility. Though T&T entered Tuesday's massive game on a program-worst losing skid, the USMNT were second-best to the Soca Warriors all over the field – and let it be noted that the much-discussed pitch at Ato Bolden Stadium performed fine, especially by comparison to the visitors in white.

The 2-1 loss left the US exposed to the mercy of results in Panama and Honduras, which duly clicked into place with a sickening synchronization that killed the USMNT’s World Cup dreams long before anyone thought they’d meet their end.

But this colossal failure – the country’s first missed World Cup in more than 30 years – didn’t just happen on Tuesday. It was a moment of ignominy some two years in the making, and it has many authors and milestones. Here are the biggest.

5) 2015 Gold Cup – July 7-26, 2015

It’s not unusual for national-team programs to suffer from a post-World Cup hangover, especially one as emotionally and physically draining as Brazil 2014 was for the U.S. Promising performances and historic levels of interest put Jurgen Klinsmann and his team in a pressure cooker for months, and after the tournament there was a natural letdown.

Said letdown dragged all the way into the following summer, however. The US entered that Gold Cup as defending champions – and traditionally dominate the tournament – but offered up some uneven, uninspired displays and were duly punished. First Jamaica knocked them off in the semifinals, and then Panama beat them in the third-place game, a historic and humbling shortcoming.

In retrospect, alarm bells should’ve been ringing from back to front both inside and outside the U.S. Soccer Federation. The gamble of giving Klinsmann a second cycle in charge would prove to be a bad one, as his message to his squad got stale  – as it almost always does for a coach in charge of a national team that long.

4) Guatemala 2, USA 0 – March 25, 2016

The USMNT’s 2018 wobbles didn’t start in the Hex.

No, they stumbled in the semifinal round of qualifying, too, turning in another sleepwalking performance in trying CONCACAF road conditions – sound familiar? – to lose 2-0 to unfancied Guatemala.

The Nats righted themselves with a 4-0 thumping of Los Chapines in the return fixture in Columbus, Ohio a few days later, and eventually climbed into first place in Group C. But the warning signs were still blinking: A static, ponderous attack, costly losses of composure in the back and a shortage of the usual resilience in difficult circumstances.

3) Costa Rica 4, USA 0 – Nov. 15, 2016

This was the result that got Klinsmann fired, the back end of a dizzying one-two punch a few days after Mexico stunned the US with a late 2-1 victory in the Hex opener in Columbus to destroy that city’s “dos a cero” hoodoo on El Tri.

Klinsmann had welcomed the scheduling quirk that lined up two of his team’s toughest Hex games at the outset, even prioritizing the first-place finish in the previous round that made it so. But it proved to be the undoing of his five-plus years in charge.

Historically, the USMNT almost always get beaten on their qualifying visits to Los Ticos. But this was more than that. Trusted players made awful mistakes and several even seemed to lose the will to fight, a cardinal sin for a program built on a “run fast, try hard” ethos. And Costa Rica’s dominance was imposed by MLS players like Christian Bolanos and Johan Venegas, hardly unknown quantities.

2) Costa Rica 2, USA 0 – Sept. 1, 2017

You know the mantra: Win at home, draw on the road is the way to the World Cup. And the USMNT violated it over and over again this cycle, most egregiously by dropping a whopping six points at home in the Hex.

Losing to Mexico on MAPFRE Stadium’s hallowed ground stung, but letting the Ticos saunter into Red Bull Arena and carry out all three points was the unforgivable offense.

Veteran hand Bruce Arena had led the squad on an undefeated run – including a Gold Cup championship – after the fed called him in to replace Klinsmann and steady the ship. So perhaps some complacency had crept in ahead of this meeting with Costa Rica, who traditionally struggle on these US visits.

Then San Jose Earthquakes striker Marco Ureña victimized simultaneous moments of passivity from Tim Howard, Geoff Cameron, Tim Ream and Fabian Johnson to turn a routine-looking US buildup into the Ticos’ opening goal, and the home side failed to finish their chances against a sturdy defense that knocked around phenom Christian Pulisic every chance they got.

1) Trinidad & Tobago 2, USA 1 – Oct. 10, 2017

Even after losing at home to Mexico and Costa Rica, and getting thrashed by the Ticos at their place, and narrowly avoiding defeat at Panama and Honduras, the USMNT still held their fate in their own hands on the final day of the Hex thanks to lopsided home wins over the Canaleros and Catrachos.

All they had to do was avoid losing at T&T, the last-place side who’d earned just three points from the nine matches to date. Yes, there were some quirks, with a sopping-wet pitch and the usual tropical weather greeting them.

But Arena tempted fate by electing to field the exact same starting XI, in the same wide-open formation, that had slaughtered Panama in Orlando four days prior. And the team duly looked slow of foot and bereft of inspiration, whether due to fatigue or underestimation of the Soca Warriors.

And thus the final ingredients for a perfect storm were tossed into the mix, and the nightmare of non-qualification that past generations had worked so hard to stave off came roaring back, turning Russia ‘18 into someone else's party.