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Processing the USMNT’s elimination from 2018 World Cup Qualifying

This is the darkest timeline. I brought felt beards for everyone.

Trinidad & Tobago v United States  - FIFA 2018 World Cup Qualifier
Photo by Ashley Allen/Getty Images

I have no words right now, so buckle in because I’m going to use a lot of words to try and find the right ones. The United States will not be playing in the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

A nonchalant first half ultimately doomed the USMNT in Couva, as the Yanks couldn’t overcome a two-goal halftime deficit. Wins by Honduras and Costa Rica allowed them to push the U.S. down to fifth place in the six-team final round of qualifying, out of even the playoff spot with the Asian federation.

I’m on the verge of tears. I want to break something, punch a hole in a wall. I’m typing this while staring into the middle distance.

As a fan, I’m having trouble labeling my emotions. Heartbroken isn’t right. Angry, yes. Sad, yes. Disappointed, sure. Embarrassed, bet your ass. And, like everyone else with an emotional connection to this team, I want to assign blame. And there’s a lot of it to go around.

So let’s do that!

First to the players, who did a bang-up job of proving Alexi Lalas right for questioning them and showing Bobby Warshaw to be the defining sports psychologist of our time. I said before that the first half was nonchalant. That’s an insane thing to be writing about THE game that decided the team’s World Cup fate. The players knew they needed a result to ensure their spot. Yet they came out seeming to think they were entitled to punch their tickets to Russia. They committed hubris, and the soccer gods know what to do about that.

Even when they tried to flip the switch, only one guy, the Wonderboy Christian Pulisic, actually looked like a competent player on a World Cup-quality team. Michael Bradley was plodding in his thinking and distribution. A lot of guys stood around next to defenders waiting for somebody else to be the hero. DeAndre Yedlin was incapable of picking his head up to find a forward pass. Darlington Nagbe dribbled past people only to wait two beats too long to try anything and had a shot or pass blocked so often I lost count. This wasn’t a game the U.S. deserved to win, which if anything makes the night even worse.

Bruce Arena is next. After a fantastic recovery in his first Hexagonal games in charge, and after a fantastic Gold Cup, the soon-to-be-twice-former manager got lost. He reverted to a vanilla 442 that gave the team’s best and most influential attacker fewer touches and more defensive responsibility. After regaining some footing with a shellacking of an aging and wrong-footed Panama side, he ran out an unchanged side four days later on a bumpy pitch for a road game against the speed demons of Trinidad & Tobago.

Never mind fatigue. The word universally used to describe the “wide diamond” that worked so well against Honduras in March and Panama this month was gamble. In the latter match, especially, Arena bet it all on black, and it paid out. Then in Couva, he let it ride and lost everything. Everything, kaput.

Besides getting the tactics wrong, Arena bears some responsibility for allowing his players to come out at T&T going any less than 100 miles an hour. His decision to call in Tim Howard — whose form has been anything but national team-worthy for a couple seasons now — let alone start him, has to be questioned, as well.

Bruce was hired with one, and only one brief: qualify for Russia. He failed.

Next up in the two-months-early Airing of Grievances: Juergen Klinsmann. He’s the manager who put the U.S. in an 0-2 hole to start the Hex, you’ll recall. He made talking about the USMNT a chore before it apparently became cool to be sad. He’s the guy whose firing I called for two years ago almost to the day after the U.S. endured some unprecedented losses on home soil.

As manager/technical director for 5 12 years, he’s the guy you’d turn to if you thought the player pool wasn’t up to snuff, or if promising young talents doing well for their club teams weren’t being integrated into the national team, or if the youth national teams weren’t performing, all of which has been said about this program.

Mostly, though, I blame Klinsmann for breaking what made the U.S. work. “Run fast, try hard” is a bit gauche, but it was at the core of every good team the USMNT ever produced. Klinsmann tried to replace that identity with... well, I’m not sure. Something, presumably. Not the half-eaten husk of a turkey leg from the Renaissance Festival that we ended up with.

Adding skill and tactical nous to that identity were necessary and proper, even obvious, to advance the program. But that’s not what Klinsmann did. He hollowed out the industry and give-a-shit that defined the national team for their seven World Cup runs. That was wrong, it was stupid, and it was Klinsmann’s doing. The lost performance in Columbus against Mexico, the failures in the 2015 Gold Cup and CONCACAF Cup, the disinterested first half in Trinidad: They’re all directly connected to that.

Sunil Gulati gets some blame, too. For waiting so long to can Klinsi, mostly. If Bruce Arena was the wrong person for the job — and somehow I’m still not convinced he was, given the circumstances at the time of his hiring — Gulati gets the blame for that, too.

By throwing a contract extension Klinsmann’s way before the last World Cup even kicked off, Gulati forfeited control of the program. By riding Klinsi into the Hex, Gulati risked exactly what came to pass. I said Arena may still have been the best hire at the time he came back on-board, but there are coaches who would have been a much better fit for a full, or even half-cycle than Bruce. But Gulati’s decision-making, which was questioned at the time, put the national team into a corner.

Deep breath.

I won’t lie. That rambling mess of blame actually helped me feel the tiniest bit better. Not a lot better. I’m still pissed off and melancholy, which is a hell of a combination. I may go full emo and find an old Dashboard Confessional video to embed here. Actually, I just talked myself into it. BRB, gotta change into a sweater for peak-crying.

Anyway, about those emotions. I’m sad that we’ll miss out on the World Cup. I’m disappointed that the U.S. soccer scene won’t be building on more than two decades of promise and growth and momentum. I’m angry that the people listed above tore hope away from me. I’m annoyed at some of the takes that were coming out even before tonight’s catastrophe.

(On that note, if you think missing the World Cup is somehow good for soccer in this country or the men’s national team program, and your argument doesn’t rely on Underpants Gnomes or other magical thinking, please show your work. I haven’t read a supported version of that argument yet, and who doesn’t want to see a unicorn before they die?)

I’m embarrassed, too. Both that this team I support couldn’t make it through one of the most forgiving of all World Cup Qualifying tournaments, and that with all the terrible things happening in the world, this is what I’m bothered by tonight. Just staying in the Caribbean: Shit is bad in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. Really, really bad. Those American citizens aren’t sweating the World Cup — many don’t have television or electricity or even houses after being decimated by two major hurricanes in the span of a few days. They couldn’t watch the game even if they cared to.

But I’m writing about soccer right now. So I’ll get back to that.

Some are talking about the U.S. player pool not being good enough. Some about how MLS and its ability to draw American stars back from Europe are hindering the national team. You’re going to see stories about pay-to-play academies and the need for a multi-decade investment in developing youth coaches. (For what it’s worth, the last one ain’t wrong.)

But none of those is why the U.S. didn’t qualify for next summer’s World Cup. The U.S. had the more talented roster — unquestionably — in six of their ten games during the Hexagonal, and I’d argue that top-to-bottom, the U.S. has better players at more positions than Costa Rica, too. Bad coaching decisions and lack of urgency did us in.

The U.S. should be going to Russia next summer, and we aren’t. And it sucks. The U.S. were eliminated, and it sucks.

It happens and it sucks. That’s where I’m landing tonight. Lots of blame to go around, lots of cures and fixes and paths forward to think on. Lots to feel embarrassed about.

But mostly it happened. And it sucks.