US lick their wounds after flop

Failure to qualify for first time since 1986 will have ramifications, Panama to make first bow

LOS ANGELES • Debacle, disaster, catastrophe, calamity. As the post-mortems began on the United States' World Cup elimination, no hyperbolic stone was left unturned.

An erratic qualifying campaign that began with losses to Mexico and Costa Rica, followed by the sacking of coach Jurgen Klinsmann, ended in abject failure against Trinidad and Tobago.

A 1-2 loss against a side with nothing to play for, and when Concacaf (North and Central America and the Caribbean region) group winners Mexico lost 2-3 to Honduras and Panama stunned second-placed Costa Rica 2-1, the US tumbled from third to fifth, out of even the play-offs against Australia next month.

It is the first time since 1986 that the US will not be present at football's showpiece tournament. It will be Panama's first appearance at the Finals, and Honduras could join them if they beat the Socceroos.

Any decrease in interest by American fans may have far-reaching effects for media partners such as Fox Sports, which is paying more than US$400 million (S$542 million) for the domestic English-language rights to the next two World Cups.

And with the US huge favourites to host the 2026 World Cup together with Mexico and Canada, the qualifying failure is sure to have major repercussions among the leadership of the US Soccer Federation (USSF).

USSF chief Sunil Gulati, who is standing for re-election next year and could face a potential challenge, argued against a knee-jerk response to the humbling exit, while acknowledging his own "extreme disappointment".

"We certainly expected to qualify throughout the process... so it's a huge disappointment for everybody - the players, the staff, the coaches, for the federation. It's not good enough, obviously," he said.

"But we've got a lot of pieces in place that we think are very good. Tonight wasn't what we hoped for."

Head coach Bruce Arena, appointed by Gulati for a second stint in charge of the US team following the dismissal of Klinsmann, was similarly defiant.

"There's nothing wrong with what we're doing," he said. "I think if our league (Major League Soccer) continues to grow, it benefits the national team programme.

"We have some good players coming up. Nothing has to change. To make any kind of crazy changes, I think would be foolish.

"We're building a consistent professional league. We have players playing abroad of a certain quality."

Gulati and Arena's comments are unlikely to satisfy their critics however, many of whom feel that former manager Klinsmann was treated harshly when he was sacked after two losses last year.

Former US international Taylor Twellman told ESPN News: "The gloves should have been off years ago. We should have been having real criticism. The discussion after Brazil 2014 was, 'Can we beat the Colombias and the Belgiums and the Argentinas of the world?'

"You kidding me? We can't beat Trinidad on a field that's too wet and too heavy. What are we doing?"

The players meanwhile were left to digest a crushing loss. Veterans such as Clint Dempsey (34), Tim Howard (38) and Michael Bradley (30) departed Trinidad on Tuesday knowing that in all probability, they had played in their last World Cup.

"You can go around in circles a million times, but the reality is, we have nobody to blame but ourselves," a disconsolate Bradley said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 12, 2017, with the headline 'US lick their wounds after flop'. Print Edition | Subscribe