The ‘Road to Russia’ proved to be too bumpy for the United States soccer team Tuesday night.
The doomsday scenario was triggered when Trinidad and Tobago pulled off a 2-1 upset of Bruce Arena’s squad. By the time the dust from that axle-breaking pothole had settled, two more jarring blows were felt after Honduras knocked off Mexico 3-2 and Panama outlasted Costa Rica 2-1.
Just like that, the wheels were off the bus.
“We had everything there for us today,” Arena said. “No excuses. It’s a blemish for us. We should not be staying home for this World Cup and I take the responsibility for that.”
The combined results meant that Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama clinched the three automatic berths from CONCACAF and Honduras earned a home-and-home playoff with Australia to secure another spot in Russia.
The unexpected results caused the United States to fall from third in the standings to fifth. All Arena’s team needed to do to punch its ticket to Russia was to tie Trinidad, which had won just one other Hexagonal stage game.
After last Friday’s 4-0 win over Panama, which had appeared to put the U.S. back on course, perhaps too much was taken for granted entering Tuesday’s match.
Were they overconfident? The fact the U.S. beat Trinidad 2-0 back in June may have fed into that narrative.
Certainly, there was a noticeable lack of urgency in the way Arena’s squad played in the first half, including allowing an own goal with sloppy defending.
It doesn’t matter how Trinidad scored its goals, of course.They scored them and now the U.S players are free to make new plans for the summer.
That, of course, has to be a jarring realization for old guard players like Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and goalkeeper Tim Howard. This can’t be how either of them wanted their international soccer careers to end.
But Arena has to know that in order to make it to the 2022 World Cup, the rebuilding of the USMNT needs to begin pronto. Only nine of the 26 players who are listed in the current player pool are younger than 30. Just six of those players will be younger than 30 in four years.
Dempsey is 34 and Howard is 38. It’s defintely time for them to hang up their boots. And while Bradley, who is 30, could have another cycle in him, he’s hardly irreplaceable.
The best player on the field during this qualifying stage was 19-year-old Christian Pulisic. It’s time to get him more help, preferably from more young players who have similar skill and vision.
The revamping that’s been done in recent years with pro clubs funding youth academies was a good way to kickstart anew the player development process. But there also needs to be a greater grassroots effort to identity players who are being overlooked by the travel club systems for a variety of reasons, including economic.
After failing to qualify for a World Cup for the first time in 32 years, it’s a good time to examine everything the U.S. Soccer Federation is doing in order to compete at an elite international level.
It’s not happening under current system.