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One Last Look Back at U.S. World Cup Failure

June 12th, 2018 · No Comments · Football, Landon Donovan, Russia 2018, soccer

The tournament begins June 14 in Moscow, when host Russia faces Saudi Arabia in the opening match of the 2018 World Cup.

So it is getting late to be talking about the U.S. failure to compete in the greatest competition in global sports.

But I am going to do just that, one last time. (Well, maybe one last time.)

Two threads here:

1. How close the Yanks came to qualifying.

2. Why they did not.

All American soccer fans and most American sports fans know the U.S. national team failed to qualify for Russia 2018. First time not in the World Cup since 1986.

What some are forgetting is how excruciatingly close it was.

It isn’t like the U.S. team finished last in a six-team group, or ended miles away from qualifying in the points.

It came down to the final minutes in three Central American cities, and if the outcome of any of those three matches had been different, the U.S. would be in Russia right this minute as the No. 3 team out of Concacaf.

Three events had to happen to leave the U.S. out of the running for the World Cup on October 10 of last year.

–Panama had to win at home against Costa Rica.

–Honduras had to win at home against Mexico.

–The U.S. had to lose at Trinidad & Tobago.

Any other outcome at any of those three matches, and the U.S. is in Russia. The Yanks have to lose to the bottom team in the Concacaf hexagonal while Honduras and Panama defeat the top-two finishers, respectively.

The odds of all that going against the Yanks … well, very long, if we are talking about random events, like throwing dice. Still long if we take into account that Mexico and Costa Rica had nothing to gain by avoiding defeat. (They were locked in 1-2 at the top of the hex.) Still long if we take into account that Honduras and Panama were playing at home. Still long if we take into account that the U.S. team had been erratic and was on the road.

What makes it even more excruciating is to go back and note that Omar Gonzalez of the U.S. gave T&T a lead with an own goal in the 17th minute. Christian Pulisic made it a one-goal game in the 47th  minute, and had the U.S. scored again in the final 43 minutes, the draw gives them one point and the Yanks get an automatic berth by finishing third.

Even more excruciating: Mexico twice led Honduras, 1-0 and 2-1. Mexico scored a third goal — but it was an own goal (the second of the night in the hex) in the 53rd minute, allowing Honduras to get even at 2-2 and making Honduras’s goal in the 60th minute decisive.

And one more round of excruciation: Costa Rica led Panama 1-0 at halftime, and was tied into the 88th minute … until Roman Torres scored for Panama. If that goal doesn’t go in … well, you know the drill: The U.S. goes to Russia.

The second part of this post is about how it came to be that the U.S. could not get over the hump, in terms of earlier failures in the hexagonal as well as the loss at T&T.

First, let’s link to an enormously long story that appeared in last week.

Authors Andrew Helms and Matt Pence have a very detailed account of where things went wrong for the 2018 U.S. qualifying campaign, and they mostly revolve around points made on this blog for years.

The most central being that Jurgen Klinsmann was a disaster as U.S. national team coach but was supported by former U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati for far too long.

It was Klinsmann who was coaching the team when the Yanks opened the hex with a home loss to Mexico and an away rout at Costa Rica.

Only under the pressure of two disastrous results did Gulati fire the flaky German and bring in Bruce Arena in an attempt to get enough points to qualify for Russia out of the final eight games in the hex.

Arena and his guys came oh, so close.

As readers of this blog know (feel free to search “Jurgen Klinsmann”) I was concerned about him from early days, and that concern morphed into fear and loathing as his tenure went on.

First, he treated Landon Donovan, all-time U.S. career scorer, with disdain verging on contempt. Klinsmann so clearly disliked Donovan that it seems certain he enjoyed telling Landon, in April of 2014, that he would not be going to the Brazil World Cup.

Second, Klinsmann hates American soccer. Seems crazy to hire a guy to coach Americans when that guy hates American soccer, but that is what Gulati did. This is examined anew in The Ringer story.

Klinsmann wanted guys who played in Europe. He specifically wanted guys who played in Germany, and those who had an American parent and could play for the U.S. team. By the final days of his reign of error, the U.S. was carrying around a half-dozen German-American players, all of whom spoke German as a first language and most of whom never quite fit into the squad.

Meanwhile, Klinsmann fought a running war of words with Don Garber of Major League Soccer. Klinsmann denigrated the MLS regularly, dismissed its stars as possible World Cup players, and crippled the U.S. effort.

One significant aspect of Klinsmann/Gulati/Arena, etc., that was new to me, in The Ringer story, linked above … was that Gulati was primed to fire Klinsmann in March of 2016, and replace him with Bruce Arena, but delayed his decision when one of his key lieutenants had heart-transplant surgery.

Klinsmann stumbled on, and into the hex, and only when the situation was dire — zero points from two matches — did Gulati finally fire Klinsmann.

Arena and the guys who played for him picked up 12 points in eight matches (including a draw away to Mexico), which isn’t bad. Turns out, however, the U.S. needed 13 points.


Anyway, my recommendations to U.S. soccer fans is to read The Ringer story, search this blog for my years of sounding alarms about the Klinsmann regime … and reflect on just how close even the crippled U.S. qualifying season came to getting to Russia.

In that sense, it will be invigorating, for U.S. soccer, to have the 2018 Russia World Cup over, because then the Yanks revert to the same status as everyone else — looking forward to the 2022 World Cup. As participants.





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