Herculez Gomez wasn’t invited to play in any World Cup qualifiers for the U.S. in the run-up to the 2010 tournament. But six months later, in the shape of his life, he scored in the final game before the World Cup roster was chosen and found himself on the team that played in South Africa.
Who cares that he made just one start in that tournament and never appeared in a World Cup again? How many players ever get to go at all?
A teenaged Landon Donovan wasn’t in the picture for the World Cup team when he made his international debut as a substitute in a 2000 friendly with Mexico. He finished that match with a goal and assist — which earned him seven starts the next year — and by 2002 he was on his way toward becoming the all-time U.S. leader in World Cup goals and appearances.
There will be no such emerging American stars in this summer’s tournament. No unknowns overcoming long odds to fulfill a lifelong dream, no one staking a last-second claim to the final seat on the plane to Russia.
That’s because, for the U.S., there won’t be a plane to Russia. For the first time in more than three decades, the Americans failed to qualify for the World Cup — a reality that became real during Friday morning’s tournament draw at the Kremlin in Moscow.
As the 32 qualifiers were introduced and applauded, it was hard not to notice the elephant that wasn’t in the room.
“There are going to be steps along the way where it feels real, right?” Donovan, who analyzed the draw for Fox Sports, asked Saturday. “And there are going to be steps along the way where the scab is picked open a little bit again and we’re doing to feel pain again.
“Yesterday was one step.”
Saudi Arabia, which trails even Albania in the FIFA world rankings, is going to the World Cup. So is Iceland, which has fewer people than Santa Ana.
Panama, which has never played in a World Cup, participated in the draw. So did Iran, Morocco, Egypt and Tunisia.
But not the U.S.
“It’s not worrisome for the development of soccer,” Donovan said. “It’s just sad for the guys who don’t get to experience it.”
Gomez agreed. He was at the top of his game in 2010, scoring 10 times in 15 games in Mexico’s Torneo Bicentenario to become the first American to lead a foreign league in scoring. That earned the attention of U.S. coach Bob Bradley, who took Gomez with him to South Africa.
Next summer that life-altering experience might have gone to Seattle midfielder Cristian Roldan, Orlando City forward Dom Dwyer or New England midfielder Kelyn Rowe.
“You’re missing out,” Gomez said. “You’re thinking this could have been your shot, your chance. You were on the outside looking in, but you still had that hope.
“You don’t have it [now]. This could have been maybe your only World Cup.”
Or maybe your last World Cup, which could certainly be the case for thirtysomethings Michael Bradley, Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey, who all played in the October loss to Trinidad and Tobago that kept the U.S. out of Russia.
“There’s the legacy that will be tarnished by this,” said Gomez, now an ESPN analyst. “Those stellar national-team careers that all of a sudden will only be remembered for this one game.”
A game the Americans acted as if they had won before it started. Instead they let a World Cup berth slip through their fingers after they were sure it was firmly in their grasp.
Only six other countries had qualified for every World Cup since 1986; just three U.S. players who appeared in the Trinidad game had even been born the last time the tournament was played without the Americans.
It would be easy, then, to think the World Cup was a right, not a privilege.
Donovan hopes Friday’s draw changed that perception.
“The biggest lesson for me in all this is don’t take this for granted,” he said. “Don’t take it for granted as a player, obviously. Don’t take it for granted as a coach, as a federation but also as a fan.