As the final seconds ticked away on the U.S. national team’s last World Cup qualifier this past October, the mood on the American bench darkened quicker than the Caribbean skies over the tiny stadium in Couva, Trinidad.
Half an hour earlier the players had been giddy, certain they would make up a two-goal deficit against a young team playing way over its head. But as Guatemalan referee Juan Carlos Guerra stared at his watch and raised his whistle to his lips, that confidence gave way to despair.
Some players looked to the heavens, as if seeking divine intervention. Others stared at their shoes, unable to believe what was happening right in front of them. The U.S., needing only a tie to advance to its eighth straight World Cup, lost 2-1 to Trinidad and Tobago, a team ranked 99th in the world.
Seven months later, with this summer’s tournament in Russia just five weeks away, many still can’t believe the U.S. won’t be there for the first time since 1986.
“That’s a disappointment that you really can’t put into words at this point,” midfielder Dax McCarty said.
“To this moment it’s just a very numbing feeling,” forward Chris Wondolowski said.
Bruce Arena, who resigned as coach three days after the game: “We failed in the end.”
It was a failure that led to bouts of hand-wringing and finger-pointing, and a search for answers. Arena even wrote a book about it titled “What’s Wrong With US?”
“The finality of it was almost hard to believe,” McCarty recalled recently. “For me, being able to say I was representing the U.S. and helping us try to qualify for the World Cup was a dream. That turned into a nightmare very quickly.”
Two days earlier the Americans had blitzed Panama 4-0 in Orlando, Fla., behind two goals and an assist from Jozy Altidore. The win lifted the U.S. into the third and final qualifying spot in the CONCACAF standings with one game left. All the U.S. needed to punch its ticket to Russia was a draw with Trinidad, which had lost six straight qualifiers.
Even a loss could see the U.S. through if either Mexico or Costa Rica, which had lost just once in 18 qualifiers between them, managed a result in their final games on the same night. The only way the Americans would be left out, then, was if they lost in Trinidad and Panama and Honduras both won.
“It seemed kind of impossible,” midfielder Benny Feilhaber said. “We went into that game with a lot of confidence knowing that we could do what we needed to do.”
But any thoughts that this might be a normal qualifier were dashed the month before the game when the Trinidad and Tobago Football Federation announced the U.S. game would be moved from the main stadium in the center of the capital to a tiny track venue nearly an hour away.
Even Ato Boldon, the Olympic sprinter for whom the stadium in Couva was named, wasn’t sure that was a wise move.
“This is not a good look,” he tweeted.
“I don’t think that they flooded the field on purpose. It was horrible timing,” Wondolowski said. “You never know what you’re going to get with the weather.”
Players unwilling to subject their expensive soccer boots to the water were carried by trainers and other staff members across the track to a dry spot behind one goal. Photos of the comic scene were soon posted to social media by reporters and U.S. Soccer employees. Embarrassed and humiliated, the Trinidadian federation responded with a post of its own, one that included a photo of a 2013 qualifier between the U.S. and Costa Rica played in a Colorado snowstorm.
If Trinidad had nothing to play for before, it did now.
Arena joined the qualifying campaign two matches into the six-team hexagonal tournament, after consecutive losses to Mexico and Costa Rica dropped the team to last in the qualifying table, costing coach Jurgen Klinsmann his job. So while the rest of the field had 10 games to gather enough points to qualify for Russia, Arena had to gather his in eight.
“There never was a margin for error,” he said recently. “We were in a hole that we were digging out of the whole time. It was going to be a real uphill battle from the start.”
“It’s never down to one game,” said Tim Howard, who was in goal against both Costa Rica and Trinidad. “We didn’t get the right result over the course of 10 games. The facts are we needed one goal over the course of 10 games to qualify.”
Coming into the game in Trinidad, it looked as if they had done enough.
The announced attendance at Ato Boldon Stadium for that final qualifier was 1,500, though the actual crowd on hand in the humid, 80-degree weather seemed smaller. However the people who were there, whatever their number, were loud, anxious and spoiling for a fight.
It took just 17 minutes for the U.S. to bring that passion to a boil when former Galaxy defender Omar Gonzalez, reaching out to clear an Alvin Jones cross at the top of the box, nonchalantly flicked it over a surprised Howard and into the net for an own goal.
“It’s one that will haunt me forever,” Gonzalez said of the play.
Twenty minutes later Jones, a defender, got the second goal without any help, pulling up about 35 yards out on the right side and drilling a rising, right-footed shot into the side netting at the far post.
At the break the U.S. was down 2-0.
“At halftime we gave these guys the riot act,” Arena said. “I got all over them.”
And when the U.S. responded with a goal from Christian Pulisic two minutes into the second half, it felt as if the game was beginning to turn.
McCarty said the rest of the team felt the same way.
“Once Christian scored, the mood on the bench was positive,” he said. “I was thinking ‘OK, we got one early. There’s no way we don’t come and at least tie this game.’ We’re going to be a lot sharper than we were in the first half and we’re going to go to the World Cup.”
McCarty then paused and sighed, knowing that was a prediction that would never come to fruition.
“Soccer can be such a cruel game sometimes,” he said softly. “All the results went against us, including our own. And we weren’t able to get that second goal.”
It wasn’t for a lack of trying.
In the 69th minute, Trinidad keeper Adrian Foncette got a hand on Clint Dempsey’s well-placed chip and lifted it over the bar. Eight minutes later a sprawling Foncette got much less than a hand — a fingernail maybe — on a Dempsey shot from the top of the box to nudge it wide. Dempsey also drilled a shot off the right post while Bobby Wood, two minutes from the end of regulation, got on the end of a Pulisic cross and bounced a header on goal. But Foncette pushed the point-blank shot wide.
Journalists near the U.S. bench were keeping the players updated on the progress of the other CONCACAF qualifiers, which had started at the same time. The Americans knew Honduras was beating Mexico and when Panama scored late to go ahead of Costa Rica, the U.S. needed a late goal if it was to get to Russia.
That goal never came. So when Guerra finally blew his whistle, defender Matt Besler squatted near the midfield stripe, balancing himself with his right hand while cupping his face with the left to hide the tears. Pulisic, the teenager who will have many more World Cup opportunities, didn’t bother hiding his tears, weeping openly.
U.S. assistant Dave Sarachan, who would go on to replace his good friend Arena as coach, picked his way through the wreckage, patting players on the back and then wrapping his left arm around Pulisic’s shoulders.
“You can talk for days and hours about the whys and hows,” said McCarty who, at 31, is unlikely to get another shot at a World Cup. “But when that final whistle blows you have to sit there with your own thoughts and realize that you just didn’t qualify for the biggest sporting event in the world.
“That’s a lot of emotion to take on. And it was very difficult in that moment knowing that was our last chance. We didn’t have another game to make up for it.”