It was a wild night in CONCACAF on the last night of World Cup qualifying, with the United States national team falling 2-1 to Trinidad and Tobago in a shocking upset that, coupled with results elsewhere in CONCACAF, has seen the USMNT fail to qualify for the World Cup.
The U.S. clearly looked like they were struggling almost right from the get-go in this match, be it from fatigue or the heat or the poor pitch conditions or some other reason. The midfield struggled to connect with the attack and frequently got caught too far upfield, and that gave Trinidad and Tobago the openings they needed to start generating scoring opportunities — though the first goal of the match came off a bizarre own goal off USMNT defender Omar Gonzalez, who tried to clear a cross from Alvin Jones over the goal, but hit the ball awkwardly with his shin and looped it over Tim Howard and under the bar instead.
Gonzalez nearly gave up a penalty just a few moments later in a decision that appeared to be a lucky break for the USMNT, but they wouldn’t be counting their lucky stars for long, as late in the half Jones would be allowed to walk up the pitch unopposed before setting himself and unleashing a 30 yard shot that Tim Howard reacted very, very late to try and stop. In Howard’s defense, it would have taken a great save for anyone to stop — but his late reaction nullified any hope he would have had.
The U.S. got one back just moments into the second half when Christian Pulisic flew up the pitch to score a stunner, but it was quickly back to business as usual, with an added portion of cynical fouling from Trinidad and Tobago, along with some theatrics from their attackers, especially after a second penalty appeal was denied. Not even Clint Dempsey could get the U.S. attack rolling, with the Texan attacker clanging his only good scoring chance off the post.
Results elsewhere went just as much against the USMNT, with Honduras beating Mexico 3-2 in San Pedro Sula to vault past the U.S. into third place in the Hex table and take the final automatic qualification spot. Panama beating Costa Rica late was the final nail in the coffin on the United States’ World Cup hopes, and the controversy of an opening goal that never appeared to cross the line for Panama won’t help the USMNT’s ill feelings over that result any.
This isn’t the result the USMNT wanted. It’s not the result their fans wanted. It is, in a word, disastrous. Everything has gone wrong, because for this team and its talent — even with a squad still somewhat in transition — failing to make the World Cup for the first time since 1986 is simply unacceptable. Leaving it this late to qualify was bad enough — failing at the last step like this, when a good performance was all they needed to see themselves through, is simply embarrassing and unacceptable. This is not good enough, and it’s time for massive changes in the national team setup — we just have to hope they actually happen.
United States: Tim Howard; DeAndre Yedlin, Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler, Jorge Villafaña (Kellyn Acosta 72’); Michael Bradley, Paul Arriola (Clint Dempsey 46’), Darlington Nagbe (Benny Feilhaber 85’), Christian Pulisic; Bobby Wood, Jozy Altidore
Goals: Pulisic (46’)
Trinidad and Tobago: Adrian Foncette; Alvin Jones, Daneil Cyrus, Curtis Gonzales, Tristan Hodge Kevon Villaroel 82’); Nathan Lewis, Leston Paul, Kevan George, Khaleem Hyland, Levi Garcia (Joevin Jones 72’); Shahdon Winchester (Trevin Caesar 78’)
Goals: Gonzalo (OG 17’), A. Jones (37’)
Three things we learned
Can the USMNT have a new goalkeeper now?
Tim Howard has been a legendary figure for the USMNT for a long, long time. But over the last year he’s been looking shakier and shakier for both club and country, and his nightmarish first-half performance really threw that into stark light. He’s gotten too slow on his feet, too slow in his reactions, and he doesn’t even seem to consistently be making the right calls directing his defense any more. It’s time for the United States to turn to someone new in goal, and it’s time for Tim Howard to retire.
Bill Hamid is the obvious choice, having been brilliant this season in MLS action for DC United. Brad Guzan and Nick Rimando are no longer serious starting options. Ethan Horvath is a very intriguing option, but he’s just 22 and only just starting to find his feet with a new and bigger club after a summer move from Molde in Norway to Club Brugge in Belgium. He’s probably not ready for the starting reins yet — though calling him into the senior squad on a regular basis would be reasonable to get him used to the system.
Whoever the next man up is, the change needs to be made now. The Tim Howard era in the USMNT ended a while ago — it’s just a shame that his coaches didn’t realize it yet.
The one-man midfield gamble did not pay off this time
With the USMNT not taking the same kind of high tempo that they did against Panama on Friday — be it because the unchanged lineup was fatigued or for whatever other reason — Trinidad and Tobago were given the time and space they needed to pick apart the USMNT’s high-risk midfield setup. That allowed the Soca Warriors to generate numerous dangerous attacks, and directly contributed to them earning their 2-0 first half lead.
The crux of the problem is that Michael Bradley was once again all alone in front of the U.S. back line. With the defense playing somewhat passively in closing down on the ball and the rest of the U.S. squad trying to push an attack that never got going, the wide diamond was forced even higher after going down early. That opened up even more space for the Soca Warriors to work with. It was clear very early that this shape wasn’t working this time, and waiting until halftime to change it was absolutely the wrong call by Bruce Arena.
Christian Pulisic is the American Messi, but not how you’re thinking
USMNT fans have been looking for the “American Messi” for years — a dynamic attacking player of world-class quality who can help elevate the national team to an elite level. And while people laughed at the comparisons between Pulisic and Lionel Messi early in his career, they’re starting to become interestingly accurate — just in a different way than people thought.
Look at Messi’s time with the Argentina national team, especially of late and especially on Tuesday night with their own World Cup qualification on the line. He continuously puts his team on his back and hauls them to important results in huge matches. Lately Pulisic has been doing the same thing, exemplified against Trinidad and Tobago when he forced his way through the Soca Warriors’ defense all on his own to score a vital goal to cut their lead in half and give the U.S. a chance to get the result they so desperately needed.
Pulisic is still just 19 years old, but he’s shown all the fire and quality needed to be one of those special players who helps elevate a team for reasons far beyond his technical quality on the pitch. We’re looking at something truly special in this sport, and hopefully USMNT fans appreciate him for everything he does.