What did we learn? Does it matter? The U.S. started the Hex by firing the coach who promised to bring the team to a level where it would compete against the best teams in the world and ended it with the coach who promised to not miss the Men’s World Cup missing it.
Bruce Arena overplayed his hand
After the match against Panama, Bruce Arena was lauded for gambling by playing an aggressive, attacking lineup against a team that usually plays a tough, defensive style. It obviously paid off, but this time it did not pay off against a team that perhaps the U.S. underestimated more than a little. Arena went into a must not lose game and started the same backline that played sloppily against Panama and started that same group away from home. Geoff Cameron, his best center back, and Brad Guzan, who hadn’t lost on the road in qualifying since Arena took over, watched from the bench as their manager pushed all of his chips in on a bet that the U.S. would get lucky again.
Arena started Michael Bradley alone in defensive midfield in a game that he needed a draw in. The USMNT manager played the exact same players he did 96 hours before in the exact same formation against a team that had nothing to lose. Arena’s decisions will be second guessed into infinity after a game like this, he obviously wanted the U.S. to win the game and try to avoid a playoff next month and started an aggressive lineup to get that result. It failed spectacularly.
Losing to an own goal and a wonderstrike is hardly getting played off of the field, but it seemed like the shots that weren’t going in on Friday night landed in the back of the net last evening. Coming out and making the same bet that those obscenely rare CONCACAF goals wouldn’t go in, gambling that the opposing team would be as accommodating and foolish as Panama was, and wagering that the same players would have the same type of performance in CONCACAF qualifying is something that Bruce Arena was brought in to coach the team because he should have known better than to make those kinds of assumptions. He didn’t and the U.S. paid for it.
The players weren’t up for it
Bruce Arena may not have put his players in the best position to succeed, but they let themselves down in this match. The U.S. came out completely flat in the first half and had no answers and failed to fighting back in the first 45 minutes or find a second goal in the final half of the match. In his letter to fans before this round of the Hex, Arena said “Yes, we will be prepared. Yes, we will work hard. Yes, we will be ready,” and against Trinidad & Tobago, they were none of that.
The U.S. played poorly throughout the Hex. Outside of the wins against Honduras and Panama, the team floundered. Both Bruce Arena and Jurgen Klinsmann lost matches at home during the Hex. The one constant in those games was the players. Each manager has his deficiencies, but in the end it is up to the players to get the results. Between the losses to Mexico and Costa Rica and failing to win an away match in the Hex, the responsibility for not making the tournament ultimately falls on the players as a whole.
Are we that surprised?
In my life as a sports fan I’ve rarely felt true, deep sadness from a team I follow. When I was 18 the Cubs blew a 3-1 lead to miss a chance to make it to the World Series in 58 years. Last February the Atlanta Falcons choked away a 28-3 lead to lose the Super Bowl. Those were deflating, soul crushing losses where the callousness of the ability of sports to replace joy and hope with dread and then misery was showcased in its most brutal ruthlessness.
This feels bad but it doesn’t feel like that to me at least. Sure, going into the match, the U.S. was sitting in 3rd place in the Hex and would have been on the way to Russia had the qualifying rounds ended Friday, but making it into the tournament in 2018 never felt like a sure thing that was cruelly taken away. Perhaps it was the way that the game played out with Trinidad & Tobago taking an early lead and the U.S. looking so inept throughout the match, or maybe it was knowing that if the U.S. lost there was a chance they wouldn’t qualify that makes the loss feel less devastating.
As mentioned above, it seems like this was building for some time. The loss to Mexico and then complete surrender to Costa Rica set the stage for what would be a difficult Hex. The loss to Costa Rica and last minute draw at Honduras in two uninspired performances in the round before this one made it clear that the U.S. was backing into the Men’s World Cup rather than charging into it.
With the Hex over, it isn’t important what we learned in this game. What is important is what will be learned after it. The soccer landscape in this country is filled with challenges that many other countries do not face and the solutions to those problems are either inadequate or even make the situation they seek to resolve worse. In the months and years to come, U.S. Soccer can decide if it wants to continue to pursue what is best for U.S. Soccer the business or U.S. Soccer the sport.