October 10, 2017. 2 years ago today. I’ll never forget that day for as long as I live. I was in Couva, Trinidad and Tobago for that match. Yes...that match. I remember every detail about that day. I remember waking up, grabbing some breakfast. I remember the jersey that I wore, the pregame bar hopping we did all the way from Port-of-Spain to the stadium. I remember arriving at the stadium and having a sense that it was going to be an interesting night, but a good one. The 100 or so of us that were in the stands were ready to watch our United States Men’s National Team qualify for the World Cup. The mood was mostly positive, although there were definitely a few nerves. Still, there were 27 World Cup scenarios that could happen with our match and the others in the Hex other matches. Only 1 would see us fail to qualify. No way that would happen, right?
And then the match started. The own goal by Omar Gonzalez happens and we’re upset, but still positive. Easy to make up that goal. Then came the second one 20 minutes later from the Soca Warriors, and that’s when the doubt started to set in. Phones with little data service were being used to check on other scores around the region...but we were still okay! 27 scenarios, and the 1 hasn’t happened yet. We reach halftime, and we breath. Some of us start checking flights to Sydney for a possible confederation playoff and a couple of us book hotels, just in case. But, we weren’t yet out of it.
The second half starts and Christian Pulisic scores a couple minutes in. Euphoria! We’re back in this. One more goal and we’re in the World Cup. We’re going to get this goal and it won’t matter what’s happening in San Pedro Sula or Panama City. Then, we hear about Honduras taking the lead against Mexico. We haven’t made any progress, but the 1...the 1 hasn’t occurred yet.
We approach the 85th minute and then we learn that Panama has scored. Honduras is winning. The 1 scenario is now occurring. Immediately, all of us, every single American at Ato Bolden Stadium, rushed to the chain link fence that separated us from the field and started banging it with the force of 340 million people. We started yelling at the players, letting them know that if we didn’t score another goal, we would not be going to Russia. The players didn’t know. Some of the players turned to look at us as if they were learning the updates for the first time...because they were. The team pressed and pressed, but the one goal we needed to head to Australia never came. The final whistle blew. We were out of the World Cup. The 1 scenario happened.
I bring up that fateful night that happened two years ago, probably the worst night in U.S. Soccer history, as someone who had a front row seat to the catastrophe. I don’t like discussing that night at all because it’s going to always be painful to me and those who were there in a way that no one else can truly relate. I remember the hurt, the pain, the tears, the anger, the sadness, the disbelief. I’ll never forget the sound of the silence that consumed the bus on our 2-hour ride back to the hotel, the small talk we could muster once we finally were there. But, I discuss that night for one reason:
It’s time to fully put it behind us.
Today, October 10, 2019, begins the start of a new journey, one that will hopefully end with us qualifying for the 2022 World Cup. It begins tomorrow when the USMNT debuts in the CONCACAF Nations League against Cuba, which serves as qualification for the 2021 Gold Cup. Some have used the last two years to air all their grievances against U.S. Soccer and the USMNT, and trust me, a lot of it is well deserved. We all have struggled through this transition period from the previous World Cup cycle to this one, but now we should be ever moving forward and focusing on the journey in front of us, not the failed one behind us.
The new journey needs our undivided attention and our full support. It won’t be pristinely paved, but most of them will count. Starting tomorrow, it’s possible that we only have 2-4 friendlies through September 2021 with the Nations League, World Cup qualifying, and the 2021 Gold Cup. Of course, there will be some roadblocks and potholes along the way. Sure, there will be times where we don’t like the team’s player selection or a formation or the coach or his tactics, but that’s not something that only began on 10/11/2017. It’s part of the process. There are always players who we will hope develop into stars and feature regularly on the USMNT, while there are others who we would rather not see called up.
What used to happen was that we were critical of our team’s performance because we wanted to see improvement. It was constructive criticism that came from a love for the team and the desire to see them succeed. Right now, the pessimism surrounding the team may be warranted given what happened last cycle, but right now a lot of it isn’t being distributed out of love. It’s out of spite and snark. That doesn’t accomplish much except finding new ways to be spiteful and snarky about the direction of the program. Even with the Gold Cup this past summer, which had the team advance to the final before falling to Mexico, the jokes continued. The pessimism persisted. After a year of people wanting any matches that counted for the USMNT to play, the Gold Cup still was full of comments about the quality of opponent or the players on the roster, where they played, and debates about MLS players versus European players. The focus was never on the team’s success. It was on who could be funnier than the rest in expressing their pessimistic outlook on the program.
I’m not saying that people can’t be critical of the team moving forward. There will be times where we call the USMNT to task for a bad performance or a player for not playing well. But, that criticism should get back to a constructive point, because the end goal won’t be achieved by trying to outsnark everyone else when the end goal is still in sight.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter who we want on the field or who we think should be on the roster. All of these guys, when they are called up to the national team and they step out on that field, are playing their butts off for our country. The faces we love and the ones we don’t will be responsible for getting us to that end goal of qualifying for the 2022 World Cup. They will also be the ones that also aim to achieve the goals along the way: winning the 2019-2020 CONCACAF Nations League and winning the 2021 Gold Cup. Let’s give them the support they need because when they take the field, they’re going to be giving their all for us. It’s time we begin reciprocating that effort.
It begins tomorrow. Let October 11, 2019 be the start of this new journey, one that sees us unite behind the team and push it forward as it begins the road to the 2022 World Cup. I’m excited that this journey right here in my city of Washington, DC. I’m pumped that we’re finally going to enter play in the CONCACAF Nations League, and I’m probably the tournament’s number one fan. I’m honored, as I have been for every match since that fateful night 2 years ago, to see my USMNT play. It’s going to be wild ride, but if we all jump onboard, it will still be a fun one. So, break out your jerseys and t-shirts, head to the stadium, hit up your favorite bar, or turn on your TV and watch. Do what you can to support.
The journey begins tomorrow. Let’s get going.