COUVA, Trinidad — Twenty-eight years after one of the United States' most important victories came in stunning fashion at Trinidad to end a four-decade World Cup absence, the Americans' chances for the 2018 tournament in Russia ended on this island nation off the coast of Venezuela.
The U.S. was eliminated from World Cup contention Tuesday night, a shocking 2-1 loss to Trinidad and Tobago ending a run of seven straight American appearances at soccer's showcase.
The Soca Warriors scored a pair of first-half goals, getting one off U.S. defender Omar Gonzalez, and the United States made too many other mistakes to recover. The Americans are out of the World Cup for the first time since 1986.
"We let down an entire nation today," Gonzalez said.
Shocked American players slumped on the bench, and Matt Besler sat on the field after the final whistle as Panama's game ended and then Costa Rica's. At the end, dejected U.S. players filed into their locker rooms with blank looks.
"We foolishly brought Trinidad into the game with the own goal," coach Bruce Arena said. "That was a big goal for Trinidad psychologically. That got them motivated."
The U.S. entered its final qualifier with a berth uncertain for the first time since 1989. Home losses to Mexico last November and Costa Rica left the Americans little margin for error.
The 28th-ranked Americans needed merely a tie against 99th-ranked Trinidad, which lost its sixth straight qualifier last week. But the defeat — coupled with Honduras' come-from-behind 3-2 win over Mexico and Panama's 2-1 victory over Costa Rica on Ramon Torres' 88th-minute goal — dropped the Americans from third place into fifth in the six-nation final round of the North and Central American and Caribbean region.
Mexico and Costa Rica already had clinched berths, and Panama claimed the third and final automatic spot and will go the World Cup for the first time. Honduras will meet Australia in a two-game playoff next month for another spot at next year's 32-nation tournament.
Missing the World Cup is a devastating blow to the U.S. Soccer Federation, which has steadily built the sport in the last quarter-century with the help of sponsors and television partners. It also is a trauma for Fox, which broadcasts the next three World Cups after taking the U.S. rights from ESPN. The USSF hopes to co-host the 2026 tournament with Mexico and Canada, and Morocco is the only other bidder.
After an 0-2 start in the hexagonal last fall under Jurgen Klinsmann, the USSF replaced him last November with Arena, the American coach from 1998-2006. The team revived with home wins over Honduras and Trinidad last spring and draws at Panama and Mexico. But the 2-0 defeat to Costa Rica in New Jersey at the start of Labor Day weekend proved one hurdle too many to overcome.
The Americans fell behind in the 17th minute when Gonzalez made a casual attempt with his left foot to clear Alvin Jones' cross and sent the ball looping over the outstretched right arm of goalkeeper Tim Howard from 18 yards.
Jones doubled the lead in the 37th with a 35-yard strike, again to Howard's upper right corner, and nearly scored another in the 44th when his swerving shot bounced off Howard's chest and spilled into the penalty area.
Christian Pulisic, the Americans' 19-year-old star midfielder, scored in the 47th minute from the arc with a right-footed shot. He played a role in 12 of the 17 American goals in the hexagonal.
One minute later, Howard made a kick save on Shahdon Winchester's short-range shot, and DeAndre Yedlin blocked Levi Garcia's follow-up attempt.
The U.S. bench was tense, as Honduras scored twice early in the second half to take the lead over visiting Mexico in the 60th minute and Panama tied the score against visiting Costa Rica in the 52nd.
Clint Dempsey, who entered at the start of the second half, was denied by goalkeeper Adrian Foncette's leaping save in the 69th and hit a post from 22 yards in the 77th. Pulisic's shot in the 87th was saved by Foncette.
All American reserves were standing for much of the final minutes, and Arena had repeated exasperated looks.
"No excuses for us not getting the second goal and at least a point," Arena said. "It's a blemish for us."
Just a few hundred fans were in the stands at 10,000-capacity Ato Boldon Stadium, located 24 miles south of the capital, Port-of-Spain. Paul Caligiuri's famous goal at the National Stadium in 1989 put the U.S. in the World Cup for the first time since 1950.
Among the spectators were a few dozen American Outlaws, the U.S. supporters group.
Water that had flooded the track surrounding the field ahead of the U.S. training session Monday was gone.