Trinidad and Tobago

Jim Curtin calls U.S. men's World Cup qualifying failure 'devastating'

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Jim Curtin calls U.S. men's World Cup qualifying failure 'devastating'

CHESTER, Pa. — The Union play a game Sunday but head coach Jim Curtin knew he wouldn’t get many questions about that following Thursday’s practice.

And that’s not because the Union have already been eliminated from playoff contention when they hit the road to face the Chicago Fire (5 p.m./NBC Sports Philadelphia). It’s because all anyone can talk about this week is the historic U.S. national team loss to Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday that caused the Americans to miss the World Cup for the first time since 1986 and send shockwaves throughout the entire country’s soccer community.

That certainly includes Curtin, who played in MLS for many years before getting his start in coaching, first at the youth level.

“It’s devastating,” the Union coach said. “It’s a devastating result for anyone that’s involved in soccer. If you just take the 90 minutes and the simultaneous 90 minutes going on in different countries and the chain of events that happened, for it to all fall apart before our eyes was incredible. It will be probably a 30 for 30 or some kind of documentary.”

While the surreal set of circumstances that included last-ditch, come-from-behind wins by Panama and Honduras to knock the USMNT out was painful in the moment, many soccer people have since used it as a way to take stock of the state of soccer in the United States.

How does a country as big as this one fail to beat tiny Trinidad and Tobago in a do-or-die game? How did the U.S. go 3-4-3 in the Hexagonal stage of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying when it had won the Hex the previous three times?

Curtin has heard all the takes, flying in from every direction, and has tried to figure it out himself.

“Is it grassroots? Not getting enough city kids involved in soccer? The academies letting us down? The coaches in our country letting us down? The player pool not being good enough? The fact that we haven’t qualified for the Olympics in two cycles? It’s a little bit of all of those things,” he said. “There’s no one answer. There’s no one person that’s right. It does prove we have to step back, evaluate things and get better for it.

“Listen, our country right now, we are the best at basketball, we are the best at American football, we are the best at baseball, we’re not the best at soccer. Sometimes maybe we feel like we’re taking big steps forward but the reality is it’s still newer in this country and we have to improve. We have to get better.”

MLS has certainly taken its share of criticism for the World Cup failure with some pointing the finger at USMNT stars like Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Tim Howard and even Union captain Alejandro Bedoya leaving the more cutthroat world of European soccer to play club soccer in their home country. Interestingly enough, MLS has also probably made the rest of CONCACAF better — a point that was driven home when the Seattle Sounders’ Roman Torres scored the game-winning goal for Panama shortly after the Houston Dynamo’s Alberth Elis and Romell Quioto both scored for Honduras.

But while Curtin acknowledged the fact that the league’s “amazing facilities” and other factors have boosted the Panamanian and Honduran programs, he also said the USMNT still “has the quality in our player pool” to beat those countries out for a World Cup spot. He is concerned, though, that the league often favors foreign-born players at the expense of American ones.

“Listen, I’m a believer that the domestic league has to be a resource in developing players,” Curtin said. “It really has to be. You look at different countries and the way they do it — some are successful in doing it, some are not so successful. And right now, there are big decisions that have to happen, with the league and U.S. soccer.

“I think it’s critical because you do see the direction our league is going and it probably wouldn’t be one that would favor the American player right now to be honest, with the different ways money’s coming into it. So it’s an important time. We still have very good young American players in our league that are getting better each and every day and developing. But you do want to see more of it.”

While admitting it might be better served as an “eight-hour discussion,” Curtin also touched on the pay-to-play model of youth soccer in this country. He recognized that it’s “big business” for people who make a living doing it but that it “does get in the way of what’s best for kids.” And he said he’s been in rooms where people involved in youth soccer simply don’t listen to each other because “everyone has to show they’re the smartest guy in the room.”

“We’re probably one of the few countries in the world where soccer is a privileged sport, and if people want to argue that, they’re crazy,” Curtin said. “It’s a privileged sport in this country across the board. Do I have the answer how to change that? I don’t have it right now. I wish I did. But there are enough resources, we have enough facilities in the United States of America to do a better job of getting the best kids involved, regardless of whether they’re rich kids, regardless of whether they’re middle class, regardless of whether they have nothing. 

“I think we’re out of excuses, to be honest. I can’t come up with one reason why we can’t be better.”

While Curtin does not have a direct connection to the USMNT, he knows that “if our national team fails, soccer is going to fail in this country.” And missing out on a once-every-four-years event like the World Cup hurts the growth of soccer and is a big blow for all of the kids — his three included — that will have to wait five years to watch the U.S. on the world’s biggest sporting stage.

But for the Union coach, there are still too many exciting things happening around the sport and MLS for him to be entirely discouraged.

“Honestly, I still see the game moving forward,” he said. “The coverage for the game, MLS is getting better despite people that will blame the league for the collapse. The game is growing in our country, that’s inevitable. It’s on TV more. Does this hurt? Absolutely. It hurts the growth any time there’s a setback like this, but there’s still good things happening.

“We got punched in the teeth and now we have to get up and recover.”

United States loses to Trinidad and Tobago, fails to qualify for World Cup

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United States loses to Trinidad and Tobago, fails to qualify for World Cup

COUVA, Trinidad -- Twenty-eight years after the United States ended a four-decade World Cup absence with a stunning victory at Trinidad, the Americans' chances for the 2018 tournament in Russia ended on this island nation off the coast of Venezuela in even more astonishing fashion.

Needing only a tie and confident of victory against the world's 99th-ranked team, the U.S. was eliminated from World Cup contention Tuesday night with a 2-1 loss to Trinidad and Tobago that ended a run of seven straight American appearances at soccer's showcase.

"We let down an entire nation today," said defender Omar Gonzalez, whose 17th-minute own goal started the collapse.

Gonzalez casually tried to clear Alvin Jones' cross and sent it looping from 15 yards over the outstretched right arm of Tim Howard. Jones doubled the deal in the 37th minute with a 35-yard strike.

Christian Pulisic, the Americas' rising 19-year-old star, scored in the 47th minute, giving the U.S. hope.

Clint Dempsey, at 34 trying to make it to a fourth World Cup, entered at the start of the second half and was denied by goalkeeper Adrian Foncette's leaping save in the 69th and hit a post from 22 yards in the 77th. Bobby Wood's header in the 88th was sent wide by Foncette.

Even a defeat could have earned a berth, but only if Panama and Honduras both lost. And if the U.S. and only one of those rivals were beaten, the Americans would have finished fourth and advanced to a playoff next month against Australia.

Panama trailed 1-0 to Costa Rica at halftime and Honduras was behind 2-1 to Mexico, but both rallied against nations that already had clinched berths. Gabriel Torres scored for Panama in the 52nd minute on a shot that did not appear to cross the goal line, and Honduras went ahead on Guillermo Ochoa's own goal in the 54th and Romell Quioto's goal in the 60th.

At that point, the 28th-ranked Americans were playoff bound, but Roman Torres scored in the 88th minute to give Panama a 2-1 win, a third-place finish with 13 points and its first World Cup berth. Honduras finished fourth on goal difference and goes to the playoff.

The Americans, who would have qualified with 13 points because of a superior goal difference, instead had 12 points and finished fifth in the hexagonal.

"It's a blemish for us," coach Bruce Arena said. "We should not be staying home for this World Cup and I take the responsibility for that."

American players were not aware of the scores of the other games until after the final whistle.

"When I looked over at the bench and everyone was sitting down," Gonzalez said, "I could just see from the looks on their faces that it wasn't good."

Back in 1989, Trinidad needed merely a tie to reach its first World Cup, but Paul Caligiuri's long-range goal in the 30th minute put the U.S. in the tournament for the first time since 1950.

That game was played before a crowd of 35,000-plus at National Stadium in the capital of Port-of-Spain. With Trinidad already eliminated, this one drew a few hundred fans at Ato Boldon Stadium, 24 miles to the south.

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 caused the U.S. Soccer Federation to fire Jurgen Klinsmann and bring back Arena, the U.S. coach from 1998-2006. But after a loss to Costa Rica in New Jersey last month, there was little margin for error.

Shocked American players slumped on the bench, and center back Matt Besler sat on the field after the final whistle as Panama's game ended and then Costa Rica's. Dejected U.S. players filed into their locker rooms with blank looks.

"You can go around in circles a million times over again, but the reality is that it was all there for us and we have nobody to blame but ourselves," U.S. captain Michael Bradley said.

Arena, a 66-year-old member of the U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame, agreed with his usual bluntness.

"We foolishly brought Trinidad into the game with the own goal," the coach said. "That was a big goal for Trinidad psychologically. That got them motivated."

Missing the World Cup is a devastating blow to the USSF, 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.

"Every time you have a setback you have to look at things, re-evaluate and get better," 38-year-old goalkeeper Tim Howard said. "And as a program we have to get better. This hex proved that. There's some good teams on the up and up and we've got our work cut out for us."

Arena left his lineup unchanged from Friday's 4-0 rout of Panama in Florida, but the Americans couldn't generate the needed energy and emotion.

"Our center backs were not confident enough with the ball and really often in the first half we were playing eight against 10 because they really need to carry the ball and bring a player to the ball and then move it a little quicker," he said. "Our forwards were not able to hold the ball. They did a poor job there. We didn't get Pulisic into the game. We played poorly. The first goal was unfortunate. Those things happen. The second goal was an incredible shot. What can you say?"

Gonzalez said Jones' cross struck his left shin as he tried to prevent it from reaching Shahdon Winchester.

"One of the most unlucky goals ever," Gonzalez said. "It is one that will haunt me forever. ... I never thought that I'd see this day. This is the worst day of my career."

USSF President Sunil Gulati said the result felt unreal.

"It's a huge disappointment for everybody: for players, for the staff, for coaches, for the federation," Gulati said. "It's not good enough, obviously. In some sense, 2022 starts tomorrow for us."