COUVA, Trinidad & Tobago — Ugly. Embarrassing. Disgusting. Disappointing. Pitiful. Painful.
Pick a word, or pick them all, but what the U.S. national team delivered Tuesday night was the worst performance in a big match in the history of the program. The task seemed simple enough, but the Americans made it complicated, leaving their hopes in the hands of others on a night when they didn't look like they belonged in a World Cup.
Trinidad & Tobago, the worst team in the final round of CONCACAF qualifying, relished the role of spoiler and caught the Americans flat-footed, making them pay for their latest slow start. This time there would be no recovering.
It was an ugly performance, and even the improved second half failed to make up for the brutal first half. It was truly inconceivable that a team with so much on the line could be outplayed by a team with nothing to play for. But that's what happened, and it doomed the Americans to a fate neither they nor their fans could have ever imagined when the day began.
By the time the final whistle blew, U.S. players could tell the worst had happened. Like cruel dominoes falling in line, every result that needed to happen to keep the U.S. out came to pass. Honduras rallied to beat previously unbeaten Mexico, Panama came back to beat Costa Rica, and the Americans failed to recover from their slow start in an embarrassing loss to Trinidad & Tobago.
Bruce Arena's face said it all after the match. The man called on to resurrect the team's qualifying campaign after Jurgen Klinsmann's early losses shouldered the blame, but there was never really a doubt that he would get his share.
"It's a blemish for us," Arena said. "We should not be staying at home for this World Cup. And I take the responsibility."
Arena ultimately wears the responsibility for choosing the lineup, but who could blame him after the same XI trounced Panama just four days earlier? He had every reason to believe his team could follow that up with another good match, much like the U.S. Gold Cup team followed a strong semifinal with a win in the final.
Instead of showing the energy that led to a 4-0 romp in Orlando, Arena's men laid an absolute egg in the first half. The Americans looked flat in the attack, and exposed defensively, making Trinidad & Tobago's makeshift squad look like world beaters in front of a modest crowd at Ato Boldon Stadium.
"A bad start again. You can only start bad so many times in these type of venues," striker Jozy Altidore said. "One through 11 we weren’t good enough. We weren’t able to create enough to get back in the game, and at the end of the day we dug ourselves a big hole."
Arena shouldn't be alone in wearing the blame for this cataclysmic failure. Many share in it, from the players who failed to step up in a match with so much riding on it to Sunil Gulati, who let the Klinsmann experiment go on too long.
"If you don’t look at yourself after this, individually, I think you’re pretty (messed up) in the head," Altidore said.
Now, the Americans find themselves trapped in the abyss that is life without a World Cup. No big tournament to look to, no opportunity to measure up against the world's best, and maybe even beat them. No chance to capture the imagination of a nation, a large portion of which only pays attention to soccer every four years when the World Cup rolls around.
Instead of planning a trip to Russia, we are left to eulogize a generation, with the likes of Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard on their way out of the national team picture, and with players like Michael Bradley and Altidore missing out on one more World Cup in their primes.
We are also left to witness what is sure to be one big battle royale between the different fan factions in American soccer, from those who have been happy with the sport's growth to those who have long felt the U.S. hasn't been living up to its potential. Make no mistake, there is a segment of the American soccer fan base that is dancing on the grave of this failure, because it's a chance to shed some light on a system that just might need changing.
The change in question isn't about Arena. He knew full well his time was up as soon as the whistle blew and the World Cup dream died. The change is about a federation that will be taken to task after years, if not decades, of being given free rein to run the sport in this country. In big soccer-playing countries, a failure like this would be followed by mass resignations, be they forced or self-imposed. U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati wasn't saying just yet whether he would run for re-election, but the reality is he is going to become the target for the inevitable angst that will rise up after this most painful of defeats.
Asked by Goal whether wholesale changes were needed in U.S. Soccer, Gulati suggested that such a notion was shortsighted, and that no such massive changes should come down to the bounce of one ball, or one bad result. He has trotted out that line on many occasions, but it won't find the audience it used to find this time around.
"Wholesale changes aren’t needed if the ball that hits off the post goes in. You don’t make wholesale changes based on the ball being too inches wide or two inches in," Gulati said. "We will look at everything obviously. All of our programs, both the national team and all the development stuff, but we’ve got a lot of pieces in place that we think are very good and are coming along."
Whether or not Gulati remains U.S. Soccer president is a vitally important question because the next head coaching hire is crucial to ensuring the program rebounds from this and rebuilds. Can Gulati be counted on to choose the right man to steer the program in the right direction, toward a return to the World Cup in 2022?
If there is a silver lining, it is that there is talent in the pipeline, from the amazing Christian Pulisic to U.S. U-20 star Josh Sargent and Schalke midfielder Weston McKennie. Major League Soccer is making strides in developing talent, while more and more European clubs are identifying and signing young Americans.
Whoever steps in as the next U.S. national team coach should have more talent to work with than his predecessors, and hopefully they can help the program reach the heights we have all been waiting to see for a long time. At the very least, hopefully the new coach will be able to mold a team into one capable of winning games like Tuesday's, rather than giving them away.
It's hard to think about the future right now, because without a 2018 World Cup, there really is no immediate future to look forward to. American soccer fans will be left to watch the World Cup next summer without their team playing, envying the teams that made it, and wondering how long it will take for the U.S. national team to recover.
It is sure to be a painful exercise, because it will only serve to remind us what we missed out on, and remind us of the ugly night in Trinidad, when the U.S. national team and U.S. Soccer failed a country.