1. “We failed on the day. We have no excuses.”
So spoke head coach Bruce Arena in his postgame press conference. He spoke of himself as much as his players and staff, for he was hired 11 months ago to take over a Hexagonal campaign that had started off with two defeats for the first time and accrue enough points to get the Americans to a World Cup for the eighth straight time.
The failures on this day were many, starting with an overall listless performance and punctuated by errors such as the sliced clearance by Omar Gonzalez that looped over keeper Tim Howard’s head for the first goal. The second goal, a knuckling strike from distance by Alvin Jones, exploited a lack of pressure by midfielder Darlington Nagbe on the ball, which was a constant problem throughout the match.
The attacking tridente of Bobby Wood, Jozy Altidore and Christian Pulisic that had looked so dynamic and dominant on Friday sputtered throughout the game, with Wood especially quiet. They were unable to build on a great strike by Pulisic early into the second half that cut the 2-0 halftime margin in half, with only a couple of shots -- the shot by substitute Clint Dempsey off the base of the post and Wood's short-range header in the 88th minute -- forcing T&T keeper Adrian Foncette to scramble.
With a 2-0 lead and a rather young team on the field selected by head coach Dennis Lawrence, T&T found a belief that a stunning upset was possible and played confidently. The Americans had started sluggishly and for only brief periods came anywhere close to matching the intensity of their opponents, another element in which the Americans often fell short during the Hexagonal.
2. Same XI looked and played tired.
Rather than invoke extensive changes to his starting XI playing a second game on short rest, which he had done throughout the Hexagonal, Arena went with the same starters who had rolled over Panama, 4-0, on Friday, but got very little reward for his loyalty.
All the intensity and sharpness so prominent on Friday had apparently dissipated. If this was due to the draining effects of playing a second game in warm, humid conditions much like those in the first game, Arena and the medical staff failed badly. Lethargic going forward and sluggish in transition, the Americans were a step off the pace from the kickoff and looked absolutely ponderous once T&T had taken the lead.
For the past several years the national team has been monitored and tested during training sessions to measure their range of motion, recovery rates, and other metrics that the coaches use when they decide on their squad selection. By whatever methods, Arena sent 11 players onto the field in Couva who looked physically slow and mentally dull. If he and his coaches thought this was the best XI to put on the field, they were horribly wrong.
After the destruction of Panama came praise from the players about how well they were prepared physically and tactically and how sharp they were emotionally. Really, none of them looked ready for battle on Tuesday and regardless of where teams stand in the Hexagonal table, playing any one of them on the road is usually a tough task.
3. So what happens now?
Without a World Cup to prepare for, and U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati facing his first election challenge in February, does it make sense for Arena to stay on and conduct the annual January training camp?
There will be games to play in 2018 on the FIFA dates for friendlies and with a lot of younger players ready to break into the senior team, the program must go forward in some fashion.
There are veteran players either side of 30 who will eventually drop out of the pool rather than face a five-year slog for the next World Cup and given that the U.S. failure to qualify for the last two Olympics has apparently affected the senior team as well, a natural course of action would be to promote Tab Ramos from U-20 head coach to Olympic coach and concentrate on that group of players. (The 2020 Olympic Games will be hosted by Tokyo.)
Gulati or his successor will eventually have to decide on a course of action regarding the national team, which for the first time in nearly three decades will be in a World Cup cycle without a World Cup. It’s a severe blow to younger players such as Pulisic and Kellyn Acosta to be deprived of a World Cup, yet it’s a staggering shock as well to veterans like Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez, Michael Bradley, and others in the 28-30 age group that probably won’t get another chance.
They and the game in this country will go on. But the unthinkable has happened and the inquests will, and should be, extreme.