US struggles for answers after a calamitious exit

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It is the first time since 1986 that the United States will not be present at the World Cup. AFP

LOS ANGLEES (AFP) – Debacle, disaster, catastrophe, calamity. As the post-mortems began on the USA’s World Cup elimination, no hyperbolic stone was left unturned.

An erratic qualifying campaign that began with losses to Mexico and Costa Rica, followed by the sacking of coach Jurgen Klinsmann, ended in abject failure against Trinidad and Tobago in the Ato Boldon Stadium.

A 2-1 loss against a side with nothing to play for, and when a simple draw would have secured qualification, means US fans will be left on the outside looking in when next year’s World Cup party kicks off.

It is the first time since 1986 that the United States will not be present at football’s greatest tournament.

Sports Illustrated’s respected football writer Grant Wahl described the loss as the “most surreal and embarrassing night in US soccer history.”

The impact of the American elimination will be felt far and wide. The World Cup is considered one of the key engines of the sport in the United States, attracting new generations of fans at each tournament.

Three years ago, millions of supporters thronged into viewing parties in city centres across the United States to watch their team perform creditably in Brazil, emerging from the “Group of Death” to reach the last 16.

Whether a World Cup without the participation of a US team can capture the imagination of fans to the same degree remains to be seen.

What is not in doubt, however, is that Tuesday’s exit is likely to raise serious questions about the leadership of the US Soccer Federation.

USSF chief Sunil Gulati cut a dejected figure in the immediate aftermath of the loss, pictured slumped in a chair among reporters as the inquisitions began.

Gulati, who is standing for re-election next year and could face a potential challenge, argued against a knee-jerk response to the exit, while acknowledging his own “extreme disappointment.”

“We certainly expected to qualify throughout the process… so it’s a huge disappointment for everybody: The players, the staff, the coaches, for the federation. It’s not good enough, obviously,” he said.

Gulati, who is spearheading the United States joint bid’ with Canada and Mexico for the 2026 World Cup, was defiant about the need for sweeping changes.

“You don’t make wholesale changes based on the ball being two inches wide or two inches in. We’ll look at everything, obviously, and all 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 have been coming along. Tonight obviously wasn’t what we hoped for.”

Arena, appointed by Gulati for a second stint in charge of the US team following the dismissal of Klinsmann, was similarly defiant.

“There’s nothing wrong with what we’re doing,” he said. “I think if our league continues to grow it benefits the national team program.

“We have some good players coming up. Nothing has to change. To make any kind of crazy changes I think would be foolish.

“We’re building a consistent professional league. We have players playing abroad of a certain quality. There’s enough there. There’s no excuses for us to not qualify for the World Cup.” Gulati and Arena’s comments are unlikely to satisfy their critics however, many of whom feel that former manager Jurgen Klinsmann was treated harshly when he was sacked after two losses in 2016.

Former US international Taylor Twellman said the blame for the exit should be spread around.

“As a whole, US Soccer is not prepared,” Twellman told ESPN News. “They have not done a good enough job of getting this group ready to play.”

“The gloves should have been off years ago. We should have been having real criticism. The discussion after Brazil (in 2014), was ‘Can we beat the Colombias and the Belgiums and the Argentinas of the world?’

“You kidding me? We can’t beat Trinidad on a field that’s too wet and too heavy? What are we doing?”

The players meanwhile were left to digest a crushing loss. Veterans such as Clint Dempsey (34), Tim Howard (38) and Michael Bradley (30) departed Trinidad on Tuesday knowing that in all probability they had played in their last World Cup.

“You can go around in circles a million times over again but the reality is it was all there for us, and we have nobody to blame but ourselves,” a disconsolate Bradley said.

“It’s not the easiest time to make bigger-picture analysis.”

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