Going into their final World Cup Qualifying Match last night, the U.S. Men's National Team had a predicted 97 percent chance of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup. A soggy, long-grassed pitch, an own goal, and a magnificent screamer from Trinidad and Tobago later, they somehow beat the odds and embarrassed themselves spectacularly. They didn't qualify for the World Cup.
Outside of the U.S.'s in-match control, the standing algebra of the CONCACAF's Hex made it such that both Panama and Honduras had to beat out Costa Rica and Mexico—far better teams—in order for the U.S. to miss out on Russia. Both of those things happened.
Yet the USMNT can no longer use luck as an excuse. They deserved this knockout, and it's been a long time coming.
The team has always lived and died by defeating the odds. Their run of magic began in 1989 against the same Trinidad and Tobago, with a wonder strike by Paul Caligiri that qualified them for the next year's World Cup. It continued in 1994, when players were pulled from their club teams to train specifically for their home World Cup, only to advance to the knockout rounds after stunning the likes of Colombia and Switzerland. The U.S. has shocked Germany and the Netherlands before—Italy and Spain too. Sometimes in friendlies, but also sometimes in tournaments. And the team has come to expect this kind of magic. It is a part of America's soccer fabric. This funny foreign game where one lucky score can change the whole outcome—well, why not us?
But the realities of the game have closed in on the U.S. Men's National Team, and luck has ceased to work as a game plan. The losses inherent to missing a World Cup altogether are immeasurable. There's the financial loss. The US Soccer Foundation will miss out on the $12.5 million FIFA awards to World Cup teams, which would have gone towards development. Then there's the lost player endorsements, the loss of exposure of U.S. talent to international player pools, the loss of contract intrigue from more competitive foreign leagues. Then there's the fact that little Johnny Soccer Fan isn't going to find a soccer hero from his country. The words "Christian Pulisic" won't be on as many tongues next summer.
If you just watched the Trinidad and Tobago match to see whether or not the historic moment would pass, it's easy to trace your finger along the line of last night's circumstances and say that the Americans were shit out of luck. But for anyone who has been tracking the qualification process—the devastating losses to Costa Rica and Mexico, the ho-hum ties, and the occasional burst of promise against Honduras—and for anyone building a macro picture—the gaping holes in their back line, the inconsistency of Michael Bradley, the poorly-timed phase-out of veterans—it's clear that the U.S. simply hasn't earned their place among the top 32 teams in the World. Not to mention the top four in CONCACAF.
If you want something more than worn rhetoric based on great-vs-good-vs-bad sports platitudes to help you understand where we are as a soccer nation—and a little bit of hope—look to the U-17 team. While the senior team finished second from the bottom in qualifying last night, the U-17s are currently are at the top of their group in the U-17 World Cup, set to play Colombia tomorrow. The back line looks fairly organized, and there are some emerging young talents getting looks from major clubs across the world.
But those players stand as a testament less to our disorganized youth system—which will surely be gutted and restructured, along with perhaps all of US Soccer's top brass—and more to the fact that young people have more access to global sports, and that they're paying attention to the most competitive one in the world. If there's any luck left for this U.S. Soccer program, it's certainly that trend. But as we learned last night, luck alone won't be enough to save U.S. soccer.