(Reuters) - The United States will be absent from the World Cup finals for the first time since 1986 next year after a humiliating 2-1 defeat at the hands of Trinidad & Tobago in Couva on Tuesday.
Despite an inconsistent qualifying campaign, the Americans entered the Ato Boldon Stadium needing only a win of any sort over the bottom team in the CONCACAF final qualifying group to punch their ticket to Russia.
But two first-half goals - an Omar Gonzalez own goal in the 17th minute and an Alvin Jones effort 20 minutes later - proved too much for the Americans to overcome despite Christian Pulisic’s strike after the break.
Instead, Panama qualified for the World Cup finals for the first time with their 2-1 victory over Costa Rica, while Honduras beat Mexico 3-2 to pip the United States to a playoff place against Australia.
“Clearly very disappointing,” U.S. coach Bruce Arena told reporters.
“We had everything there for us today. There are no excuses for us not getting the second goal and at least a point out of the game.
“It’s a blemish for us. We should not be staying home for this World Cup and I take the responsibility for that.”
It was a stunning turn of events for the U.S., who were supposed to be rebuilding their programme after hiring Arena last year.
Weathering some bumps in the road, the Americans pulled off an emphatic 4-0 win over Panama last week to take a two-point edge over both Panama and Honduras and regain control of their destiny.
But the U.S. got off to an ominous start against the Soca Warriors when defender Gonzalez tried to clear the ball only for it to loop up and over goalkeeper Tim Howard and into the net.
“The guy hit an early cross, and when I went to clear it, he touched it first and it hit off my shin and it happened to go right over Tim Howard,” Gonzalez said.
“It’s one of the most unlucky goals ever. It’s one that will haunt me forever. I never thought I would see this day, it’s the worst day of my career.”
Jones doubled the lead when he unleashed a piledriver of a shot from well outside the penalty area that flew past Howard and into the net just inside the far post.
The U.S. responded in the second half when Pulisic also scored from outside the box in the 47th minute to give the visitors hope that they might at least rescue a draw that would have secured them the playoff spot.
The desperate effort to level up the match fell short, though, despite the best efforts of 34-year-old Clint Dempsey who nearly scored twice in the final 20 minutes.
Benny Feilhaber also had a header ricochet off the post in the 88th minute but the hosts held firm to condemn the Americans to a fourth defeat in 10 matches in the final round of qualifying.
Reporting by Jahmal Corner, editing by Nick Mulvenney