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  • Goal-scorers be wary! Tallying in the game that clinches the USA's World Cup berth hasn't been conducive to participating in the actual spectacle for the last three cycles.
By Grant Wahl
October 09, 2017

PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad and Tobago — For the U.S. men’s national team, the only thing that really matters on Tuesday night is qualifying for the World Cup. Everyone knows that. A victory over Trinidad and Tobago will seal the deal, a tie almost certainly would as well, and even a loss wouldn’t necessarily mean elimination from Russia 2018 (though it might, depending on other results). There’s a lot at stake.

But there’s a peripheral note that is one of the stranger coincidences in recent USMNT history. Call it the Curse of the Clinching Goal Hero.

Each of the last three times that the USMNT has clinched a berth in the World Cup, at least one of the goal-scorers in that game has failed to make the squad that actually competed in the subsequent World Cup.

An old maxim says that at least three examples make a trend. Well, we’ve got four examples here. Let’s break it down:

2013: LANDON DONOVAN, EDDIE JOHNSON

In the U.S.’s 2-0 victory over Mexico that clinched a berth in World Cup 2014, Johnson thumped home Donovan’s corner kick for a 1-0 lead in the 49th minute, and Donovan sealed the Dos A Cero scoreline in the 78th off an assist from Mix Diskerud.

Neither player would make Jurgen Klinsmann’s 23-man roster for Brazil. Johnson, who had five goals in 17 appearances in 2013, saw his club production tail off dramatically at D.C. United in 2014 and was left off the U.S.’s 30-man World Cup preliminary roster.

Nor will anybody forget Klinsmann’s controversial decision to leave Donovan, the U.S.’s all-time leader in goals and assists, off the World Cup 2014 squad.

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2009: CONOR CASEY

On the night the U.S. qualified for World Cup 2010 with a wild 3-2 victory at Honduras, Casey was an unexpected starter and an unlikely star, scoring the only two goals of his international career in the 55th and 66th minutes in San Pedro Sula.

But Casey was left off Bob Bradley’s 30-man preliminary World Cup roster. The forwards that ended up representing the U.S. in South Africa were Jozy Altidore, Edson Buddle, Robbie Findley and Hérculez Gómez.

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2005: STEVE RALSTON

One of the most consistent MLS players of all time, Ralston scored the opening goal in the 53rd minute of the U.S.’s 2-0 victory over Mexico to clinch a berth in World Cup 2006.

Ralston appeared 15 times for the U.S. in his breakout year of 2005, but he was listed only as an alternate for the World Cup 2006 roster.

Yes, there are U.S. players who scored in the Cup-clinching game who went on to make the subsequent World Cup roster. Those include Donovan (2009), DaMarcus Beasley (2005), Joe-Max Moore (2001), Claudio Reyna (1997), Roy Wegerle (1997) and Paul Caligiuri (1989). (As a side note, the Curse also struck Moore, who did make the World Cup ’02 roster but suffered a serious knee injury after coming on as a sub against Portugal that kept him out of soccer for months.)

But lately fate has been unkind to U.S. Cup-Clinching Goal Heroes. For all four of these U.S. players—Donovan, Johnson, Casey and Ralston—the goals they scored to help clinch World Cup berths were the final goals of their international careers.

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