Tuesday night was a nightmare for U.S. soccer, but it was hardly the first heartbreak the USMNT has suffered.
October 10, 2017, is a date that will live in infamy for everyone involved with U.S. Soccer. Needing only a point against Trinidad and Tobago—the last-place team in the hexagonal final round of qualifying—to ensure a World Cup bid, the United States men's national team couldn't overcome an early two-goal deficit and lost 2-1. That loss, coupled with wins by both Panama and Honduras, meant that the USMNT will miss the World Cup for the first time since 1986.
It was disastrous. It was shocking. It was, and is, unacceptable. Perhaps above all, it was heartbreaking. But it's not the first time the USMNT has experienced moments of bitter disappointment and sadness. For a team that hasn't made a deep World Cup run in recent history, there have been plenty of moments that have crushed the spirits of American soccer players, coaches and fans.
Here are the five biggest heartbreaks in recent U.S. men's national team history.
5. Blowing a 2-0 lead to Brazil in 2009 Confederations Cup
Bob Bradley's side scored arguably the most impressive win in USMNT history in the semifinal with a 2-0 victory over Spain, the then-defending European champions and holders of a 35-match unbeaten streak. Spain would go on to win the World Cup the next year in South Africa, adding further cache to the shocking upset.
In the final, the momentum garnered from the Spain triumph looked like it might carry the Americans to another victory over one of soccer's giants: Brazil. Clint Dempsey flicked on a Jonathan Spector cross to give the U.S. a 1-0 lead just 10 minutes in, and Landon Donovan doubled the lead in the 27th with a cool left-footed finish after a classic counterattack. Heroic play from Tim Howard ensured that the U.S. took a 2-0 lead into halftime.
Brazil got one back right after halftime via an impressive turn and shot from Luis Fabiano and then tied it up in the 74th minute when Kaka blew past Spector and found Robinho, who hit the crossbar before Fabiano headed home once again. The comeback was completed by center back Lucio, who headed home a corner in the 84th minute.
This one hurt because the USMNT had a chance to claim its first FIFA trophy by beating Spain and Brazil. Of course, the Confederations Cup does not compare in importance to the World Cup, but a FIFA trophy is a FIFA trophy. Plus, there's no telling what wins over teams of that caliber in important games would have done for the side's confidence.
4. Gyan's winner knocks U.S. out of 2010 World Cup
After winning its group by beating Algeria in heart-stopping fashion to book a date with Ghana, which finished second in its group, the U.S. had a serious chance to reach the quarterfinals at the 2010 World Cup. What made the game even more enticing was the chance for revenge: a 2-1 loss to Ghana knocked the U.S. out of the 2006 World Cup.
The game started inauspiciously, as Kevin Prince-Boateng slid a left-footed shot past Howard at the near post to give the Black Stars a 1-0 advantage. In the 62nd minute, Dempsey was brought down by a clumsy tackle in the box—a surefire penalty. Donovan brought the U.S. level with a well-slotted spot-kick that glanced the right post on its way to the back of the net.
In extra time, Ghana again stuck its nose out early. Asamoah Gyan pounced on a bouncing ball and found enough space between two defenders to slam a half-volley past Howard. The U.S. pressed for an equalizer but could not find one, and Ghana crushed American dreams at the World Cup for a second consecutive time.
Any World Cup exit is tough to swallow—after all, you have to wait four years (or eight years, these days) to get the taste out of your mouth. But losing to the same team at a second straight World Cup after a dramatic victory to win the group? That's gutting.
3. Wondolowski's miss
Note: Wondolowski was not offside, and the referee's flag was raised to denote a goal kick, not an incorrect offisde call.
Even casual U.S. soccer fans—the ones who tune in only when the USMNT is playing in the World Cup—know the name Chris Wondolowski, and most don't have a positive association with that name despite his vast success in MLS.
What those fans won't remember is that the U.S. was lucky to be in that game, a round-of-16 matchup with Belgium at the 2015 World Cup. Howard made a World Cup record 15 saves as the U.S. was thoroughly outclassed by a superiorly talented Belgian side. Still, the game was tied at 0-0 in the 93rd minute when Geoff Cameron floated a ball into Belgium's box. Jermaine Jones fought off Belgian center back Daniel Van Buyten and flicked a header to a wide-open Wondolowski, who had snuck behind a sleeping Vincent Kompany.
Thibaut Courtois—all 6'6'' of him—was charging at Wondolowski quickly, and there's a solid chance he makes the save even if Wondolowski makes solid contact. But Wondolowski whiffed horribly, and the U.S. went on to lose 2-1 in extra time. Had he converted, the goal would have stolen the game for the U.S. and gone down in American sporting lore.
"I'm gutted to have let down everyone but especially my teammates," Wondolowski tweeted after the miss. Later, he told Grantland, “I’m not over it. I’m not sure I’ll ever get over it.”
2. Torsten Frings' handball that wasn't
Led by a pair of upstart 20-year-olds (Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley), the U.S. had advanced to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup by beating Mexico in the round of 16 by a famous 2-0 scoreline. That win booked a date with Germany, one of the best teams in the world.
The U.S. was not intimidated and took the game to Germany from the opening kick. Donovan tormented the Germans on the wings, and the U.S. enjoyed the majority of the game's chances. Michael Ballack put Germany ahead with a powerful header that came against the run of the play, but the Americans kept the pressure on and looked likely to nab an equalizer.
In the 50th minute, a Claudio Reyna corner found an outstretched Gregg Berhalter, who made solid contact with his left foot. The ball appeared at first glance to be saved by a diving Oliver Kahn, but replay made it abundantly clear that Kahn did not save the ball, defender Torsten Frings did...with his arm. The game's referee, Hugh Dallas, said he had a clear view and didn't think the handball was deliberate, though a replay showed multiple players between him and the ball. Most believed the correct call would have been a red card for Frings and a penalty kick for the U.S.
Had Frings been sent off and the U.S. converted the penalty, there's still no guarantee the Americans put a winner past 10-men Germany. But with the quality the U.S. showed and the momentum that comes from a goal-red-card double, the odds would have been in the USA's favor. Had the U.S. gotten past Germany, the semifinal would have been against co-host South Korea, a team the U.S. tied 1-1 in the tournament's group stage. Reaching the World Cup final was not out of the question, which is particularly striking given the failure to qualify for the tournament altogether in 2018.
1. Disaster in 2017
The USA's Hexagonal campaign started off as poorly as possible. In Columbus—a place the USMNT had dominated Mexico—the Americans suffered a 2-1 defeat to their rivals to the south. Next up was a difficult trip to Costa Rica, a game in which the U.S. didn't seem motivated for the task, and a 4-0 defeat cost Jurgen Klinsmann his job.
U.S. Soccer hired the trusted Bruce Arena to replace Klinsmann, a hire that didn't excite many but seemed a necessary Band-Aid job to ensure World Cup qualification. Arena brought back good vibes to the locker room and trusted MLS players to get the job done, but an inability to win on the road in Panama and Honduras kept the U.S. in a struggle to qualify until the very last day.
Still, all the U.S. needed was a point at last-place Trinidad and Tobago to secure a spot in Russia. And even if they lost, the U.S. would only be eliminated if Honduras beat first-place Mexico and Panama topped second-place Costa Rica. As you know by now, the U.S. was defeated 2-1, and a pair of come-from-behind victories by Honduras and Panama converted the doomsday possibility to an abhorrent reality.
For young American soccer fans, merely qualifying for the World Cup had been a given. How the team performed once in the tournament was the variable, not whether the team would be there altogether. The ramifications for this disaster are wide-ranging; changes in personnel are virtually certain, as is a shift in the theoretical approach to the national team program. These changes will happen rapidly, but the heartbreak won't dissipate until 2022, at the earliest.