One night in Trinidad: On the worst night of modern American soccer history

Jon Lewis | Senior Sports Editor

A group of unknown soccer players, some of whom would never sign a full professional contact, took a plane down to Trinidad, a tiny island nation in the Caribbean, 28 years ago. They came away with a 1-0 win, and the United States’ first World Cup bid since 1950.

Tuesday night, a group of relatively well-known soccer players, some of whom have played for some of the best club teams in Europe—Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, Roma, Villarreal, Borussia Dortmund—took a slightly more expensive, chartered plane down to Trinidad. They came away with a 2-1 loss, and the United States men’s national team failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since George W. Bush’s father was president.

US Men’s National Team Head Coach Bruce Arena walks with Christian Pulisic during a World Cup qualifying match aganist Panama. In a shocking upset, the men’s national team lost to Trinidad and Tobago 2-1, knocking them out of the World Cup next year in Russia.Stephen M. Dowell - Orlando Sentinel/TNS

US Men’s National Team Head Coach Bruce Arena walks with Christian Pulisic during a World Cup qualifying match aganist Panama. In a shocking upset, the men’s national team lost to Trinidad and Tobago 2-1, knocking them out of the World Cup next year in Russia.

I was not alive yet in 1989, but I was very much alive on Tuesday night, and I sat at a desk on the second floor of Olin Library, nominally reviewing for my midterm the next day, but really watching one of the biggest disasters in American soccer history unfold on my laptop screen. I would like to take this moment to personally apologize to anyone else who may have been in that specific study room from around 7 to 9 p.m. yesterday, I apparently lack the self-control that was necessary to maintain a calm academic environment. I would, however, like note that my streak of never crying in the library does live on, if only barely.

Looking back, I should have seen this coming…we should have all seen this coming.
I should have seen this coming in November of 2015, when as my birthday present, my mom bought me tickets to see the US play an opening-round qualifier at Busch stadium against St. Vincent and the Grenadines—not exactly an international soccer powerhouse. The US somehow managed to go down 1-0 within minutes of kickoff. On the other hand, the US went on to win 6-1 with 83 percent of possession, so maybe I’m just looking back at everything as foreshadowing, hindsight being 20/20 and all that.

No, we all should have seen this coming, but no one did. Not even in their most dire performances did anyone really believe the US would fail to finish at least fourth out of six teams in their group. Partly because they would sometimes trick us by playing well, like they did just one match before the disaster in Trinidad.

Friday night, the United States put one foot in the doorway of the World Cup with a dominant 4-0 win over Panama. Most Wash. U. students probably didn’t catch the game—it was during WILD—but I skipped Lil Dicky to watch, a decision that at the time felt more than worth it. The United States were great against Panama—attacking, creative and unafraid, all things that left people dreaming of a glorious run to maybe the quarterfinals of the World Cup.

But we got ahead of ourselves. The US, needing only to not lose to the worst team in the easiest qualifying group in the world, turned in one of the worst first-halves of soccer ever played, and could not crawl their way back into the match. Meanwhile, Honduras and Panama—two teams the United States beat by a combined score of 10-0 in home qualifying matches—did what the US should have and fought for their World Cup lives, earning their trips to the big stage with gritty wins against Mexico and Costa Rica, respectively.

I won’t recap the disaster that was the Trinidad game in detail, mostly because doing so would require that I rewatch the highlights of a match I would prefer to have completely erased from my memory. So I won’t do that. Rather, I’ll look forward.

Which is not really that much brighter. Because the United States will now miss out on the World Cup, the greatest single sporting event on the globe. And I have no idea what it will feel like to watch it without my favorite team. Probably weird, probably kind of incomplete. The depth of how crushing this loss is for me and other fans of the United States will not register for another eight months or so, although Tuesday night was pretty terrible on its own.

Tuesday night was one of the many times recently that I have found myself reflecting on why exactly I care about sports. I spent the night after 9 p.m. simultaneously feeling crushed and feeling kind of silly about feeling so crushed. Why do I care so much about watching 11 grown men kick a ball around for two hours?

The World Cup in particular, and international soccer in general, I think, provide the perfect example for why. Two days before the worst loss in recent American soccer history, Egypt played a match against the Congo in African World Cup qualifying. With the game tied at 1-1 in stoppage time, Egypt won a penalty and their best player—Mohamed Salah—converted emphatically, clinching his country’s first qualification since 1990. The entire country erupted into celebration. The streets of Cairo—filled with rioting and militarized police not too long ago—were now flooded in celebration.

And that’s what sports do. Soccer games are 90-minute little capsules of emotion, perfect vessels for narrative. Weirdly, for all their faults, sports are one of the only arenas in which we actually can be emotional. Because sports emotions—unlike real emotions—are uncomplicated. They are simple, pure and beautiful to experience in groups like the droves of adults embracing through tears in Egypt Sunday night.

And while sometimes you are Egypt in Cairo, sometimes you are the United States in Trinidad. And you curse at the coaches and lament the missed chances, but secretly you hope that one day you can experience the kind of pure uncomplicated joy that will come in the next World Cup.

And maybe that will never happen, but being optimistic is much more fun than the alternative. So that’s what I’ll do, even if it’s by default.