COUVA, Trinidad (AP) — Twenty-eight years after the United States ended a four-decade World Cup absence with a stunning victory at Trinidad, the Americans' chances for the 2018 tournament in Russia ended on this island nation off the coast of Venezuela in even more astonishing fashion.
Needing only a tie and confident of victory against the world's 99th-ranked team, the U.S. was eliminated from World Cup contention Tuesday night with a 2-1 loss to Trinidad and Tobago that ended a run of seven straight American appearances at soccer's showcase.
"We let down an entire nation today," said defender Omar Gonzalez, whose 17th-minute own goal attempting to clear a cross started the collapse.
Alvin Jones doubled the deal in the 37th minute with a 35-yard strike, and the Americans were unable to rebound. Teenage star Christian Pulisic scored in the 47th and Clint Dempsey, trying to make it to fourth World Cup, was denied by goalkeeper Adrian Foncette's leaping save in the 69th and hit a post from 22 yards in the 77th. Pulisic's shot in the 87th was saved by Foncette.
"If I said disappointment, it would be an understatement," goalkeeper Tim Howard said.
Back in 1989, Trinidad needed merely a tie to reach its first World Cup, but Paul Caligiuri's long-range goal in the 30th minute put the U.S. in the tournament for the first time since 1950.
That game was at National Stadium in the capital of Port-of-Spain. With Trinidad already eliminated, this one was played before a few hundred fans at Ato Boldon Stadium, 24 miles to the south.
The U.S. entered its final qualifier with a berth uncertain for the first time since 1989. Home losses to Mexico last November and Costa Rica left the Americans little margin for error.
Even a defeat could have earned a berth, but only if Panama and Honduras both lost. And if the U.S. and only one of those rivals lost, the Americans would have finished fourth and advanced to a playoff next month against Australia.
Panama trailed 1-0 and halftime and Honduras was behind 2-1, but both rallied. Gabriel Torres scored in the 52nd minute on a shot that did not appear to cross the goal line, and Honduras went ahead on Guillermo Ochoa's own goal in the 54th and Romell Quioto's goal in the 60th.
At that point, the 28th-ranked Americans were playoff bound, but Ramon Torres scored in the 88th minute to give Panama a 2-1 win, a third-place finish with 13 points and its first World Cup berth. Honduras finished fourth on goal difference and goes to the playoff. The Americans, who would have qualified with 13 points because of a superior goal difference, instead had 12 and finished fifth in the hexagonal.
"It's a blemish for us," coach Bruce Arena said. "We should not be staying home for this World Cup and take the responsibility for that."
Shocked American players slumped on the bench, and Matt Besler sat on the field after the final whistle as Panama's game ended and then Costa Rica's. At the end, dejected U.S. players filed into their locker rooms with blank looks.
"We foolishly brought Trinidad into the game with the own goal," Arena said. "That was a big goal for Trinidad psychologically. That got them motivated."
Missing the World Cup is a devastating blow to the U.S. Soccer Federation, which has steadily built the sport in the last quarter-century with the help of sponsors and television partners. It also is a trauma for Fox, which broadcasts the next three World Cups after taking the U.S. rights from ESPN. The USSF hopes to co-host the 2026 tournament with Mexico and Canada, and Morocco is the only other bidder.
"Every time you have a setback you have to look at things, re-evaluate and get better," 38-year-old goalkeeper Tim Howard said. "And as a program we have to get better. This hex proved that. There's some good teams on the up and up and we've got our work cut out for us."
After an 0-2 start in the hexagonal last fall under Jurgen Klinsmann, the USSF replaced him last November with Arena, the American coach from 1998-2006. The team revived with home wins over Honduras and Trinidad last spring and draws at Panama and Mexico. But the 2-0 defeat to Costa Rica in New Jersey at the start of Labor Day weekend proved one hurdle too many to overcome.
USSF President Sunil Gulati said the result felt unreal. The federation will begin the evaluation process Wednesday.
"It's a huge disappointment for everybody: for players, for the staff, for coaches, for the federation," Gulati said. "It's not good enough, obviously. In some sense, 2022 starts tomorrow for us."