US miss out on World Cup while Messi spares Argentina blushes
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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 in even more astonishing fashion.
Needing only a tie and confident of victory against the world's 99th-ranked team, the US were 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 started the collapse.
Gonzalez casually tried to clear Alvin Jones' cross and sent it looping from 15 yards over the outstretched right arm of Tim Howard. Jones doubled the deal in the 37th minute with a 35-yard strike.
Christian Pulisic, the Americans' rising 19-year-old star, scored in the 47th minute, giving the US hope.
Clint Dempsey, at 34 trying to make it to a fourth World Cup, entered at the start of the second half and was denied by goalkeeper Adrian Foncette's leaping save in the 69th and hit a post from 22 yards in the 77th. Bobby Wood's header in the 88th was sent wide by Foncette.
Even a defeat could have earned a berth, but only if Panama and Honduras both lost. And if the US and only one of those rivals were beaten, the Americans would have finished fourth and advanced to a playoff next month against Australia. Both Panama and Honduras won their matches, ending the American march toward Russia.
"It's a blemish for us," coach Bruce Arena said. "We should not be staying home for this World Cup and I take the responsibility for that."
The US entered their final qualifier with a berth uncertain for the first time since 1989. Home losses to Mexico last November and Costa Rica caused the US Soccer Federation to fire Jurgen Klinsmann and bring back Arena, the US coach from 1998-2006. But after a loss to Costa Rica in New Jersey last month, there was little margin for error.
Shocked American players slumped on the bench, and center back Matt Besler sat on the field after the final whistle as Panama's game ended and then Costa Rica's. Dejected US players filed into their locker rooms with blank looks.
"You can go around in circles a million times over again, but the reality is that it was all there for us and we have nobody to blame but ourselves," US captain Michael Bradley said.
A happy surprise for Argentina
While the US were tapped to win, Argentina were on the brink of being eliminated from World Cup qualifying for the first time in almost five decades when they took to the pitch on Tuesday. But when it really mattered and when the pressure was most intense, Lionel Messi delivered for his home country.
Messi scored all three goals in Argentina's comeback 3-1 victory Tuesday at Ecuador - overcoming the thin air in the Andes and propelling his team to a spot in the World Cup.
"It would've been crazy if Argentina didn't play the World Cup," Messi said. "This is what we came for. And on top of that we started behind. Luckily, we could react quickly and take the lead."
Messi said the Argentina squad "will change, will grow a lot, will be stronger after this."
But there's still work to do for Argentina, the two-time champions who lost the final three years ago to Germany 1-0.
Messi has yet to hoist a major trophy for his country of birth, a contrast to the laurels he's brought Barcelona.
He'll turn 31 during the World Cup in Russia, so this may be his last chance.
"Messi does not owe Argentina a World Cup, but rather football owes him a World Cup," Argentine coach Jorge Sampaoli said.
(FRANCE 24 with AP)