The result in Trinidad and Tobago completed a slow-starting and, ultimately, devastating campaign for the United States. The path through qualifying had been full of pivotal moments; the team switched coaches after losing its first two qualifiers of the final round, firing Jurgen Klinsmann and rehiring Bruce Arena for a second stint leading the team. The Americans then appeared to find their footing, only to stumble again with a home loss to Costa Rica in September that left them on the World Cup bubble.
A 4-0 win over Panama on Friday helped to keep Arena and his team in control of their qualification fate, but an uncharacteristically listless first half on Tuesday put them back on perilous footing. The Americans mustered the first chance of the game, a shot by Jozy Altidore that sailed over the crossbar in the seventh minute, and then it all went wrong.
Trinidad and Tobago forward Shahdon Winchester and United States defender Omar Gonzalez converged on a looping cross in the area in the 17th minute, turning a hopeful ball into a knuckling deflection that sailed over Tim Howard, who was caught off his line.
Twenty minutes later, Trinidad and Tobago right back Alvin Jones, sauntering up the right side and looking for an option, realized he had no pressure and decided to shoot instead — a rocket from nearly 35 yards that screamed past Howard. The tiny crowd that deigned to show up roared again.
The Americans had lost control of their destiny, and suddenly needed help to save them. Christian Pulisic grabbed a goal back less than 90 seconds into the second half, and the press for a tie — which would have been good enough to clinch qualification — was on.
It never came, and despite hitting the post in the final minutes — one of several late chances that would have meant survival — the goal never came, and the Americans were out.
“You either qualify for the World Cup or you don’t,” midfielder Michael Bradley, the United States captain, said Monday. “There’s no extra points for how you qualify. There’s no extra points for even qualifying first, or second, or third.”