In the bowels of Ato Boldon Stadium in Couva, Trinidad, champagne and beer sat chilled in the U.S. locker room. All the men's national team had to do was tie Trinidad & Tobago on this humid October evening, and a trip to Russia for the 2018 World Cup was theirs.
There was every reason to plan a celebration. The U.S. had taken part in the previous seven World Cups, qualifying six times and hosting the event in 1994. Of the 23 players on the roster that night, 16 hadn't even been born when the U.S. last failed to qualify for a World Cup, in 1985. Plus, the U.S. was playing a T&T side that had already been eliminated, having lost eight of its nine matches in the final-round Hexagonal. In seven career road World Cup qualifiers against T&T, the U.S. had lost only once, and that was during the 2010 cycle, when its progression to the Hex had already been assured.
But then the first goal went in for T&T, another followed 20 minutes later and a furious second-half fight back from the U.S. fell short. Meanwhile, some 1,200 miles away in Panama, defender Roman Torres scored to put the Canaleros ahead against Costa Rica. When the final whistle blew in Couva, the U.S. staff hustled the champagne and beer out of the locker room. The celebration was not to be -- and neither was the trip to Russia.
The ensuing months have resulted in considerable soul-searching within the U.S. soccer community. ESPN FC spoke to 18 current and former players and staff associated with the program about what happened that night in Trinidad and how the past four years might have contributed to the breakdown. What has emerged from those conversations is a sense that the men's program has lost its identity.
For years, the U.S. was known for its strong mentality -- that win or lose, it was going to fight from the first minute to the last. There is consensus that this trait is not as ingrained as it once was, resulting in rampant inconsistency across performances.
"When we were in Trinidad, we needed better fighters. We didn't necessarily need better players," said one former U.S. international who asked not to be identified. "That's what we've lost. We've lost how to fight, how to battle to get results."
Tab Ramos, former U.S. assistant and current U-20 manager, echoed that sentiment. "After having been with U.S. Soccer after 30 years, it's disappointing to me that it seems that we've lost the fight for the last three or four years," he said.
According to former U.S. assistant Andi Herzog, he tried to warn Jurgen Klinsmann about this decline when the German coach was in charge from 2011 to 2016. As a coach from Europe, Herzog had always admired the U.S. mentality -- and he sensed it was slipping away.
"The last one or two years, you could already see a little bit of change in this area," Herzog said via telephone. "It's the first time this generation has a reputation they deserve because they played a great World Cup [in 2014]. We had a lot of success. It was the first time where the players were still making a lot of money. The generation before, maybe they were a little bit more fighting their ass off to get more and more success and a better reputation for the whole sport of soccer [in the U.S.]."
For some, the key to reinvigorating the fight is to send more players to Europe, where the level of competition is higher. That is certainly a piece to the puzzle, but it isn't a cure-all by any means. With MLS offering multimillion-dollar salaries for U.S. players to come home, as it did with Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore between 2013 and 2015, it can be nearly impossible for players to turn down those contracts.
That was by no means the only issue facing the U.S. team. One former U.S. player highlighted that there were disagreements among Klinsmann, Bradley and German-born Jermaine Jones about team tactics and how the midfield should function. Throughout Klinsmann's tenure, there was friction between domestic- and foreign-based players. One recurring theme was that the German-Americans were viewed as not being as committed to the cause as their teammates who grew up in the U.S. Whether that stigma was fair or not, it caused an undercurrent of discord. Jones declined to comment.
Fabian Johnson, one of the German-Americans on the team who enjoyed an impressive 2014 World Cup, denied that there was any kind of rift.
"I think [the divide] is just something made up from media or people who have a bad opinion on that," he said.
Others weren't as convinced.
"There was definitely a thought process that [the German-Americans] were great when the World Cup came around, but they didn't want to go down and fight in a game like Trinidad or in Honduras or Guatemala, the travel and that kind of stuff," the former U.S. international said. "A guy like Fabian Johnson -- in big games, in qualifiers -- at times, it just looked like he was going through the motions."
Johnson was famously sent home by Klinsmann following the CONCACAF Cup defeat to Mexico in 2015 -- and ahead of a friendly against Costa Rica. Johnson had begged out of the match, citing an injury, and Klinsmann became furious when it emerged that Johnson wasn't as hurt as he initially stated. But for some, that kind of accountability didn't happen often enough.
Klinsmann's style of man-management, an approach that was laid bare in a 2013 Sporting News article, remained an issue as the new cycle beckoned. Klinsmann often pushed his players to focus on their profession 24/7. Some pushed back. Then there was Klinsmann's habit of criticizing players in public for poor performances rather than owning up to his own failings. It was a style some dealt with better than others.
"Maybe some guys under Jurgen, they couldn't handle his bluntness," U.S. midfielder Alejandro Bedoya said. "Look, he threw me under the bus one game. What am I going to do, cry and whine about it? No. I know he threw me under the bus, and I know he knows he was wrong. He should own up to the fact that he shouldn't have played me as a No. 6 against Brazil. But it is what it is. So what? On to the next game. Some guys maybe can't handle it. It's a different mindset from player to player."
Klinsmann, through an intermediary, declined to be interviewed for this story.
Klinsmann's explanations of tactical instructions often left players unsure of what he wanted. One source indicated that sometimes Klinsmann's expectations of what his team was capable of understanding in terms of tactics were higher than reality.
"Jurgen's message was very confusing," said another source who asked not to be identified. "We didn't even know what the message was most of the time. I'll be honest with you: It was crazy."
There were also factors beyond Klinsmann's control that were chipping away at the team. The U-23 team twice failed to qualify for the Olympics during Klinsmann's tenure, but this was a symptom of something larger. From those groups of players, very few ended up having the kind of success at club level that enabled them to consistently challenge for minutes on the national team.
This was a critical piece, given that at the 2014 World Cup, the U.S. was the 13th-oldest team out of 32 teams in the tournament. Without enough new players coming through, the old guard wasn't being challenged for places, leading to an aging team. A few players, such as 19-year-old midfielder Christian Pulisic, did break through, but overall, there weren't enough prospects doing the same.
"Complacency is the worst thing you can possibly ever have if you want to reach the highest level of competition," the former U.S. international player said. "What you need is younger players coming through to force older players to keep their edge. When there was nobody pushing Jozy and nobody pushing Michael and nobody pushing Clint and nobody pushing Tim [Howard], it doesn't work."
As the 2018 cycle began, the team's inconsistency began to manifest itself with some poor results. Jamaica beat the U.S. in the semifinals of the 2015 Gold Cup, a result that Klinsmann more than once intimated was fixed. The U.S. later lost a World Cup qualifier to Guatemala, creating unneeded tension in the semifinal round of qualifying, though the U.S. ultimately got the results it needed.
At the conclusion of the semifinal round of qualifying, Klinsmann was hanging by a thread. ESPN.com reported that USSF president Sunil Gulati had already contacted Bruce Arena and Peter Vermes with the intention of replacing the manager. Arena detailed in his upcoming book, "What's Wrong With US?" that the decision had already been made to fire Klinsmann, but when USSF CEO and Secretary General Dan Flynn underwent heart-transplant surgery, the change was put on hold.
By the time the U.S. faced Costa Rica in the second match of the final round -- this in the wake of a 2-1 home loss to Mexico -- the American squad was deflated.
"They were just defeated guys that didn't really want to be there," one source said.
And they played like it. The U.S. was hammered 4-0. Klinsmann was relieved of his duties, and Arena was put in charge. Arena, who had coached the U.S. from 1998 to 2006, immediately set about trying to rebuild the psyche of the team. He also began a process of relying more heavily on domestic players.
"There was no question that Bruce came in to be the anti-Jurgen, do everything opposite of Jurgen," the former U.S. international player said.
At first, all seemed well. The U.S. went unbeaten in Arena's first 14 games as boss. The pinnacle was reached in a pair of June qualifiers, when the U.S. defeated T&T 2-0 and secured a 1-1 draw against Mexico at the Azteca. That put the Americans in third place, good enough at the time for the third and final automatic qualifying spot.
"I actually thought Arena did a great job of eradicating players that weren't bought in [to the team]," U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard said. "He did a great job of coming in from day one, speaking to people he knew to get a pulse of the team."
But team chemistry was something Arena grappled with throughout his brief second stint as manager. The U.S. squad composed mostly of domestic players triumphed at the Gold Cup in July, to which most countries sent their B-teams. But when the full team reconvened in September for a pair of World Cup qualifiers, Arena sensed something was off.
"We brought in five new players from the lineups that played in the Gold Cup, and we weren't close to being the same team," he said via telephone. "Those players probably weren't as fit as they needed to be in the beginning of September, and in all honesty, it was like the whole year, we never had enough time with the team."
Granted, chemistry is a vague term that often gets thrown out to explain why a team might be underperforming. But Howard was direct with his definition.
"Chemistry for me is about commitment," he said. "It's not about personalities. I think when people think about team chemistry, it's like one big powwow and everyone loves each other and hangs out. Chemistry is having one direct message from the manager -- 'This is the style we're going to play. This is what I expect of you as a player' -- and then going out and performing every single day."
The extent to which it was a factor against Costa Rica is difficult to quantify. The U.S. played poorly that night, with Howard conceding a goal on a tight-angled shot from Marco Ureña and Geoff Cameron gifting the Ticos a second. Four days later, the U.S. scraped a 1-1 draw in Honduras, and the path to the World Cup was seemingly clear, though the margin for error had shrunk even further. Four points ought to do it, but a win against Panama in Orlando, Florida, was mandatory.
When the players arrived in Florida in October, the atmosphere was tense but focused. Yet there was one player, Cameron, who was in a particularly foul mood. His error against Costa Rica, combined with a subsequent injury that limited him to one 90-minute stint for his club, Stoke City, just prior to the Panama match, had seen him fall out of favor with Arena.
"I told [Cameron] in advance that I didn't think he was fit playing Costa Rica," Arena said. "He didn't look sharp, and I wasn't planning on starting him against Panama. I made it clear. If he couldn't buy into that, he should stay home. He was well aware of what my plans were."
Cameron ultimately agreed to come but was dissatisfied with this role. More than one source indicated that Cameron's attitude was so bad that there was consideration given to sending him home, though Arena denied that this was the case.
"It goes with the territory," he said of dealing with unhappy players. "Not everyone is going to be an altar boy."
Cameron did not respond to multiple requests to be interviewed.
"What you need is younger players coming through to force older players to keep their edge. When there was nobody pushing Jozy and nobody pushing Michael and nobody pushing Clint and nobody pushing Tim [Howard], it doesn't work." Former U.S. international who asked not to be identified
Despite the situation with Cameron, Arena's decisions looked spot-on against Panama, as the U.S. thrashed the Canaleros 4-0. The Americans were not only back in third place, but also their goal differential was such that a draw in T&T would be enough. The hard work appeared to be done, though there was acknowledgement that the team couldn't relax yet.
"We have a great game against Panama, win 4-0, and as a team we don't take our foot off the gas," midfielder Paul Arriola said. "We get to Trinidad, and we're still very focused and constantly talking about it. We know it's not going to be easy."
Heading to Trinidad, Arena was faced with a few decisions in terms of his lineup. Previous fixture windows had seen Arena make considerable alterations from the first game in the fixture window to the second. Would he go that route again, or would he reward the group that performed so well against Panama? The U.S. had put a lot into the Panama match, but after checking the physical condition of the players, Arena opted for the latter. That meant that Bradley would be tasked with playing as the sole holding midfielder in support of Arriola, Pulisic and Darlington Nagbe. It was an approach in which the U.S. looked vulnerable at times in a home qualifier against T&T in June. Now Arena, intent on freeing up Pulisic, was going with that again, even though in prior road matches, a player such as Kellyn Acosta had lined up beside Bradley to provide more defensive support.
The team's preparation was hampered by the fact that part of the playing surface at the Ato Boldon Stadium was under water. The USSF's social media team later posted tweets highlighting the conditions with the hash tag #RiverToRussia, with pictures of U.S. players being carried across the water. Arena later lamented that the tweets "humiliated" the T&T football federation.
But Arriola is of the opinion that the conditions didn't alter anything about the U.S. approach.
"I don't think people understand how prepared we were," he said. "In my opinion, we were 100 percent prepared. We were set up to win the game. Before the game, warming up, everyone was concentrated, we were talking about it. We were going to go out, we were going to press, we were going to get the first goal. And in the game, it just didn't go like that."
Not at all. After surviving an early, wide-open look that Altidore squandered, the Soca Warriors looked like the sharper side. The U.S. simply couldn't get to them. The reasons for what went wrong are varied. Bedoya, from his spot on the bench, felt that the team wasn't following the game plan.
"There was complacency," he said. "You could see the way we were going about things. We had a game plan, and we didn't really stick to that game plan. We were losing easy balls in the middle of the field when we wanted to attack them out wide and that stuff. So it felt like maybe there was a little bit of complacency, a little bit of arrogance about our style that we just needed to get out there and get the job done."
Arriola pointed to a different culprit: Fatigue.
"We weren't even able to think about the game plan because we were just a step slower than Trinidad," he said. "I think it's very inaccurate to say that we relaxed, especially me being there and knowing I 100 percent wasn't relaxed. I was extremely focused. One thing I will tell you is I was extremely fatigued. I was tired. I was still trying to recover from the Panama game, which is why I went from having probably the best game with a U.S. shirt on to having the worst game with a U.S. shirt on against Trinidad. I just couldn't [get going]. I was trying to, but my legs just weren't responding to my mind, especially on a field like that."
Arena doesn't buy that explanation, saying that the data from the medical staff and his conversations with players indicated everyone was ready to go.
That said, as the first half progressed, the performance caused frustration and alarm on the U.S. bench. The inability to close opponents down saw T&T gain more of a foothold in the match. It was a game crying out for more support in the center of midfield, where someone such as Bedoya would apply the necessary grit.
"Some players, I feel like that type of game wasn't made out for them," Bedoya said. "That's how it is. That's not their style, that's not what it is. It was very frustrating to sit on the bench and feel helpless because I knew that I could have prevented this pass from happening, that play from going on."
Sure enough, an own goal by Omar Gonzalez and a long-range blast from T&T's Alvin Jones put the U.S. in an 0-2 hole. No one, it seemed, from Howard in goal to Bradley in midfield to Altidore up top, was playing well.
Arena attempted to alter the course of the match -- starting with his halftime talk.
"We got after them," he said. "The first goal is an accident. I don't know how else you describe it. The second goal, give the player credit, maybe Tim is a little better and gets a hand on it. The second goal, our heads dropped, so we had to wake these guys up at halftime and get them going."
Arena brought on Dempsey for Arriola, and the U.S. quickly pulled one back through Pulisic. But the equalizer the team needed never came. Dempsey hit the post late; a header from Bobby Wood was saved.
Meanwhile, results elsewhere, after looking positive for the Americans for most of the night, took a drastic turn for the worse. Honduras and Panama were both winning their matches. Word soon trickled down to the U.S. bench what was happening. And if there was any doubt, one only had to look at the glum faces of the USSF executives. As one USSF staffer sitting on the bench put it, "I didn't know what the scores were, but I was like, 'This is not good.'"
When the final whistle blew, the magnitude of the U.S. team's failure hit home. Gonzalez later called it "the worst night of my life." In the locker room, the U.S. players and staff grappled with what had taken place.
"Disbelief, just complete disbelief. Very quiet," then-U.S. assistant Dave Sarachan said. "Guys were upset, crying. It was something I hope I never have to experience again in my coaching career."
"I didn't know what to do, didn't know what to feel," Arriola said. "It was kind of one of those things where you didn't want to leave the locker room and face what had really happened. You walk through the media understanding that you were part of the team that didn't qualify for the World Cup. You walk onto the bus, and you don't want to load your phone because you don't want to see anything. You don't want to see text messages."
The plane ride home was no different.
"There wasn't much said," defender Tim Ream said. "There were tears in the airport the next morning, as we all went our separate ways."
The explanations since then have run the gamut. Arena has spoken about the team's lack of chemistry, but should that have been enough to cost the U.S. this game? Arena also hailed the team's leaders and players for being "a good group to work with." Was it a compatibility issue? The team looked totally in sync against Panama.
Pulisic, for one, doesn't believe that chemistry was a primary reason for the performance.
"I think we put ourselves in a good spot [heading into the last game], and we made a mistake in the final game. That's how it went," he said. "We weren't focused. We weren't ready to come out and finish the job. That's really all there was.
"It's hard to say exactly what went wrong -- a lot of things."
There were no German-Americans to blame, either, though the absence of defender John Brooks to injury didn't help. There have also been "just one of those nights" type of explanations. But there were six other nights during qualifying when the U.S. failed to secure maximum points.
"We were very close to putting together a very good year, so all the criticism and all that other kind of crap, it's for people that don't know, and what are you going to do?" Arena said. "That's life."
The reality is there is ample blame to go around. While Arena is fond of digs at those who second-guess his decisions, it's his job to get them right, and he didn't. The players will need to look at themselves and ask why they didn't perform, not only in Couva but in places such as Panama City and San Pedro Sula and Harrison, New Jersey. The Federation will look back and wonder why it stuck with Klinsmann for as long as it did, knowing full well his limitations.
For now, the U.S. men's program is still in a state of upheaval. Arena resigned a few days after the game against T&T, with Sarachan taking over on an interim basis. The promised reforms by new USSF president Carlos Cordeiro have yet to materialize, with the newly created GM position -- intended to add more technical expertise to the USSF hierarchy -- yet to be filled. Former U.S. national player Earnie Stewart has emerged as the leading candidate. Even then, there's no guarantee that the GM will be given the responsibility needed to make significant changes.
Nonetheless, hope can be found where it usually is: in a new crop of players.
"I think we have a very good new generation of players who have gotten results on the world stage by recognizing that they need to fight on the field for every minute," Ramos said. "I think that's going to be an advantage moving forward."
Ramos highlighted the likes of Schalke's Weston McKennie, the New York Red Bulls' Tyler Adams, Manchester City's Erik Palmer-Brown and Tottenham's Cameron Carter-Vickers. Chelsea's Matt Miazga, on loan with Vitesse this season, has the looks of a mainstay going forward. Pulisic will be at the heart of it.
"I want to be in the World Cup one day," Pulisic said. "It's my biggest dream as a soccer player. I always wanted to play in the World Cup. You can imagine how I feel about that."