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Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis

March 27, 2016
History lesson: the last time the USA lost 2 home World Cup qualifiers (1985 and 2001)

Bruce Arena, when he coached the Red Bulls, directed the U.S. national team when it last lost a WCQ in 2001. The team rebounded a little more than a month later to clinch a spot in the 2002 World Cup.
Bruce Arena, when he coached the Red Bulls, directed the U.S. national team when it last lost a WCQ in 2001. The team rebounded a little more than a month later to clinch a spot in the 2002 World Cup.
By Michael Lewis Editor

Over the past 35 years, the United States has lost only two World Cup qualifying matches at home.

The Americans were eliminated from contention for the 1986 in the final game of the CONCACAF semifinal round on May 31, 1985 via a 1-0 loss to Costa Rica. That was the last time the USA failed to reach the hexagonal.

The red, white and blue also dropped a 3-2 decision to Honduras on Sept. 1, 2001 but the team rebounded to qualify for the 2002 World Cup with a win over Jamaica a little more than a month later.

As it turns out, I was among only a handful of writers (perhaps one of only two or three) who attended both matches.

Who knows what will transpire against Guatemala in Columbus, Ohio on Tuesday night? In wake of Friday night's 2-0 defeat, there are many worrisome USA supporters out there because a loss would put in the Americans in a sorry state to get out of the semifinal round. The best tonic for the Americans would be a big win to silence its critics, at least for now.

Here are both my stories from the last two times the USA lost those two home World Cup qualifiers.

Costa Rica 1, USA 0

TORRANCE, Calif. -- Once again the great American dream of playing in a World Cup turned into a nightmare for the U.S. national team.

The dream ended on May 31, 1985 on a football field at El Camino College, where Costa Rica extinguished the United States' hopes, recording a 1-0 victory in the CONCACAF Group 2 qualifying match.

The United States needed a tie or victory to advance, but Evaristo Coronado's goal, a little luck and some strategic late-game delaying tactics helped boost Costa Rica into the third and final qualifying round with Canada and Honduras. That round-robin series probably will be played in the late summer.

For Costa Rica, it was a major victory after a major overhaul of its national team. After defeating and tying Trinidad & Tobago in two previous matches, Costa Rica fired its coach and replaced most of the team, bringing in a professional club -- Alajuelense to take its place.

For the United States, it was just another bitter ending to another botched World Cup effort. The Americans will be spectators at the world's greatest sporting spectacle for the ninth consecutive time. They last qualified in 1950.

U.S. captain Ricky Davis, who wasn't born then, took the loss particularly hard, sitting slumped at his locker, head in his hands, a half-hour after the game.

"We can't play much better than that," he said. "It's a shame. It wasn't supposed to end this way."

He wasn't alone.

"I'm kind of numb right now," defender Kevin Crow said. "The World Cup is a dream of mine. Now it's blown up in my face."

"It's a disaster," defender Dan Canter added. "To stumble like this, there are no excuses."

And U.S. coach Alkis Panagoulias offered none.

"Costa Rica beat us because of tradition," he said. "We outplayed them, but they did what they had to do. They scored on a break. They stalled. They played hard. They did everything they had to do.

"This is one of the most frustrating days in my life. The boys played their hearts out. I'm very frustrated, very frustrated . . . We created so many chances. The team deserved to win."

But it didn't as the United States was left with a loss dripping in irony:

* The United States was eliminated by the same country it had defeated at the 1984 Olympics, 3-0, its first Olympic victory in 60 years.

* The loss occurred exactly a year to the day to the start of the World Cup finals in Mexico.

* The loss turned out to be the United States' best performance in qualifying competition after sweeping Trinidad & Tobago, 1-0 and 2-1, and tying Costa Rica in the first game, 1-1.

What made the defeat more difficult to swallow was the way Costa Rica scored its goal before a crowd of 11,800. It was a lucky goal, similar to the ones the United States scored in earlier matches.

Jorge Chevez sent a free kick into the penalty area that goalkeeper Arnie Mausser tried to punch away. A Costa Rican player, however, headed the ball to the right side, where Coronado knocked it into the net at 34:50.

"The goalkeeper misjudged the distance," Panagoulias said. "He wanted to punch the ball. He should have caught the ball."

Crow said he was ready for it. "It was a fluky goal," he said. "I was going up for the ball with my man. I heard the keeper call for the ball and I bowed out."

Up to that point, the United States had dominated play and owned the better scoring opportunities.

About a minute into the game, Costa Rican goalkeeper Alejandro Gonzalez dove to his right to stop a 15-yard blast by forward Hugo Perez. At 24:25, Gonzalez barely beat forward John Kerr, Jr. to a loose ball in the penalty area. And in the 30th minute, Crow just missed a shot to the left of the goal.

"Even at halftime, I thought sooner or later one would go in," Davis said.

At least one appeared to go in.

It happened at 72:20, when Davis directed a free kick from the left of the penalty area to Canter at the top of the box. Canter then ripped a shot that appeared to have gone into the net, which rippled.

Referee John Meachem signaled a goal. Davis "took" the ball out of the net and walked toward midfield for an apparent Costa Rican kickoff while the visitors protested. Linesman Robert Allen brought it to the attention of Meachem, and no goal was the ruling. The Americans did not protest.

"It hit the outside part of the net," Canter said.

But if it was going to be ruled a goal, Canter wasn't about to complain. "In a game like this, you take what you can get," he said.

In this case, the United States walked away with nothing. The Americans continued to apply pressure, outshooting the Costa Ricans, 13-8, but they could not score before Meachem ended the game.

And so did the United States' chances of playing in Mexico, as another nail was hammered into outdoor soccer's coffin.

"I don't know where we go from there," Davis said. "There was our best chance to make it to the World Cup. We won't have another chance until 1990. Who knows where soccer in American will be by then? I do know this: Unless we develop a professional league for outdoors, we won't go anyplace. We can't do it with indoor soccer.

"We're playing for U.S. soccer -- for its reputation and recognition in our own country. It's another setback. We just missed a golden opportunity."

Honduras 3, USA 2

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The United States continued its tailspin in its quest to reach the 2002 World Cup, dropping a 3-2 loss to an inspired Honduras side on Sept. 1, 2001.

The Honduras match started at the ungodly hour of 10 a.m. in the morning -- a Saturday morning at RFK Stadium. A morning kickoff may sound like gamesmanship to try to get the upper hand. But with ESPN having the TV contract, it was the only time the game could be televised on the first college football Saturday of the season.

At times the Americans played as though they did not get a wake-up call, sleep walking on defense and missing a key penalty kick as well in a devastating loss.

The two flank defenders -- Steve Cherundolo (right) and David Regis (left) -- were the culprits defensively, allowing Honduran attackers loads of space and room to run down the wings as Guevara controlled the attack from the middle.

"The breakdowns defensively were atrocious," U.S. coach Bruce Arena said. "What an atrocious last 20 minutes of the first half and first 15 minutes of the second half."

Earnie Stewart, who performed well as the playmaker in Claudio Reyna’s absence and had both American scores, missed out on a hat-trick. His penalty kick was saved in the 43rd minute, which dramatically switched the game’s momentum.

Instead of enjoying a 2-1 halftime lead, the U.S. saw its fortunes sink early in the second half when Carlos Pavon converted a penalty of his own for the visitors before 54,032.

"It's not so much missing a penalty kick,” Stewart said. “It's when you look at your teammates and see that you've let them down."

Stewart gave the U.S. a 1-0 lead in the seventh minute after putting in a 15-yard rebound of a save by goalkeeper Noel Valladares. But Milton Nunez, a 5-5 speedster with a nose for the goal and who gave the defense headaches all game, equalized with the first of his two goals in the 28th minute.

Stewart had his big chance in the 43rd minute, after Milton Reyes took down Jovan Kirovski. Stewart, who recently had missed a PK for his Dutch club, NAC Breda, aimed for the lower right corner but a diving Valladares knocked it away.

"I made a choice at the last moment to hit it to the right. Stupid," he said. "The first thought they say is the best thought. At that moment we had some momentum going. Right after that we made a couple of mistakes in midfield, losing a couple of balls and they went on the run."

The U.S. was never the same as the Hondurans converted a penalty that referee Mauricio Navarro of Canada called after Jeff Agoos tripped Milton Reyes. Pavon beat keeper Brad Friedel to the lower left for a 2-1 lead in the 53rd minute.

"The penalty kick was a questionable call," Arena said. "It looked like a shoulder charge. It's just classic. The referee is going to have a make-up call."

The Honduran attackers didn't need any help, making the defense look as though it was playing in slow motion before Nunez struck from 12 yards in the 77th minute.

“Regis broke down on a bunch of plays,” Arena said. “He probably had some breakdowns that led to every goal. That needs to be addressed.”

Several qualifying streaks were snapped with the U.S.'s second consecutive loss, the first time they had happened since 1980. The Americans also saw their 19-game home qualifying unbeaten streak go down the drain, losing for the first time in 16 years since May, 1985. They also allowed three goals in a home match for the first time since 1960.

“It’s not the end of the world,” said Preki Radosavlijevic, who replaced Cherundolo in the 67th minute. “We have to regroup and try to get a result in Costa Rica. We can’t panic. We just have to play good soccer and win one or two more games.”
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