All it needed to do was defeat or tie last-place Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday night.
Instead, the Americans played a shameful first half and lost, 2-1, before a few thousand observers in a lonely little stadium 25 miles from the capital.
Coupled with victories by Panama and Honduras, the Americans (3-4-3) fell to fifth place in the six-team regional competition.
“It’s a blemish for us,” Coach Bruce Arena said. “We should not be staying home for this World Cup.”
There were several ways for the U.S. team to qualify. The easiest was the simplest: Beat the worst team in the regional competition, an opponent that had won one of its previous nine games, and not have to worry one bit what unfolded in the other two group matches.
But in their most important qualifier in years, with a trip to Russia next summer on the line, the Americans flopped. They conceded an own goal and then a spectacular goal to fall behind 2-0 at halftime. Christian Pulisic, the teenage star, scored less than two minutes after intermission, but Trinidad and Tobago (2-8-0) kept its composure.
“I never thought that I would see this day,” defender Omar Gonzalez said. “It’s the worst day of my career. I am extremely sad right now. What was supposed to be a celebration is now … I don’t know what to say.”
Missing the World Cup seemed nearly impossible in a forgiving CONCACAF region dominated for decades by the United States and Mexico.
Panama (3-3-4) finished third behind Mexico and Costa Rica and qualified for the first time. Honduras (3-3-4) took fourth place and will face Australia in a two-leg playoff next month. (Panama’s superior goal differential edged out Honduras for the automatic berth.)
“It’s a huge disappointment,” U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati said. “Tonight is for getting over the shock a little bit. In some sense, 2022 starts tomorrow.”
After losing the first two matches in the final round under Jurgen Klinsmann, the Americans seemed back on track with Arena in charge.
A home defeat and away draw last month, however, tossed the campaign into peril. A 4-0 victory over Panama on Friday in Orlando left the Americans well-positioned to seal the berth against a young T&T squad.
If not with a victory, the United States was almost certain to advance with a draw. Or, in the last possible avenue, it could go through if Panama and Honduras stumbled.
The worst-case scenario was realized.
Troubling signs surfaced right away for the Americans, who played slowly and deliberately, as if they had not fully recovered from Friday’s match.
Trinidad and Tobago moved the ball well, gaining confidence with every touch.
In the 17th minute, Alvin Jones, who plays in the domestic league, swung a cross into the penalty area. Gonzalez was marking Shahdon Winchester in the box and had a beat on the ball. His casual clearing attempt, however, went flying off his left foot and looped over sprawling goalkeeper Tim Howard.
“It was the most unlucky goal ever for myself,” Gonzalez said, “one that will haunt me forever.”
Moments later, Gonzalez was fortunate he wasn’t called for a penalty kick.
Twenty minutes passed, and Jones found himself clear on the right side, some 35 yards from the target. It seemed like the proper moment to serve another dangerous cross. Instead, with no pressure on him or his team, he launched a shot with power and purpose.
Howard soared to his right but couldn’t stop the rocket from settling into the far side. Suddenly, a team with nothing to play for was two goals ahead of a team that had everything at stake.
The only consolation for Arena and Co. was that both Panama and Honduras were losing at home.
The Americans needed just 80 seconds to halve the deficit as Pulisic collected the ball beyond the top of the penalty area, took on a defender and pumped a 20-yard effort over Adrian Foncette for his ninth international goal in 20 appearances. They were halfway there, another goal from earning the point needed to stay clear of their pursuers.
Trinidad and Tobago was intent on stretching the lead, however. DeAndre Yedlin’s block deep in the box prevented a sure goal and Howard made a one-on-one save on Winchester.
Meantime, Honduras had come from behind to go ahead of Mexico.
In the 69th minute, Foncette made an outstanding save on Dempsey’s one-timer from the top of the box. The tension built to unbearable levels when, in the 77th minute, Clint Dempsey fired a shot off the base of the right post.
In the 88th, Bobby Wood’s header from close range was steered wide by Foncette. Time was running out on the Americans.
Word came from Panama City: Panama had scored. The Americans were about to miss the World Cup. Moments later, they were officially out.
“A lot of things went wrong tonight,” Howard said. “As a program, we have to get better.”