USMNT faces Trinidad and Tobago focused on the opportunity, not the past

AUSTIN, Texas – It’s been more than six years since the United States men’s national team hit rock bottom with a stunning defeat against Trinidad and Tobago that prevented the Americans from qualifying for a World Cup for the first time in more than three decades.

In almost every way, the program has moved on.

The USMNT returned to the biggest event in sports last year, going undefeated in group play and reaching the second round. They played T&T twice during the 2022 World Cup cycle and one since, winning the three games by a combined 19-0 margin. Just two members of coach Gregg Berhalter’s current 23-man squad had even played for the national team before October 2017. Just one — veteran defender Tim Ream — was actually in uniform in Couva, Trinidad on that fateful night.

The failure still will never be fully forgotten when these nations meet, which they’ll do here Thursday (kickoff at 8:07 p.m. ET) in the opening leg of the two-match CONCACAF Nations League quarterfinals — games that double as qualification for next summer’s U.S.-hosted Copa America. (The Americans will travel to the twin-island Caribbean country for the first time since 2017 for Monday’s decider in Port of Spain.)

“I hope it’s always still in our minds,” said Berhalter, who took the helm of the USMNT in 2018 before being reupped last June. “In my opinion, it’s not about ignoring that. It’s about embracing it, and leaning into it.”

Mostly, though, it’s about learning from it. The U.S. men used the qualifying debacle to start fresh. Program legends like DaMarcus Beasley, Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard were replaced by a new generation of young stars. Midfielders Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie made their international debuts as teenagers in a friendly draw against Portugal the following month.

“On the back of getting beat by Trinidad, not qualifying for the World Cup, it gave a lot of the guys — myself included — the opportunity to be called up in the early stages in our careers,” left back Antonee “Jedi” Robinson said on Wednesday. “I’m forever grateful for that.”

Berhalter built his young squad around Adams, McKennie and star forward Christian Pulisic. But he also reconstructed the team-first culture of the USMNT, a longtime strength that had fallen apart under Jurgen Klinsmann and Bruce Arena. That process continues. Before the team trained in Austin on Wednesday, Berhalter invited National Soccer Hall of Famer Paul Caligiuri to address the group. It was Caligiuri’s goal in Trinidad in 1989 that kicked off the modern history of American soccer by sending the U.S. back to the World Cup for the first time in 40 years. It’s still known as “The shot heard ’round the world.” 

“‘You guys are the best team we’ve ever had,” Caligiuri said he told the players. “‘It seems to me that you guys enjoy playing, and you enjoy playing for each other.’ And that’s the recipe for success.”

To Caligiuri, the Soca Warriors will never be just another opponent. Not only did his famous goal send the Americans back the World Cup, it also denied T&T its first trip. (The country eventually qualified for the World Cup, in 2006, but hasn’t been back since.) “They follow it up by defeating us and knocking us out of the World Cup, so now that’s kind of added fuel to the fire,” he said.

The loss delayed by four years the first World Cup experience for McKennie, Pulisic, Ream and so many others. Some never got there at all.  That’s part of the USMNT’s collective history, and that’s OK. In a strange way, it made getting back to soccer’s preeminent event last year that much more special.  

“Just like we can embrace the good stuff, we also have to embrace the bad stuff.” Berhalter said. “It was a great learning moment for us.”

Shocking results can always happen in a low-scoring game of mistakes. Four-time titlist Italy missed the last two World Cups but won the European Championship in-between. Nobody could’ve foreseen Greece’s triumph at the Euros in 2004, or Leicester City winning the Premier League in 2016. What’s for certain is that this U.S. team won’t ever take beating T&T — or any other foe — for granted. 

“We don’t want that to happen again,” McKennie said. “That’s why we come out here, we prepare, we push each other, we hold each other accountable.”

Knowing the history isn’t the same as being burdened by it, though.  The focus for this generation is firmly on the future. 

“It’s in the back of our minds, but I don’t think we need any more extra motivation,” Robinson said of the opportunity these two November games present. “The fact that it’s Trinidad, it could be anyone. 

“We just want to win.”

Doug McIntyre is a soccer writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports and he has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.

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