Russia may be thousands of miles away, but on Tuesday night, the U.S. national team was mere inches from getting there. Watch the replays, if you can stomach them. It’s technically true. Clint Dempsey hit the right post with a long-range bouncer in the second half down in Trinidad. If his shot goes in, the USA almost certainly escapes with a 2–2 draw and is on its way to the World Cup. The margins on Omar Gonzalez’s early own goal were even finer. The beleaguered center back couldn’t hit that slice again if given 100 chances.
And then there was the phantom goal scored by Panama in Tuesday’s 2–1 defeat of Costa Rica. Had the Guatemalan officials realized the ball never crossed the line, the USA at least would be on its way to a playoff against Australia — a few thousand miles in the opposite direction but still, mere inches away.
This is Sunil Gulati’s position — though Straus goes on to say considerably more, and much of it very good. Gulati just wants to talk about the unlucky inches. But here’s the important thing: if the Dempsey shot had gone in, or the Panama “goal” had been rightly waved off, then the USMNT would be headed to the World Cup despite either (a) having scraped a pathetic and frankly lucky draw against the worst side in CONCACAF, on the very last day of qualifying or (b) having failed to scrape said draw and finishing the whole Hexagonal tournament with a mere three wins.
Another way to put this point: That the inches went the way they did forces us to confront the true state of the USMNT, and the national men’s soccer establishment more generally. Had the luck gone our way, people would be saying “Well, that was ugly, but we’re going to Russia!” And that would merely have postponed a day of reckoning that this country’s soccer program desperately needs.
So in a way, I’m glad that things worked out the way they did. Also, next year I won’t have to cringe while watching Tim Howard commit a massive howler that sends us crashing out of the opening round.