CLEVELAND — Nearly two years ago, the U.S. men’s soccer team was dealt its most devastating loss in three decades, absorbing an impossible-to-imagine setback that shattered an entire program.
The Americans can soon get some payback, though with much less at stake.
Coming off a shutout of an inferior Guyana team in its CONCACAF Gold Cup opener, the U.S. faces Trinidad and Tobago for the first time Saturday since Oct. 10, 2017, when the Soca Warriors stunned the Americans 2-1 and ended their streak of seven World Cup appearances.
The embarrassing defeat still resonates within in U.S. soccer circles and epitomizes the beauty and cruelty of the international game. The U.S. only needed a tie against the world’s 99th ranked team, which had nothing on the line, but failed in spectacular fashion before a sparse crowd that watched American soccer dealt a wound that’s still healing.
The U.S. squad became an instant punchline for pundits. The colossal defeat also led to a slow, seismic overhaul of the men’s program, which has been overshadowed for decades by the powerful U.S. women, three-time World Cup champions who are currently feasting in France on all their opponents.
But while many U.S. soccer fans want revenge for that soggy night in Couva, Trinidad, two years ago, this group of U.S. players is determined to look forward. There’s nothing they can do to change the past.
“You look at how many of these guys were paying that day in Trinidad, not a ton,” U.S. midfielder Wil Trapp said when asked if revenge was a motivator. “For us, as a federation, there is a lot bit of that angle. But for us as players, it’s about winning the game. Period.”
Following 18 straight exhibitions, the U.S. played its first competitive match in 20 months and dominated from the start Tuesday in St. Paul, Minnesota in romping 4-0 over tiny Guyana, ranked No. 177 worldwide.
Tyler Boyd scored his first two goals after switching affiliation from New Zealand last month, the U.S. got a lucky bounce for another score and the Americans showed signs of improvement in new coach Gregg Berhalter’s system, which places a premium on possession.
After disappointing losses to Venezuela and Jamaica in June friendlies, Berhalter wasn’t sure what to expect from his young squad, which includes only six players who were in Trinidad two years ago.
Following the easy win, Berhalter made a point of not getting carried away with a result that improved the U.S. to 33 wins, one loss and four draws in the Gold Cup group stage.
“A decent starting point,” he said. “Not much more than that.”
Michael Bradley, restored to captain for the first time under Berhalter, echoed his coach in keeping the win in perspective.
“We’re not going to go overboard because it was a game we should win and we did win,” Bradley said. “We handled things in a pretty solid way. We scored some good goals, we didn’t give away a ton defensively and we’ll continue to get better and continue to build as the tournament goes on. That’s the most important thing.”
Playing on the home field of the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, the Americans figure to get a much stiffer test from Trinidad and Tobago. The Soca Warriors lost their Group D opener 2-0 to Panama and need points to have any hopes of advancing.
The on-field rivalry between the U.S. and T&T extends back to 1989. The island nation needed only a draw with the U.S. to qualify for the 1990 World Cup but were beaten 1-0 before an overflow crowd of 25,000 in the Trinidad’s national stadium.
There won’t be nearly as much on the line this time for either squad.
Bradley said this group of Americans can’t worry about any history other than their own.
“Totally different team,” he said. “I’m not sure on the inside of the group it carries a whole lot of weight.”