By Michael Lewis
Years ago at one of the six World Cups we covered together, Filip Bondy made a stunning statement:
“You know, someday, the U.S. isn’t going to qualify for a World Cup.”
Then a sports columnist with the New York Daily News, Bondy got no argument from me. I had covered and done enough research on the U.S. national team and World Cups to know even the best international sides on the planet, including the likes of Italy, England and France don’t book a spot into soccer’s promised land.
There are so many surprises, bumps and land mines along the way.
I just didn’t think we’d see it in our lifeline.
In the key 2018 World Cup qualifier at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J. on Sept. 1, 2017 — the first WCQ in the metropolitan area — the Americans got their collective heads handed to them by Costa Rica in a 2-0 defeat.
Usually that score has been associated with a home win over Mexico, usually in Columbus, Ohio.
Sometime during the second half, I turned to Bondy and reminded him what he had said many years ago, that this might be the time when the U.S. didn’t qualify. He agreed.
No, the U.S. was not bounced from contention from Russia 2018 that Friday night, but it set the table for the absolute failure in Trinidad & Tobago on Oct. 10, a 2-1 loss.
With the 9:45 p.m. deadline for Newsday approaching quickly afterwards, I sat in the Bruce Arena press conference and wrote down the most important quotes. While the Costa Rican coach gave his press conference, I placed Arena’s words into my story, assuming that I would not get a player during the mixed zone. I sent the story in at 9:29 p.m., telling the desk that I would be trying to get a player. It was like money in the bank for the paper.
As the clock ticked down to zero hour, the USA players walked dejectedly out of their locker room. I managed to get my voice recorder into a scrum around U.S. captain Michael Bradley to get some quotes. With time running out, I went to a corner of the main floor, realizing I was going to get my pants dirty but they could be cleaned easy enough — and plugged in Bradley’s quotes while editing out a couple from Arena.
The story was sent in at 9:44 p.m., with a minute to spare.
My story would never win a Pulitzer, but it got to the point quickly. Here are its opening four paragraphs:
HARRISON, N.J. — The U.S. national team walked off the Red Bull Arena field stunned, bewildered and frustrated Friday night.
And for good reason as the Americans suffered a numbing and rare home World Cup qualifying defeat to Costa Rica, 2-0.
For only the fourth time in 32 years, the United States lost a home qualifier, and as it turned out, the first World Cup game ever in the metropolitan area. The red, white and blue also dropped a 1-0 decision to the Ticos in 1985, a 3-2 loss to Honduras in 2001 and a 2-1 setback to Mexico last year.
“We obviously didn’t play well tonight,” U.S. coach Bruce Arena said. “We didn’t make any plays that mattered. We were outplayed in most positions on the field and made critical errors. We didn’t have a good night. Give Costa Rica credit. I thought they outplayed us.”
And one last thing. Psst! Don’t tell this to anyone at U.S. Soccer, but I have attended and covered the last four home qualifying defeats – 1-0 to the Ticos in Torrance, Calif. (1985), a 3-2 setback to Honduras in Washington, D.C. (2001), a 2-1 loss to Mexico in Columbus (2016) and of course, now this.
On the other hand, it should be noted that I have been at every game or event in which the U.S. has qualified for a World Cup – 1990, 1994 (when the U.S. was named hosts in Switzerland), 1998, 2002, 2006 and 2010.
No, I was not in Couva, Trinidad for that debacle. But ahem, the next time the U.S. is on the cusp of qualifying for a World Cup, perhaps U.S. Soccer should make sure yours truly attends the match. Just a thought.