What do Costa Rica, Panama early exits say about US soccer?
MOSCOW — Costa Rica and Panama were overwhelmed at the World Cup, both going two and out.
What does that say about the United States, which didn’t even make it to soccer’s showcase?
“It’s an extra twist of the knife,” said former U.S. forward Taylor Twellman, now ESPN’s lead soccer analyst. “It’s another reminder that the failure to qualify is an absolute debacle.”
Beaten 3-0 by Belgium in its opener, Panama gave up five goals in the first half Sunday in a 6-1 loss to England. Costa Rica was defeated 1-0 by Serbia and 2-0 by Brazil.
Mexico is in good position to advance to the round of 16 after victories over defending champion Germany and South Korea. While the North and Central American and Caribbean region had three nations in the knockout rounds four years ago, this will be CONCACAF’s first World Cup since 2006 with fewer than two.
“Mexico is a good, solid team. So is Costa Rica. Panama is an inferior team in the competition,” former U.S. coach Bruce Arena said. “I feel strongly that we should have been the third team, but we have no one to blame but ourselves.”
The U.S. qualified for seven straight World Cups and advanced to the knockout round four times during that streak before missing this year’s tournament.
Costa Rica defeated the U.S. twice in qualifying, a 4-0 home rout in November 2016 that caused the U.S. Soccer Federation to fire coach Jurgen Klinsmann and bring back Arena, and a 2-0 win in New Jersey last September.
Panama rallied with a late first-half goal to tie the U.S. at home in March 2017, and the Americans won 4-0 in Florida last October. The U.S. then lost 2-1 at Trinidad and Tobago, when only a tie was needed to qualify. The Americans finished fifth in the six-nation final round, falling below Honduras, which lost a playoff to Australia.
“If the United States had qualified, we would have done much better than Costa Rica and Panama,” said Steve Sampson, the U.S. coach from 1995-98. “I know that Panama finished ahead of the United States in the qualification phase, but with all the previous experience the United States would have, I’ve got to believe and I do believe that they would have done much better than Costa Rica and Panama in this World Cup.”
Former U.S. goalkeeper Kasey Keller said the failure of the U.S. to qualify for the 2012 and 2016 Olympics was a sign of trouble to come.
“Our under-23s over an eight-year, 10-year period have not been as good as the rest of CONCACAF, and that’s eventually going to filter up to your national team, and it doesn’t surprise me that we had this struggle,” he said before adding: “Are we better than Panama? Of course we are.”
If Mexico moves on to the knockout rounds, which is likely, 13 of 24 CONCACAF teams (54 percent) will have reached the round of 16 since 1990: Mexico seven times, the U.S. four and Costa Rica twice.
“I think we have a long way to go,” CONCACAF President Victor Montagliani said. “We still rank behind only UEFA on CONMEBOL in terms of points per game in World Cups historically, but obviously now our fate in terms of a run is in the hands of Mexico.”
Arena said poor officiating in CONCACAF holds back the region and cited Egyptian referee Gehad Grisha’s decisions to award penalty kicks when Fidel Escobar and Roman Torres knocked over Jesse Lingard, and when Anibal Godoy wrestled Harry Kane to the ground. That led to a pair of successful spot kicks by Kane as England built a 5-0 lead.
“The things that happened today with Panama were typical of CONCACAF competition, but they’re never punished for it. In my view, the officiating hurts the progress of the region,” Arena said. “You’d have to be hit over the head with a sledgehammer for them to call a penalty kick in CONCACAF.”
Montagliani took Arena’s criticism in stride.
“That’s a bit of hyperbole from Bruce,” he said. “We’re always trying to improve refereeing. I think in this last qualifying, it’s the best I’ve seen it in a long time in CONCACAF. Obviously, spoken like a true coach, Bruce has always been griping about referees.”