Okay, so here's some good news. We're now used to the fact that the United States has no involvement in this World Cup and the tournament isn’t worse off because of it.
The other reason for cheer is that thanks to a series of factors including a reworking of the selection process, the Americans will probably never miss out on a World Cup again.
Now for the bad news. The World Cup’s opening portion has shown us a few things, but from a domestic perspective it has proved that the United States' failure to get to Russia this summer was even worse than we thought.
That’s right, worse than we realized on that shocking October night in Couva, Trinidad and Tobago, when missing out on soccer’s showcase became reality.
When you play in the CONCACAF region, one of the most forgiving and poorly stocked of all FIFA’s confederations, it is tougher for a serious soccer nation – and yes, the United States is one of those – not to qualify than it is to make it. Given the kick in the butt this setback has proved, it's hard to see the U.S. getting refused entry to the party again in 2022.
Then you have 2026, in which the Americans (plus Canada and Mexico) will have a guaranteed spot as the hosts. From then on, the World Cup will have expanded to 48 teams, with possible future expansion on the way.
That means that up to six teams from CONCACAF would reach the tournament – the equivalent of writing an invitation and handing it directly to the U.S. team.
But they didn’t make it this time, and as the games play out in Moscow and beyond, we are seeing just how sad that really is. The teams here at their expense aren't world beaters. Not even close.
Remember, that while the U.S. only needed to finish in the top three in CONCACAF to be sure of a World Cup spot, even a fourth-place finish would have given it a final chance at redemption through a playoff. That is what happened to Honduras, which then came unstuck against Australia.
Australia is here because of that and regarded as a tournament weakling, though the team earned some credit in a courageous 2-1 defeat to France. The Socceroos have a cool nickname but not much else going for them, and it would be a huge surprise to see them get of the group.
Finishing above Honduras in CONCACAF was Panama, which rightly celebrated making its first World Cup with a joyous celebrations. Just one game in, Panama's campaign already feels doomed after being totally outplayed by Belgium. Unless it turns things around with an upset against England, it will be booking plane tickets home before too long.
Ahead of the Panamaians, finishing second in CONCACAF, was Costa Rica, who outplayed the U.S. twice in qualification. One was a 4-0 trouncing that ended Jurgen Klinsmann’s doomed reign and the other was a 2-0 victory at Red Bull Arena that was the catalyst for the late campaign dip that ultimately pushed the Americans out of the field for Russia.
Here, however, Costa Rica looks to be a long way removed from the entertaining upstart that reached the quarterfinal in 2014, beating Uruguay, Italy and Greecebefore narrowly falling to the Netherlands on penalty kicks. It lost to Serbia, a solid but unspectacular member of the World Cup’s European contingent, and probably needs to get something out of its clash with Brazil to stay alive. Good luck with that.
All of which means that any of the spots that the U.S. could (and should) have collected are also-rans who are making up the numbers. The gap between the U.S. and its regional rivals wasn’t huge, but was big enough to have the squad watching television this summer. The chasm between those teams and the best of the rest, is monumental.
But what about Mexico, I hear you cry?
Sure, CONCACAF’s best team made a sensational start to the tournament by beating world champion Germany and now deserve to be considered among a list of genuine contenders to win it all.
The U.S. showed no sign of being on a par with Mexico through the CONCACAF campaign, losing at home to El Tri in Columbus to kick off the final round before salvaging a hard-fought point on the road thanks to Michael Bradley's audacious long-range chip.
Whatever success Mexico has in this tournament is its alone. The U.S. doesn’t get to bask in reflected glory.
Now, of course the American plight is not a forlorn one. Who knows how things might look in 2022 with a team of built around emerging youngsters and the other-worldly skills of Christian Pulisic.
The U.S. didn't’t become a complete no-hoper overnight, and there are plenty of teams who miss out on a tournament and benefit strongly from the experience.
Being a long way from the World Cup – and a long way off the pace - is not a disaster, but it is not something to be swept away flippantly.
The rebuilding job is no joke, and it’s even bigger than we thought.