World Cup qualifying: U.S. misses out, Argentina sneaks in thanks to Messi hat trick
Americans will be absent from tournament for first time since 1986
Twenty-eight years after one of the United States' most important victories came in stunning fashion at Trinidad to end a four-decade World Cup absence, the Americans' chances for the 2018 tournament in Russia ended on this island nation off the coast of Venezuela.
The U.S. was eliminated from World Cup contention Tuesday night, a shocking 2-1 loss to Trinidad and Tobago ending a run of seven straight American appearances at soccer's showcase.
'We let down an entire nation'
The Soca Warriors scored a pair of first-half goals, getting one off U.S. defender Omar Gonzalez, and the United States made too many other mistakes to recover. The Americans are out of the World Cup for the first time since 1986.
"We let down an entire nation today," Gonzalez said.
Shocked American players slumped on the bench, and Matt Besler sat on the field after the final whistle as Panama's game ended and then Costa Rica's. At the end, dejected U.S. players filed into their locker rooms with blank looks.
"We foolishly brought Trinidad into the game with the own goal," coach Bruce Arena said. "That was a big goal for Trinidad psychologically. That got them motivated."
Little margin for error
The U.S. entered its final qualifier with a berth uncertain for the first time since 1989. Home losses to Mexico last November and Costa Rica left the Americans little margin for error.
The 28th-ranked Americans needed merely a tie against 99th-ranked Trinidad, which lost its sixth straight qualifier last week. But the defeat — coupled with Honduras' come-from-behind 3-2 win over Mexico and Panama's 2-1 victory over Costa Rica on Ramon Torres' 88th-minute goal — dropped the Americans from third place into fifth in the six-nation final round of the North and Central American and Caribbean region.
Mexico and Costa Rica already had clinched berths, and Panama claimed the third and final automatic spot and will go the World Cup for the first time. Honduras will meet Australia in a two-game playoff next month for another spot at next year's 32-nation tournament.
Argentina sneaks in
Meanwhile, earlier on Tuesday, Lionel Messi's three goals lifted Argentina into the World Cup on the last day of South American qualifying, keeping the Albiceleste from missing out for the first time since 1970.
The two-time champions — and losing finalists three years ago in Brazil — rode Messi's hat trick in the thin air of the Andes and rallied for a 3-1 win over Ecuador, which took a surprising lead in the first minute.
"I told the group that Messi does not owe Argentina a World Cup, but rather football owes the world to him," Argentine coach Jorge Sampaoli said. "Argentina took a step forward, and in time we can be competitive."
The top four teams in South America get automatic berths to Russia. Brazil has 41 points and clinched months ago. The other three advancing Tuesday went in this order: Uruguay (31), Argentina (28) and Colombia (27).
Uruguay beat Bolivia 4-2, Argentina won 3-1, Colombia drew 1-1 with Peru and last-place Venezuela beat Paraguay 1-0.
Messi is simply willing Argentina to the World Cup! <a href="https://t.co/lG4VSSW80j">pic.twitter.com/lG4VSSW80j</a>—@goal
Peru (26) placed fifth and will keep alive its bid for a first World Cup appearance since 1982 after edging Chile for the South American spot in the inter-continental playoff next month against Oceania representative New Zealand.
On a dramatic last day of continental qualifying tournaments, six South American teams — separated by only four points over 17 matches — had shots at the World Cup entering play.
Chile and Paraguay missed out at the last moment. Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador were already out of contention.
Chile lost 3-0 to Brazil, the 12th straight unbeaten qualifying game for Brazil coach Tite.
Netherlands miss out
Several European teams also clinched World Cup appearances on Tuesday.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal are going to the World Cup and not by the risky playoff route this time. France also sealed its ticket to Russia on Tuesday after, like Portugal, needing a second chance in the playoffs to reach the 2010 and 2014 tournaments.
After runner-up and third-place finishes at those World Cups, the Netherlands will miss out in 2018 after finishing third in France's Group A, despite beating Sweden 2-0.
Portugal beat Switzerland 2-0 in a qualifying duel in Lisbon, to extend its winning streak to nine games and end a perfect Swiss record in Group B.
The European champion already had a superior goal difference and needed a win by any score to top the group.
France also was assured to advance with three points, and beat visiting Belarus 2-1.
Belgium had already qualified and completed an unbeaten Group H program beating Cyprus 4-0. The Belgians will be in the top-seeded pot for the Dec. 1 draw in Moscow.
The European playoffs draw — with Switzerland, Sweden and Greece completing the eight-team lineup — is made next Tuesday in Zurich.
Here's a look at the final round of European qualifying group games:
France will take one of the most talent-packed squads to Russia.
Antoine Griezmann scored and then created France's second goal just six minutes later, with Olivier Giroud giving the hosts a comfortable lead after 33 minutes. Just before halftime, Anton Saroka scored for Belarus to make for a tense second half.
France has been relatively untroubled throughout qualifying — and was not punished for a goalless draw against Luxembourg — but has dropped its level since being runner-up at Euro 2016.
Sweden needed to avoid a seven-goal rout in Amsterdam to advance to the playoffs, and allowed just a 2-0 loss to the Netherlands.
Arjen Robben scored in the first half from the penalty spot and then with a sweeping left-foot shot from outside the penalty area, in what he said was his final game for his country. Robben exits with 37 goals in 96 international games, including the 2010 World Cup final.
Luxembourg managed another draw, 1-1 at home to Bulgaria, to finish with six points in fifth place.
Cristiano Ronaldo was absent — still recovering from his injury in the Euro 2016 final — when Portugal lost its opening match in qualifying, 2-0 in Switzerland.
With the current world's best player restored, Portugal had to win nine straight to win the group. The task was finished at a vibrant Stadium Of Light, where the fans included Madonna and her son who is reportedly a youth trainee with host club Benfica.
Ronaldo did not add to his 15 goals on Tuesday, but an own-goal by Swiss defender Johan Djourou before halftime and a ninth in qualifying by AC Milan forward Andre Silva early in the second half were enough.
The Swiss must lift themselves for a two-leg playoff against Northern Ireland, Sweden, Ireland or Greece.
Hungary confirmed its third place by beating the Faeroe Islands 1-0, and Latvia beat Andorra 4-0.
Belgium won the group last month, as the first European team to qualify, and finished in style in Brussels against Cyprus.
Eden Hazard got two goals, his brother Thorgan also scored and substitute Romelu Lukaku got the fourth as Belgium tallied 43 in 10 games.
Greece needed to beat Gibraltar to finish runner-up and claim a playoff lifeline. A 4-0 win for the Euro 2004 champions meant Gibraltar ended with zero points and 47 conceded.
Third-placed Bosnia-Herzegovina was the only away team to win in Europe on Tuesday, beating Estonia 2-1.
Syria's hopes dashed by Australia
Millions of Syrians at home and abroad cheered, shouted and were ultimately left frustrated Tuesday as they watched their chance to qualify for their first ever World Cup soccer tournament end in disappointment.
The country's impressive showing had brought hope and a rare chance to celebrate among Syrians living with a brutal civil war that has killed nearly half a million people. The "Dream," as a Syrian TV announcer described it Tuesday, ended in a 2-1 extra-time loss to Australia.
President Bashar Assad, who has benefited from a Syria team thrust onto the world stage, saluted the players, known as the "Qasioun Eagles" after a mountain overlooking Damascus.
"You were heroes and drew smiles on the faces of all Syrians," Assad said in remarks carried on the presidency's Telegram page.
Tens of thousands of people had gathered in the Umayyad square in Damascus, seat of Assad's power, cheering and waving Syrian flags as they watched the game on giant screens.
"The Syrian team played in a mythical way. Although it lost the game, it has gained the respect of the entire world," 25-year-old Dima Al-Sawas said as she struggled to hold back tears.
Tim Cahill scores his 50th international goal to move Australia one step closer to the World Cup! <a href="https://t.co/DmvR9OYThY">pic.twitter.com/DmvR9OYThY</a>—@SportdecApp
The team has been on a remarkable run despite being forced to play all its games abroad. But in a reflection of the massive divisions among Syrians amid an ongoing 7-year war, the country's World Cup bid was not supported by many Syrians opposed to Assad, who accused him of exploiting the team.
After the match on social media, some cheered while others derided the team, largely seen as being controlled by the Syrian government.
Many among the opposition called it the "Assad Team" or the "Barrel Bomb" team, in reference to the helicopter-borne explosive barrels dropped on civilians that became a trademark of Assad's military during the war. Images of the players wearing T-shirts emblazoned with Assad's face at news conferences reinforced the image of a national team controlled by a dictator.
"Congratulations on the defeat of one of the most dangerous attempts by the criminal Assad to promote himself," tweeted opposition activist Osama Abu Zeid, an adviser to rebels fighting to topple Assad.