COUVA, Trinidad — Standing in the stadium tunnel near the U.S. locker room after the Collapse in Couva, captain Michael Bradley was asked over and over what went wrong.
How had the United States, a regional power that had made seven straight World Cup appearances, failed to qualify for next year’s tournament?
What led to the Americans’ stunning, crushing, almost farcical 2-1 loss to already eliminated Trinidad and Tobago that caused them to tumble to fifth in the six-nation final round of the North and Central American and Caribbean region.
A year of defensive breakdowns under two coaching staffs did in the U.S., which finished with three wins, three losses and four ties.
“We like to hang our hat on the fact that we outwork teams and we press teams,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “They won a lot of second balls tonight and put us under pressure.”
A relentless work ethic the Americans relied on for years was absent too often.
“You can’t go and score four, five goals every game. We have to be able to be hard to play against,” forward Jozy Altidore said. “We weren’t hard enough to play against too many times on these nights.”
In this cycle, the Americans not only lost their first home qualifier since 2002, they lost two home games in a qualifying cycle for the first time since 1957 during their 40-year absence from soccer’s top event.
“When you lose the first two games and you drop points on too many days, your margin for error goes away, and so you know you’re at the mercy of a night like this, where everything possible goes against you, both here and in the two other games,” Bradley said. “When we start the hex poorly, when we don’t take the points that we should on some other days, then you leave open the chance on the last day this can happen.”
Bradley is 30 and may not play in another World Cup. Howard (38) and Clint Dempsey (34) will never again appear on soccer’s biggest stage.
“If I said disappointment, it would be…