Assessing Failure: The Men’s Olympic Campaign
Here we go again. Despite all the positivity we have seen as young Americans play for teams like Barcelona, Juventus, and Chelsea and even getting a talent over England in Yunis Musah, the men’s side nearly perfect beginning to 2021 ends with slamming their head against the mat and getting a black eye. Let me start by saying this is a failure. How big of a failure and how much on impact it will really have is certainly up for debate, but this is a failure nonetheless. Anytime you start talking about double digit years or the number of Presidents since the last time something good happened, it is always a bad thing. How bad is it though? Let’s take a dive.
Let’s start from the biggest aspect of this failure, the casual soccer following perspective. The US played Northern Ireland earlier today, won 2-1 and got some goals and good performances from players who could be eligible for this tournament, but almost certainly wouldn’t have been taken to the tournament. In the future, we will be talking almost entirely about the players who played in that game than any of the players who played against Honduras tonight (ed note: with a few notable exceptions). You know that and I know that, but guess what story is probably going to lead Monday’s papers and the sports shows? This failure. And it matters, mostly because the Olympics matter in the US. The US public cares about it and not having a US representation on the men’s side is embarrassing regardless of how many explanations and handicaps this US team had going into this tournament. We are all going to have that conversation with our friends and family watching the Olympics as to why the US men’s team isn’t there, probably while watching our women’s team capture another gold medal. Let me put it this way, this failure will get more airtime in non-soccer media at a similar (not identical) level to when the final whistle was struck at Couva in 2017. It is matter of perception, not reality. The US Men’s side failed again and in non soccer media’s eyes and the casual follower it is still a state of crisis.
Now let’s get to the more difficult question, how bad is it form a soccer perspective? It matters, but by how much is certainly in question. Obviously this tournament doesn’t have the wealth of scouts or prestige that a U-20 or U-17 World Cup would have, but any professional team would be foolish not to at least have someone out there watching. In 2012, a certain DC United player (currently “Trialist 1” on DC United’s preseason roster) appeared for the very Honduras team that has beaten the US every Olympic cycle. His name was Andy Najar and he showed well. So well in fact, that in the next year, he was off Belgium. Now, I have no way of knowing if Anderlecht was scouting the London Olympics or if that had a major impact, but it is foolish to think that being in that shop window didn’t have some impact on his sale that next year. That stuff matters regardless of the tournament. The US’s lost generation came in part from the fact that they failed to qualify for youth tournaments including the Olympics. It is no wonder that once we started consistently making these tournaments, suddenly there was a slew of talent headed to European teams, getting significant minutes on those teams. Now the U-23 is a different animal from the U-20 and U-17 level, as players at 21 and 22 are more of a fixture of their professional teams and professional teams are obligated to release those players. 16 US players who would be eligible for this Olympic tournament were in Northern Ireland. It isn’t an excuse, but it certainly tests the depth.
Speaking of depth, it matters. As DC United fans we know this as we have watched multiple of Ben Olsen lead DC United season descend into the abyss as injuries pile up. Despite the numerous success stories (whether US Soccer player a role in it or not) depth matters. Injuries will happen and you can never have too little depth. The US in this Olympic qualification tournament was certainly harder hit than most due to the schedule of their professional leagues, but all teams have to manage some deficiencies in their squad whether it is chemistry or lack of talent. Consistently, Honduras and Mexico have found a way. If the US wants to take this seriously, they need to find a way. You never know when players go down with an injury and you have to start looking next in line. Ochoa, Dotson, and Yueill are nowhere near the US player pool depth chart, but if you start having injuries and suddenly they become what is left depth things out pretty quick. Not to mention the importance of simple competition for roster spots prevents complacency. We saw the disastrous effects of that in 2017 where players became complacent as no one was actively challenging and pushing for spots on the roster.
Let’s even ask the question whether US Soccer takes the tournament seriously enough. If you asked them, I am sure they will say they absolutely do. But then there is this:
Actions speak louder than words and I see one side that has consistently made this tournament, won it in 2012, and preparing for this tournament a full two years before they planed to take the field in Guadalajara. I see another team that either doesn’t have will or desire to put the best team possible and that is distressing and depressing. Building chemistry in a national team takes time and you can’t expect a cobbled together squad that has played once or twice in a 2 year span to be anything close to effective. If you want to show you take this seriously, maybe show it by doing what our rivals do. What is so infuriating is that US Soccer appears to not see the opportunity it provides. If both your men’s and women’s side could make runs in the Olympics, it would be a media dynamo. You would have Jackson Yueill and Jonathan Lewis along side Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan on Good Morning America wearing gold medals. In a tournament that the world of soccer doesn’t focus on it presents and opportunity to bring in new fans and crowds to MLS stadiums. The next World Cup roster will be all players in Europe, but the Olympics will undoubtedly rely on MLS as a backbone. Take it seriously, get a squad that actually trains and plays matches. Qualify and then who knows?
I will end with this, overall on the men’s side things are better than 5 years ago. The pipeline is there and maybe in the long run this won’t matter. It stinks and we should want our federation to make every major tournament at the very least. We have a golden generation right now in US Soccer. That doesn’t mean the federation will cash in. Plenty of countries have had this with little to show for it. 2002 was supposed to be Portugal’s golden generation baring fruit and then they met a plucky US side. The US has had these generations in the past too. Bradley, Donovan, Dempsey, Altidore, Howard, and Beasley were a part of that in the early 2000’s and then what followed was tumbleweeds until now. It can happen again. I hope that if US Soccer has learned anything from their recent failures it should be to never be satisfied with the talent you have. You should always be looking for the next Donovan, Pulisic, Beasley, Ryena, and keep the pipeline going and keep putting your players on display in any international tournament otherwise what happened in November of 2017 can easily happen again.