The US Youth National Team’s 2-1 loss to Honduras Sunday eliminated them from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (in 2021) keeping the United States out of the Olympics for the third time running.
Predictably there was immediate outcry from some fans and the usual areas of the American soccer media who try to make things out to be much bigger than they typically are.
It sucks that the United States isn’t going to be there but the reality is, who cares?
No one cares about men’s football in the Olympics. The women’s Olympic tournament is a marquee event because it features the best teams* with their best players (*France, who are like the #2 Women’s team in the world won’t be at the Olympics because qualifying is tied to the Women’s World Cup and they didn’t make the final).
The men are a different story. It’s a U23 tournament where you’re allowed three overage players. Brazil picked Neymar to go in 2016 because they were hosting the tournament and it was a big deal for them to win on home soil especially after the disaster at the 2014 World Cup. I can’t tell you what happened in 2012 because no one cares. People watch Olympic soccer when it’s on, but no one I know actually devotes a plan to watching any particular matches the way they do for the World Cup, Euros, or Copa America.
Americans, or the American media, are the only ones that actually care about the Olympics. Perhaps it’s because we see it at as a chance to win on the world stage – even though not one person has referred to Brazil as ‘the Olympic champions,’ in the last four years.
Whenever we talk about the Olympics the argument always comes back to “the 2008 team.” They highlight how important that tournament was for that group of players – giving them “valuable tournament experience” that helped them go on to being successful with the senior team.
Now look, spending a month in camp together with a national team – especially in a foreign country at a cool event like the Olympics – is certainly a fun experience. Those players probably had the time of their lives. But let’s not exaggerate how ‘valuable’ this tournament was and how it was a springboard to future success.
It’s not like the US won the tournament, they didn’t even get out of their group. From a confidence standpoint the run to the Confederations Cup final a year later was way more important.
In terms of the players, I’m still not sold. Of the 18 players in that team only two (Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore) went on to become mainstays with the senior team. Brad Guzan would become the backup goalkeeper who’s 64 caps are about 34 too many.
Other players had some brief success. Benny Feilhaber was a big part of the team for the 2010 World Cup cycle, but his biggest contribution to the USMNT came a year before the Olympics. Maurice Edu had some moments in the next few years, but was mostly a fringe player until 2014. Sacha Kljestan and Michael Orozco were in and out of the team under Bob Bradley and the early Jurgen Klinsmann years. Kljestan managed to get back in the fold in 2016, but he only ever made one “A” Gold Cup squad.
Charlie Davies and Stu Holden were slated to do big things. Davies was a huge part of the USMNT’s run to the 2009 Confederations Cup final as well as qualifying for the 2010 World Cup, but he wrecked his knee in a car accident and never returned. Holden might have had the most potential of them all but his career too was ruined by injuries.
In other words, you never know.
That’s not to say that the experience isn’t valuable and the US isn’t missing out. They are. However this isn’t the same situation as 2012 or 2016. Both those times, failing to qualify for the Olympics hurt US Soccer. But this is a completely different situation.
As a U23 tournament, the Olympics are about the future. Develop that next generation so you can either push the current senior players on, or push them out the door and refresh the squad.
In 2012 the core of the USMNT was entering their prime. Not qualifying for the Olympics wasn’t a problem in the short term but probably should have set off some alarm bells about what would happen in the medium term. (A year later they made Jurgen Klinsmann technical director and he set off to revamp the entire youth system. Seven years later the US is developing better talent than they ever have. You think those two things are unrelated?)
2016 was a problem. By then the US needed new blood into the team. In 2015 the average age of the squad Jurgen Klinsmann took to the “A” Gold Cup was 26.2. That’s not particularly old but it ain’t young either. Clint Dempsey lead the tournament in scoring as a 32 year old. Michael Bradley was “only” 27 but in his 12 professional season. That’s an old 27. The squad didn’t even include 33 year old Jermaine Jones who would be their first choice central midfielder at the 2016 Copa America and was an ever present in World Cup qualifying.
When teams got to make three changes to their squads between the group stages and knockout rounds, the USMNT called up DeMarcus Beasley (33), Joe Corona (24), and Alan Gordon (33). Average age, 30. They weren’t getting any younger.
This team badly needed a refresh and there was no one trying to push through. Two years later the US was using essentially the same squad to try and qualify for the World Cup only they were even older now. The old guys that Bruce Arena turned to because of ‘experience’ couldn’t handle the heat/humidity/crappy pitches of CONCACAF. The USMNT didn’t win a single away match as they failed to qualify.
Fast forward to 2021. The future isn’t the Olympics anymore. The future is now.
The USMNT just played two friendlies against Northern Ireland and Jamaica. The squad Gregg(ggggg) Berhalter called up very much resembled what the first choice squad would probably be. (Sure when things matter he’ll call up some mediocre MLS players because Gregg is going to Greggggggg and US Soccer wants to promote MLS but this was a damn good squad).
The average age of the squad, 22.81. That doesn’t even include 22 year olds Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie, who are both first choice midfielders. The older statesmen of the group was John Brooks who’s 28 (which is fine because we know centerbacks don’t peak until around 30-32)!
You don’t get a squad that young unless you’re using a helluva lot of players under the age of 23, which means the Americans best players 23 and under weren’t with the Olympic team. They were already with the senior team. So I’m sorry for not exactly being worried that our second and third string U23s aren’t beating other teams first string U23s.
The USMNT’s schedule this summer is pretty busy. In June they’ll play the CONCACAF Nations League semifinals and (hopefully) final. That’ll probably be where Gregg names his “A” squad.
Straight after that it’s another Gold Cup. Given the burdens of the club seasons on all these players I wouldn’t expect to see Christian Pulisic, Adams, McKennie, Dest, or Reyna playing in that tournament. But you know who will be playing? A lot of these guys who are under the age of 23, so it’s not like they’re not going to get that tournament experience everyone always talks of. They’re just going to get it at a higher level.
The US needs to stop failing to qualify for big events. Just call a spade a spade. “Big events” in men’s football are the World Cup, Euros, and Copa America. The United States is only eligible to qualify for one of those so that’s the only one they should be focused on.
And are you better preparing your youngsters to achieve that goal by having them play in the U23s or gain experience at the senior level? I’ll take the latter.