The Overlap / Union

The Overlap: Olympic qualifying and the meaning of failure

Photo credit: Paul Rudderow

Hello, and welcome to the first edition of The Overlap. I’m Jeremy Lane, a longtime PSP-er, but I’ve been on a writing hiatus for several years. In this space, I’ll be talking about soccer and the Union, of course, but also the many ways in which the world’s game intersects with the rest of our lives. Plus, who doesn’t love a play on words?

On Sunday night, the USMNT U-23s lost to Honduras, 2–1, in the semifinals of the 2020 CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Tournament, thus missing the Olympics for the third consecutive time. If that sounds familiar, it’s because Honduras beat the U.S. the last time around, way back in 2015, at the same stage of the tournament. Back then the U.S. had one more chance, but blew that, losing to Colombia, 3–2 in a play-in game. There’s no such out this year, so the U.S. men are done.

Missing out on the Olympics is upsetting; losing out three times running is even more so. People like Taylor Twellman are livid about it, if Twitter is anything to go by. But some context is required. The first caveat is the most obvious one: the best American players are now playing overseas, and most were not released by their clubs for this tournament, as the Olympics are not a FIFA-sanctioned event. (That is a stupid thing, by the way, but the topic of some other column.) You could build a sensational U.S. roster of U-23-eligible players, including Brenden Aaronson, Daryl Dike, Weston McKennie, Sergiño Dest, Tyler Adams, Josh Sargent, etc., before we even mention Christian Pulisic. Does anyone have any doubt that that U.S. team would have gotten the job done? That’s not meant as a knock on the roster that played, by the way. I’m simply saying that by definition our best young players weren’t available because they are now playing at big clubs in Europe. So, you can call it a failure if you want to, but it’s also a side effect of improving our youth development. Maybe someday (and sooner than later), we’ll develop so many good young players that even those not yet playing in Europe or elsewhere can power through a tournament like this. But we’re clearly not there yet.

The second caveat is the argument that Jason Kreis, the U-23 coach, didn’t make the right calls in building his roster or making in-game decisions. I have more time for this one, especially when exciting young players we know a thing or two about, like Anthony Fontana, weren’t a part of the team. But that’s a quibble. The point above still stands.

All of which leads me to the larger problem I have with the huffing and puffing and indignation about the U.S.’s failure to qualify: Going to the Olympics is not a right. It’s a privilege that must be earned, and the U.S. isn’t any more worthy of it than the other countries in our region. There’s a real strain of American exceptionalism in all the anger about the U.S. missing out, as if the other nations of CONCACAF are just training cones, and if we hadn’t tripped over our own feet, we would have made it in. That kind of thinking is dismissive and disrespectful. Just as the United States has been working to improve, so too have countries like Honduras, like Costa Rica—and remember Mexico? Even the full roster, with it’s Europe-minted stars, would need to do more than show up. They’d have to play, and play well. The U.S. didn’t do enough of that this time around, and so we miss out.

It’s true that the United States has been to more Olympic games than any of our neighbors. But that’s mitigated by the fact that for much of its existence, the Olympic soccer tournament has been a second-tier competition, not given much attention by the world soccering community. As I noted, it’s not a FIFA event, so it’s given short shrift. And it’s reasonable to believe the United States could have done better and qualified. Considering that the U.S. also failed to make the last World Cup, and the relative populations and budgets of the U.S. and Honduras, consternation is understandable. But anything can happen in a one-off game and, as my podcast co-host and fellow PSP writer Chris Gibbons is fond of saying, both teams are trying to win. This is not just a story of U.S. failure.

Furthermore, we should remember that the United States does indeed have representation at this summer’s Olympic soccer tournament: the women. The USWNT is the heavy favorite to win gold, yet again. So, instead of perseverating on the bitter taste of missing out, savor the flavor of watching our powerhouse women wreak havoc, while we wait for the men to catch up.

15 Comments

  1. I have to admit that I don’t follow US soccer youth development, but I have a suspicion that qualifying for and winning Olympic gold is not high on the national team’s priority list. One can argue about whether it should or shouldn’t be more concerned. I tend to fall on the side of “who cares?”

    I watch a lot of footy and couldn’t tell you who last won the men’s gold medal in the sport. With all of the layers of competition in soccer, and so many players have so many games to play for club and country already, I’m not even sure why it’s played at the Olympics. Perhaps if the games were still limited to amateurs, it would be a different story. I don’t know. I can’t muster a lot of indignation over this.

    • Jeremy Lane says:

      I feel very similar. Going to the Olympics would be great. But considering the limitations of the roster, it’s hard to get too broken up about it. Missing the last World Cup was way, way worse.

    • Brazil. Brazil won the last Olympics.

      • Roberto Carrillo says:

        And before that in 2012, Mexico won, and from that Mexico gained 3 or 4 starters which made years of contributions to the senior team.

  2. The US had 2 chances. Had they beaten Mexico prior to the Honduras game then they would have made it. Kreis is probably to blame the most for making dubious substitutions and having a roster without proven attacking players. To score only 1 goal over 2 matches while having tons of corners and crosses fly in is just not good enough.

    • This isn’t true. Winning or losing the game against Mexico had no bearing on Olympic qualifying since it was a group stage game and both teams were already through.

      • Roberto Carrillo says:

        If they had beaten Mexico, then they would have played against Canada, which had a lower seeding and would have probably been an easier matchup.

  3. Jeremy Lane says:

    That’s fair, and insofar as we take anything away from all this it’s probably that Jason Kreis isn’t the right coach for this team.

  4. First – FIFA doesn’t want any competition with the World Cup so does not support Olympics by requiring release of players.

    Second – International competition is vital for development and more time together allows players to compete better in the future so all the competitions they can qualify for are beneficial for the program. This goes for players but also for coaches, an area where I think the US is lagging in development and not keeping up with players. This leads to problems with player selection for camp as well as games
    in addition to rotation for the games and tournaments. The recent failure is a prime example of that with the lack of strikers available for selection.

    I think US soccer higher ups thought they would qualify with this group and then could focus on getting the best players lined up for the multiple competitions coming up the next few years but now have to rethink their plans because they took too much for granted. As stated above – other countries are trying as well and also getting better each year. I fear the lack of competitive matches for the senior team is lulling people into thinking the US is farther along than we are. The 2 recent friendlies were against a team that had many players who had not ever played together before (Jamaica) and they held things close for over 60 minutes. The other game (N Ireland) was against a squad that is in the middle of qualifying for another tournament and played a “B” side. The US SHOULD have won those games and probably more comfortably than they did.

    For Aaronson fans the lack of qualifying should be particularly painful as that competition was likely his best opportunity to get significant playing time for the nation team. Maybe if he continues his meteoric rise in club play this will change but for now he will have to force his way into the lineup if he wants significant playing time.

    • Jeremy Lane says:

      I agree that US Soccer is still pretty amateur on a lot of ways. There’s a lot of arrogance to their decision making. And I also agree that a lack of consistent game time head been a problem for all levels of the national team, but a lot of that is down to Covid.

    • Agree with all.
      To put a fine point on what you implied and did not directly say – this should probably be considered a failure of US Soccer “higher ups” who thought a mediocre coach and mediocre roster would be good enough to beat some mediocre teams. If there was a dismissive and disrespectful mindset that cost us, it was probably there.
      As anyone who plays soccer knows, if you don’t commit to a 50-50 ball, you are not going to win it. US Soccer pulled out of the challenge and fell out of the tournament.

  5. Atomic Spartan says:

    Not buying the line that selection of a “C” team caused the loss. Did the top clubs release their Honduran players but not ours? Not likely. So the teams should have been fairly matched with available domestic players from both sides.
    .
    Deficiencies are seldom monocausal and are instead systemic. Poor talent selection? A minor issue. Poor coaching? Meh. The venue? Probably a contributing factor. Overconfidence? Baseless.
    .
    Bottom line, Sometimes better teams win. American exceptionalism was overseas.

  6. Scott of Nazareth says:

    An honest question – as I truly don’t know the answer – who could have been selected and played in Mexico but didn’t?
    .
    Don’t get me wrong, its certainly a missed opportunity for the US and I am bummed out about it for sure, but were Reyna, Dest, Aaronson and the others on the senior team really an option for this tournament?
    .
    Again, not making excuses for US Soccer leadership, but not totally sure they had a ton of options either.

  7. AS everyone debates the front office decisions, do not overlook the long-term goal.
    .
    Making Qatar 2022 is very important.
    .
    But making an impract in 2026 is even more so.
    .
    Gotta make it to Qatar. But expect to see Qatar used as development for 2026. It will a younger team in Qatar, gaining experience for the next quadrennial.
    .
    Lots of North American soccer’s eggs are in 2026’s basket.

  8. With all the fixtures between WC qualifying, Nations League, and Olympics all crammed up because of COVID and clubs not having to release players for the Olympics……this is what we got. It wasn’t a priority compared to the other two…..maybe not to the players, but to the higher ups. Other nations have to juggle these as well, what it says is that our numbers 30-45 on the depth chart just aren’t there yet. The Olympics is really about the depth of footy in the country and how much they make it a priority……case in point Brazil featuring Neymar years ago. The selection for our Olympic squad was what it was……..the disappointing part was the lack of quality in these young pros…who play day in and day out…..and still showed a surprising lack of technical ability and slow ass decision making………

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