The United States will not field a men’s soccer team at the 2016 Olympics. The U-23’s loss to Colombia in the qualifying playoff will keep them from making the trip to Rio, making it the first time in nearly 50 years that they have failed to qualify for consecutive Olympics.
From a developmental standpoint, the U.S. players will be fine. Some might even be better off, getting to play with their clubs in the preseason and earn either a spot in the first team or even a starting place. In the long run, that will serve the individuals much better and do more to develop quality players for the senior team.
Missing the Olympics is a huge mark against the men’s program, though. And serious questions should and will be asked of those in charge.
Jurgen Klinsmann, who serves as the men’s technical director in addition to manager, made the U-23 team and qualifying for the Olympics a priority for the program. He established it as a full-time youth team, something it never had been before, and he named his top assistant, Andi Herzog, as the manager. Everything was in place for this team to succeed, and it didn’t.
"I’m real emotional, and I don’t want to say anything without coming down a bit," Herzog said after Tuesday’s 2-1 loss. "I’m really disappointed."
Jurgen Klinsmann (left) put his top assistant, Andi Herzog, in charge of the U-23’s.
Making matters worse, the U-23 team had plenty of opportunities. They could have gone straight into the Olympics in CONCACAF qualifying, where all that separated them from Rio was a win over Honduras. But they couldn’t manage that. The Americans still had a way into the Olympics, with playoff against Colombia, and they got fortunate in the first leg when they walked away with a 1-1 draw despite being badly outplayed. But even with the draw and away goal, they fell at home, as Colombia thoroughly dominated them.
So the U.S. weren’t good enough to beat Honduras. Or Colombia. And it wasn’t just that they lost, it was that they were so often inferior to their opponents. Colombia outshot the U.S. 11-1, completed nearly twice as many passes and had double the possession over the two legs. Colombia are good, but are they that much more talented than the U.S.?
"When a team played real physical against us, we didn’t have any power, any assertiveness up front," Herzog said. "That’s disappointing."
That is just the U-23 team, too. The Americans failed to qualify for the U-17 World Cup in 2013, marking the first time they had ever missed the competition, and they didn’t win a match at last year’s U-17 World Cup. They did better at the 2015 U-20 World Cup, making the quarterfinals, but two years earlier they went winless.
From a results standpoint, the U.S. have been terrible at the youth level. It’s one of their worst stretches in the country’s modern soccer history. And the Olympics debacle is just the latest in a line of them. It’s potentially their most embarrassing, considering the focus Klinsmann made the U-23s and resources poured into them.
Emerson Hyndman is one of the Americans’ better prospects, but even he couldn’t help the U-23’s past Honduras or Colombia.
This all comes at a time when the senior team is also sputtering and, of course, that also falls on Klinsmann. But that’s Klinsmann the manager. This is Klinsmann the technical director. And because U.S. Soccer has put all their trust in Klinsmann, giving him unprecedented power, he has to be successful at all of his many responsibilities. The program depends on it.
Klinsmann was hired to revitalize the program from top to bottom. His mandate wasn’t just to win at the senior level and make the World Cup quarterfinals in 2018, like he set out as the team’s goal. It was also to elevate the youth teams, changing the way they play, win matches and create a clear pipeline from the youngest age groups all the way through the senior team.
To this point, Klinsmann hasn’t been able to do that. The youth teams are losing and their style of play isn’t any better than that of the teams the Americans trotted out in years prior. They play directly, without any clear style or even approach. They’re most successful when they play directly and lean on their athleticism, not skill. Of course, the senior team is unfortunately in the same boat, so from that disappointing standpoint, there is consistency throughought the program.
The good news is that the point of youth teams isn’t to win. It’s about developing players and providing the senior team with talent down the line. The U.S. might still do that. This Olympic team very well could churn out a handful of players who become U.S. cornerstones for the next decade. The same is true of any of the U-20 and U-17 teams that have had issues.
All is not lost because youth teams aren’t winning. Losing isn’t good and, right now, it is the best way to judge these teams. It is a fair way to gauge the program’s success when winning and, at the least, making major tournaments is a public and well established priority for the teams.
So where does the U.S. program stand? Failing, and by the standard they have set.
Where they go from here is the next question, and it is one Klinsmann will have to answer. It may take some time. He’ll have to diagnose what went wrong and how to fix it. There’s no doubting there are issues, but failing is failure. It’s only on that road, and things still can be turned around. That is the silver lining. But people will only see that silver lining with some serious changes. Those have to come, and U.S. Soccer has the summer to figure out what those changes will be. After all, they don’t have the Olympics to worry about anymore.