US result byproduct of bigger issues

The story was seconds away from being about another inspirational American comeback, and a group of young players who stepped up when the pressure was on and delivered in crunch time.

All it took was a series of mistakes, a hopeful long-range shot and a brutal goalkeeping error to turn that story into a nightmare.

The US Under-23 national team saw their Olympic hopes erased in the most gut-wrenching way imaginable. After fighting back from 2-1 down to take a 3-2 lead and revive their Olympic dreams, they watched a terrible decision by Brek Shea and a shocking blunder by back-up goalkeeper Sean Johnson to give El Salvador an equalizer and their own place in the all-important Olympic qualifying semifinals.

From joy to misery in the time it took the ball to deflect off Johnson’s gloves and float into the USA net, dooming the United States to another inexplicable loss in another major tournament. “I’m still in complete and utter shock,” said US head coach Caleb Porter, looking like a coach who just shed every tear he had to shed. “It was the last second. Seconds. Seconds away.” The United States incomprehensible elimination from Olympic Qualifying wasn’t down to one mistake, but a series of mistakes over two games, and a pair of performances that just weren’t good enough. The Americans showed tremendous fight to battle back in the second half on Monday, turning around a 2-1 deficit to a 3-2 lead on the strength of Freddy Adu’s inspirational heroics in midfield, but Salvadoran midfielder Jaime Alas hit a hopeful shot from 30 yards away that bounced and fooled Johnson, who couldn’t keep the shot from bouncing off his hands, into the net.

This isn’t a one-off disappointment. It was just a year ago that the US Under-20 national team failed to qualify for the World Cup amid very high expectations, and a year since a highly-regarded Under-17 national team failed to get past the Round of 16 at the Under-17 World Cup. Monday’s failure to qualify for the Olympics also means the United States has failed to reach the Summer Games two out of the past three Olympic tournaments.

For a country the size of the United States, investing as much in the sport as this country is investing, those results can’t keep being written off to bad luck, or bad bounces. There have to be some questions asked about the direction of the national team program and whether the string of disappointing results are the product of bigger issues than lineup decisions and player errors.

For US Soccer president Sunil Gulati, who hired every one of the coaches in charge of each of those failings, Monday’s Olympic elimination has to raise questions about the decisions he has made and the direction he is leading American soccer towards.

For his part, Gulati has spent the past year making some major changes, starting with the hire of Jurgen Klinsmann last summer, and changes at the Under-20 and Under-17 level. Klinsmann was hired last summer to help bring about change, and transform the fortunes of the American soccer system. On Monday night, he tried putting the latest American soccer disappointment into perspective, insisting that the future was still bright despite the latest heartbreaker.

“You just feel bad for them because it kind of slips away, a huge, huge opportunity to shine in an Olympic [tournament] and it’s not coming back anymore for them,” Klinsmann said. “That’s how football is.”

“It can catch you really brutally in specific moments. I went in the locker room after the game and gave them big compliments for what they showed tonight, and to leave with their heads up,” Klinsmann said. “There will be many moments to come, good moments, and also similar moments to tonight.”

The US national team program has had gut-wrenching losses before, but none this devastating. Even when the Americans failed to qualify for the 2004 Olympics and the 2011 Under-20 World Cup, both teams suffered defeats against the host country, in hostile environments. Monday’s match was tailor-made for the US, facing an offensive-minded opponent in front of a home crowd in Nashville. El Salvador was supposed to be the perfect matchup, but terrible defending and some absolutely shocking goalkeeping doomed the Americans.

The defeat was crushing not just for the way it came, but that it came for a team with so much promising young talent. Players like Shea, Adu, Juan Agudelo, Joe Gyau, Terrence Boyd, Mix Diskerud, and Joe Corona seemed perfectly-suited to help integrate Porter’s attacking style of soccer. When the Americans dominated Mexico in a recent friendly victory, American fans began to get excited about what this group might be able to do.

Yes, it can’t be forgotten that a plethora of top Americans in the age group were unavailable, either because of injuries (like Agudelo and Gale Agbossoumonde) or because their club teams would not release them (like Jozy Altidore, Fabian Johnson, Danny Williams, Alfredo Morales and Josh Gatt), but there was still plenty of talent on the roster. Enough talent to lead us to believe this group could still be special.

We realized in last Saturday’s loss to Canada that this American team was anything but flawless. On Monday, we were again reminded that this talented squad simply wasn’t poised enough to succeed.

Porter will face his share of blame for the team’s failure, and very well could join the recent list of youth coaches who lost their jobs due to disappointing results (such as former U-17 head coach Wilmer Cabrera and former U-20 coach Thomas Rongen). But there are certainly other questions to ask, most importantly, if American soccer was doing enough to develop young talent at younger ages.

MLS is supposed to be helping that cause with the continued development of its player academy system, and US Soccer has invested considerable capital into the growing Player Development Academy system. Frankly, the results of those investments are still some years away.

What we have been left with is this country’s most talented young players either spending time on benches or reserve teams in Europe (like Boyd, Gyau and Jared Jeffrey), or on benches in MLS (like Agudelo, Ike Opara and Kofi Sarkodie). That isn’t to say there isn’t some exciting young talent finding minutes in MLS, like Real Salt Lake’s Luis Gil and Sebastien Velasquez, and players like Johnson and Hamid. Yet, you still get the feeling there is a considerable void that is costing top young American talent very valuable time in their development process.

All of that doesn’t explain away one botched save attempt, or one mental breakdown in midfield, like the plays that ultimately cost the United States an Olympic berth on Monday night. It might explain why a country our size can continue to disappoint in youth international tournaments against teams filled with players who aren’t anywhere near as highly-regarded or talented.

Potential and big reputations haven’t meant much for American youth national teams in recent years, and it won’t mean a thing when the United States misses the Olympics this year. The sad part is that if there are going to be American players competing in this Summer’s Olympic soccer tournament, it’s going to be players like American-Born Mexican defender Miguel Ponce, and American-born midfielder Richard Menvijar, who started for El Salvador on Monday night.

Amid all the tears and stunned American faces on Monday night, Klinsmann and Porter were united in their belief that disappointments like Monday’s should only serve to help mold the next generation of young American talent, but the latest disappointment feels much less like a learning experience, and much more like an inexplicable failure and the latest example of a worrying trend.