U.S. Olympic failure postmortem


The face of failure: Brek Shea appears to wish the turf could swallow him whole at the end of Monday’s crushing defeat to El Salvador in Olympic qualifying (AP Photos).

Associated Press Sports Writer Ronald Blum has the analysis, which includes points I’ve often written about in my weekly column or in blog posts: the lack of a soccer culture in the U.S. that means kids don’t play pick up games daily as most children do elsewhere, the fact most elite young foreign players receive better coaching than their American counterparts and thus are better equipped for the professional game at a younger age and the like. That makes the piece slightly familiar reading to some, but the points remain salient and are worth repeating. And change is slowly coming, as points at the end of the article make clear:

NEW YORK — For all the talk about the strides football has made in the United States, results of late have been stark and disappointing.

The Americans were eliminated by Ghana in the last two World Cups. The under-20 team’s streak of seven trips to the world championship ended last year. And now the under-23s have failed to make two of the last three Olympics after their elimination Monday night.

Yes, the U.S. plays the world’s game better than it did 25 years ago. The national team even notched its first win ever over powerhouse Italy last month. But the sputtering nature of the American program has even its most loyal supporters scratching their heads.

“Is it a disappointment? Yes. Is it a failure? Yes,” former national team defender Alexi Lalas said after Monday’s under-23 loss. “Is the sky falling? Absolutely not.”

It was a crushing loss, however. The under-23 team was eliminated from Olympic qualifying when it conceded a goal in the final seconds of stoppage time during a 3-3 tie against El Salvador in Nashville, Tenn.


Joyless Joe: Joe Gyau may well hide his head after the sorry display last night by the U.S. Under-23 team in that soccer hotbed of, um, Tennessee.

Despite having home advantage, the Americans didn’t even make it to the qualification round — the semifinals this weekend. It was only the second time since 1976 they failed to qualify. They also fell short in 2004.

“We need to have new leadership, a fresh way of doing things,” former national team and Olympic coach Bruce Arena said. “Usually it’s a new coach. But maybe it’s time for new leadership and new concepts as well. Who knows? But I think we’re making progress, regardless of this result.”

Still, at a time this summer when the football focus in the U.S. could have been on the
up-and-coming American players, it will now be on preseason tours of English teams Chelsea and Tottenham and the new managers likely to be in place at both clubs.

“Obviously last night is a huge disappointment on many levels and for everyone involved,” U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati said. “We’ve been very successful over the last 36 years in being at most of the Olympic games on the men’s side, so it’s a big setback.”

Gulati has been a driving force in U.S. football growth for more than a quarter of a century. The Americans had not qualified for the World Cup for 40 years before making it to the 1990 tournament, and they’ve now been to the last six.

Gulati became USSF president in 2006 and replaced Arena after the Americans crashed out of the World Cup in the group stage — embittering the coach who guided the U.S. to the quarterfinals in 2002 and now leads the Galaxy.

In men’s football, the Olympics are limited to players under 23 — with three overage players eligible for inclusion at the Summer Games. But clubs that pay the players’ wages are often reluctant to release their best players.

Still, even with Jozy Altidore, Timmy Chandler and Danny Williams unavailable, the U.S. filled its squad with professionals from Major League Soccer and players from European and Mexico clubs it was able to secure. The Americans figured they would have a relatively easy time claiming one of the two Olympic berths from North and Central America and the Caribbean.

But after an opening 6-0 rout of Cuba last week, they were upset 2-0 by Canada and forced themselves into a must-win game against El Salvador, a country whose population of about 6 million is smaller than New York City’s.

“Having the Olympic experience would certainly be beneficial to these players. In a different way to look at it, this tournament helped weed out some of the quote-unquote talent that maybe isn’t what we thought,” said Lalas, now an ESPN analyst.

More troubling than the failure to qualify for the London Olympics may be the lack of players on the Under-23 squad who appear to be pushing for spots on the national team, a group whose regulars include Landon Donovan (30), Carlos Bocanegra (33 in May), Steve Cherundolo (33) and Oguchi Onyewu (30 in May).

Qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil starts this June, and among the group in Nashville only Dallas midfielder Brek Shea has become a frequent national team contributor. The major influx of new players has been several German-Americans who play regularly in the Bundesliga.

And the goalkeeper position, long a strength of the Americans, is now a potential problem area. The 41-year-old Spurs goalkeeper Brad Friedel might be brought out of national team retirement in the event of an injury to U.S. starter Tim Howard.

But while focusing on the present, Gulati and U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann also are putting more emphasis on the future.

MLS has expanded to 19 teams, creating more jobs for American players, and it relaunched its reserve league to create more competition. The USSF Development Academy for elite players 15-18 expanded its schedule from six to 10 months in an effort to establish better and lengthened training.

More Americans are with European clubs than ever before, but for every Clint Dempsey starring in the Premier League, there is a Ricardo Clark who can’t even make a game-day substitutes’ bench.

“We’ll do everything we can to make sure we’re on track, but a lot of things that have been put in place over a period of time are long-term projects,” Gulati said. “Those things take time, and it’s very hard to judge those on short-term results.”

AP Sports Writer Teresa Walker and Associated Press writer Erik Schelzig contributed to this report.

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About Nick Green

South Bay-based Los Angeles News Group soccer columnist and blogger Nick Green writes at the 100 Percent Soccer blog at www.insidesocal.com/soccer and craft beer at the Beer Goggles blog at www.insidesocal.com/beer. Cheers!