The United States National Team Failed to Qualify for the Olympics…Again…

Why this is still a failure, but not a colossal one, for a program needing important victories

So, many of you who read this blog might see me, as an American, and wonder how football is going for us Yanks. I dabbled in this topic when talking about the season ticket prices for my new local MLS team, Charlotte FC, but have not talked about the men’s national team in my native country on this site yet. Has the United States team moved on from their embarrassing defeat against Trinidad and Tobago three years ago to become a better team and more coherent national team program?

Well, sort of.

Aside from a few notable recent losses, things have been going sort of well for the national team as a whole. Having bounced back from those two shock defeats, the US men’s national team is beginning to stock up on talent, with a number of exciting young players getting their debuts with the senior team over the last two years. Several promising dual national players have made the choice to represent the United States, with Barcelona’s Sergiño Dest and Valencia’s Yunus Musah being the latest of those. Are we good yet? No, we for sure will not be contending in Qatar next year, but it is a process. There have been improvements since the loss in Trinidad, and while I will not get carried away by victories over random national sides of questionable talent levels, I do see the potential for this team to be very good by the time the USA hosts the World Cup in 2026.

And then we had another failure.

So one of the big negative marks on American youth development at the national team level over the last nearly two decades is an inability to send a youth men’s team to the Olympic Games. The United States has not been a part of the men’s football tournament at the Olympics for the last two Games, and three of the last four, which is not good. This past weekend, they had the chance to right that wrong and qualify for the Tokyo Games this summer. All they had to do was reach the final (not even win the whole thing) of the CONCACAF Men’s Olympic Qualifier Tournament. After basically barely scraping by in the Group Stage of this competition, they faced Honduras in the semifinals, but unfortunately lost 2-1 in a game that they were never really in. For the third straight Olympics, and fourth Games of the last five, the United States will not be sending a men’s football team to the competition. And people have been understandably a bit upset.

So many are viewing this as a failure, with varying degrees of anger and upset-ness over the United States seemingly being unable to even be one of the two best Under-23 teams in CONCACAF. It was a stark difference to many talking during the tournament about the amount of talented players who were Olympics eligible but not with the Under-23s, as if many were already assuming the United States to be among the favorites to win gold in Tokyo. Some said this was just a failure of the players involved and coaching staff. Some said it reflected larger failures within the national team and US Soccer Federation. Some were hiding under the excuses, saying “the Olympics does not matter” or “this was not even our second or third best possible U-23 team, we still have so much talent it does not matter, Mexico is in trouble and we are winning the World Cup”.

In reality, it is sort of a combination of all three that explains how I have reacted to this. It is a failure, for sure, but it is not a “tear everything down, this is the end of the world” failure. This is like 0.0000001% the level of failure that the loss to Trinidad was, and this is not even as worrying as the other previous failures to qualify for the Olympics.

So, from more of a French perspective, I can say that failing to qualify for the Olympics is not the end of the world when it comes to the development of youth players. France did qualify for the Tokyo Games, but this summer will be the first time a French men’s football team has participated in an Olympic Games since 1996, when a team that included a young Robert Pires and Claude Makélélé lost in the quarterfinals of the competition. The vast majority of the generation of players that won France the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000, as well as the whole generation of players that won in Russia three years ago, did not play in an Olympics. They all did just fine. It is not that big of a deal.

As an aside, for what it is worth, there are also quite a few prominent footballing nations with not too stellar Olympic records. Former US international player and current ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman said that failing to qualify for the Olympics is not something that “football nations” do, citing the 2016 Olympics Final between Brazil and Germany as a sign of footballing powers being Olympic constants. It is fair to cite Brazil and Argentina’s constant presence at the Olympics being a part of their constant star development (Il Fenomeno Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are among the many young stars to feature for the two South American giants at the Olympics), but Germany’s appearance at the Rio Games in 2016 was the first Olympics in which a German team featured since 1988, when they went as West Germany. The last three World Cup winners (France, Germany, and Spain) have made a combined seven Olympics appearances since 1988. Being an Olympics regular is clearly not the end-all requirement to be a successful football nation that some are painting it as.

Now, this is not to say that France not qualifying for an Olympics for 24 years is not a failure for French football, because it definitely is. One of the most frustrating things about the French national teams is their sheer inability to be successful at the youth levels despite the utterly insane amount of talent that Les Bleus can call upon. While they have been successful at the Under-19 level in recent years, they have not won an Under-23s Euros since the famous Eric Cantona-led team won it in 1988, and their inability to perform at this level has led to their 24 year Olympics absence. None of this is good, and the expectation at this point for France should be success at every level, but none of this has stopped the production of young talent from France over the last two decades. You all are seeing the utterly ridiculous amount of good young players that are able to play for France, and this is largely due to how good French clubs are at developing and refining the talent they find before allowing them to move on when the time is right. Not making the Olympics and not doing well in some youth tournaments has not impeded this process, it was bad but not the end of the world for French football. It shows that the United States can continue along in a good path without needing to be a constant presence at the Olympic Games, should they do the other parts of youth development in the right way.

This is why the failure of this United States team is not as big of a deal as the ones that failed to qualify for the Olympics in 2016 and 2012, and it is nowhere near as bad as the failure in Trinidad. Failing to qualify for a World Cup, especially in a region as relatively easy as CONCACAF (at least relatively easily compared to Europe, South America, and Africa) is a colossal, abject failure for a nation as big as the United States, and this is nowhere near that level of failure. At the end of the day, it is rational to say that this USA team that went through Olympic qualifying was not the best possible team. There is a very long list of young players who could have been on this qualifying team that were either not released by their clubs to feature or were simply called up to the senior team instead. It is an impressive list, and the likes of Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie are only the tip of the iceberg. Even among the players that did take part in qualifying, the likes of David Ochoa and Jackson Yueill were impressive. It shows that, despite this Olympics failure, the development of these young talented players into eventual senior team talent is on the right path, and the United States has a very good growing crop of players coming through in MLS and in European leagues alike. This team’s failure is not an overall condemnation of the current state of youth talent in this USA team.

This is very different from the 2012 and 2016 failures. Those years are often called the “Lost Generation” of United States football, having come between the Clint Dempsey/Landon Donovan/Tim Howard group and the current group. Only six players in total from both of those teams (Mix Diskerud, Jorge Villafaña, Joe Corona, Matt Miazga, Paul Arriola, and Jordan Morris) ended up being any sort of significant fixture among the senior national team. If we are being honest with ourselves, neither of those teams were good. This current one clearly was not any good either, but looking back at the 2016 and 2012 teams, you can clearly see an incredible lack of talent in those age groups. Many who have covered the US National Team much closer than myself over the last decade have pointed to those failures acting as a precursor to the eventual grand 2018 collapse, for reasons largely due to the federation-wide problems exposed by those failures but also because there just were not enough good players. This feels different. There is clearly talent coming through, and there are not the same massive overarching concerns about the federation as there were before 2018.

But it still is not good. Not the end of the world, but still very much not a good thing. And the reason why it is not a good thing is it shows that some within the US Soccer Federation or the wider football community surrounding the men’s national team have not fully learned the lessons of Trinidad.

For starters, the US team probably should have qualified. Sure, they were not given their best possible team, and many of the players were not in season, given that most came from MLS teams, but there is zero reason that this team should have performed as poorly as they did in this competition. Expecting the United States to advance through CONCACAF qualifiers for any major tournament is not a steep ask. Yes, France and Germany struggled to qualify for the Olympics for two decades, but the process to qualify in Europe is much more difficult than it is in North America. Having that expectation to be there or thereabouts in every competition as, arguably, the best football nation in CONCACAF is not unreasonable. If the United States has the dream of being a big footballing nation, if they have the dream of the team winning the World Cup in 2026, then they need to be coming through these qualifiers at every level. As the biggest and most resource-rich nation in CONCACAF, you cannot be failing at this magnitude.

And that brings us to the point of expectation versus arrogance. It is fine to have the expectation of success in this situation. But for the longest time, there has been an arrogance and cockiness attached to US Soccer, the teams, the federation, and the fans. It is very American, this snobbish idea of “we are better than you and we will flaunt it.” When the women’s national team plays, it is a fair mentality to have, because the US Women’s National Team is ridiculously good. But to have this mentality about the men’s team, a team that has maybe a few CONCACAF Gold Cups to show for itself over the last decade and literally failed to qualify for the last World Cup, it is wildly insane to still have that arrogance. We were supposed to all have learned our lessons from 2018, yet clearly many have not.

It starts with the Federation. Their choice to lead this team was Jason Kreis, a man who has done a bit of journeyman coaching through MLS over the last few years and who was absolutely, positively the wrong person to take this job. Anyone who saw his record in MLS the last few years would have said the same thing, and many of the tactical, team selection, and general errors that led to this situation lie at the feet of Kreis. He frankly had no idea what he was doing, selected a team from a base of eligible players that was not the best possible team he could have brought, and he lined them up in a perplexing way that, especially against Honduras, often benefitted the opponent. You can complain all you want about the best youth team US players being with the senior team, but when quality MLS players like Jeremy Ebobisse and James Sands are left at home for unknown reasons, you really begin to question how much of this is actually self-inflicted instead of the fault of circumstance. It really did feel like that, from the very beginning, everyone within the US Soccer Federation just assumed they would cruise into the Olympics. They did not need their main players, they could get by with these guys. They did not need a good coach, they could pick a floundering MLS journeyman. In every match it almost looked like the US would expect the opponents defense to part like the Red Sea so they could stroll on in and score. It just all reeks of the same arrogance that I thought we got over after Trinidad.

And this even extends to the media and fanbase, who inexplicably have not learned the Trinidad lesson either. Before the Honduras game, I remember seeing graphics of the Olympics-eligible players from the US that were not with the team, as well as articles about Christian Pulisic wanting to play on the Olympic team, that were shared by American fans who were excited about the potential of a star youth team at the Olympics and practically adorning the team with a medal already, before they had even qualified. After the loss, Taylor Twellman, clearly upset on Twitter, stated that the US not having top youth players available was not an excuse because of the apparent poor quality of clubs that the Honduras players were playing for, ignoring the time when Honduran champion CD Olimpia knocked MLS champion Seattle Sounders out of the CONCACAF Champions League last season. Expecting to win is one thing, but completely overlooking your opponents in this manner is a large reason why the US got into their mess in the first place. There is a distinct difference between expecting to qualify, where you can still recognize the talent of your opponent and set up a proper game plan to beat them, and being arrogant about your chances, where you just expect your opponent to be inferior in every way because they come from a smaller and poorer nation. I feel like we should have learned this lesson after Trinidad, but apparently we have not.

Ultimately yes, the US not going to the Olympics is not that big of a deal, but of the many points Twellman in particular, as well as many others, have made since the loss is that US men’s national teams at every level have yet to prove since that loss to Trinidad that they are able to win when it matters most. Beating random below average teams in friendlies is one thing, but I cannot get fully excited and think we can genuinely win a World Cup in five years if this team cannot win the big games at any level. So far, we have had a loss to Mexico in a Gold Cup Final, an embarrassing but albeit avenged loss to Canada in the CONCACAF Nations League, and this loss to Honduras. We can play as many friendlies as we want, they can try and get me excited about an average-at-best performance against a meh Northern Ireland team, but it does not resonate with me unless the USMNT can win when it matters. I would not have cared how well or poorly the US would have done at the Olympics, but the chance to win in a big moment would have been huge for a team and federation that desperately needed a big victory on the men’s side to show that they had taken a tangible step forward from 2018. Another test faced, and another test failed.

So where do we go from here? Well, the CONCACAF Gold Cup is later in the summer, then CONCACAF Nations League returns later this year, followed by the beginning of World Cup qualifying for 2022. I honestly can say it might be in the USA’s best interest to not send a men’s team to the Olympics, allowing the full pool of players to be available for selection in these meaningful games, but the pressure only goes up from here. Especially after messing up the Olympics, the pressure is going to be on Gregg Berhalter and the senior team to succeed in the Gold Cup and Nations League Playoffs, where the potential of multiple cup finals is really going to be a barometer for how far this whole program has come in three years. No more riding media hype or American arrogance, no more saying “look at how many players we have playing in Europe!”, it is time for Berhalter and this team to show they can actually win big games.

Making the Olympics is ultimately not too important, but it is about the precedent that was continued by failing to qualify. If US Soccer and the media surrounding this team wants me to believe this team can win a World Cup and the United States can become a major footballing nation, then this precedent surrounding big games needs to be reversed, and it needs to be done now.


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