U.S. U-23s Olympic qualifying loss a failure seen too many times before
FRISCO, Texas -- In 2012, the United States under-23 team failed to qualify for the London Olympics after a speculative, long-range effort from El Salvador's Jaime Alas found its way past goalkeeper Sean Johnson in the 94th minute. The tally forced a 3-3 draw, giving the Americans a tepid third-place showing in their group.
Four years later, Andi Herzog's side couldn't beat Colombia in a two-game playoff, and the U.S. will miss the Olympics for the second-straight time, an "accomplishment" it hasn't achieved in 48 years. It's another blow to the program under head coach and technical director Jurgen Klinsmann, another box on the checklist unchecked.
It's also a two-game series that followed the distressingly familiar pattern of other signature losses. Colombia outshot the Americans 41 to 10, and the U.S. scored two goals despite managing a single shot on goal across the 180 minutes. Los Cafeteros out-possessed the red, white and blue 66-34 while attempting nearly twice the number of passes and completing 83 percent to the U.S.'s 65.
"The problem was that we weren't able to create chances," a dejected Herzog said in a postgame news conference. "We have to make quicker combinations on the ground but we just kick the ball in the air. That is not our style of game."
Kellyn Acosta, who struggled in an unfamiliar full-back role in both matches, agreed. "We need to match their intensity," he said. "We came out kind of flat-footed, kind of slow. They kind of took the game to us. We need to battle. It was life or death, really. I think it shows. They outplayed us throughout the entire game."
That's an honest, if brutal, assessment of the proceedings. It's also something we hear too often. The U.S. comes out flat. It runs into trouble against physical opponents, whether it's Colombia in Barranquilla and Frisco, Honduras during Olympic qualifying in October or even the senior side against Guatemala on Friday.
The coaches talk a good game about possession, patience and passing, but the words fail to manifest themselves into action and reality on the field. The American team fails to be more than the sum of its parts.
And now we have another generation of U.S. players missing the Olympics. Let's be clear: it's not the complete and utter disaster that failing to reach the World Cup would be. The soccer tournament at the Summer Games is a strange animal, a mostly under-23 event with three overage players designed to give the planet a fix of the up-and-coming stars of the world's game but not compete with FIFA's monopoly. Due to this summer's Copa America Centenario, the field will be watered down even further.
But the Olympics do represent a serious opportunity for younger players to experience high-quality matches in pressure situations. For a team like the U.S., which has a relatively easy road to World Cup qualification and whose continental championship lacks the rigors of the European Championship, three games or more at the Olympics create an excellent chance for players to develop and thrive. Consider how members of the 2008 team like Benny Feilhaber, Stuart Holden, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore used the tournament as a springboard to the 2010 World Cup roster.
The flipside is that missing the Olympics has a negative effect on the players' future. The 2012 squad that didn't go to London hasn't lived up to its potential. Of the 20 men on the roster, only Mix Diskerud can be considered a regular on the senior team. Bill Hamid and Sean Johnson can't find consistency. Neither can Juan Agudelo, Brek Shea, Joe Corona or Teal Bunbury. Terrence Boyd and Joe Gyau can't stay healthy. And those are the successful members of that group.
While failing to qualify for the Olympics isn't the sole reason that group didn't progress as Klinsmann and his staff hoped, it's a factor. When asked what the Americans could do differently to qualify, Acosta had a simple answer. "[It's the] little details, really, that can make everyone from good to great," he said. Players have to learn how to take care of those little details, and the U.S. youth teams -- and, to a lesser extent, the senior team as well -- have largely been unsuccessful at doing so during the past half decade.
It's a self-perpetuating cycle: the team lacks the toughness and intensity to get a result in adverse situations, so it doesn't qualify and it doesn't get more opportunities to gain experience in adverse situations. It's on the players to produce and the coaches to prepare them. For two Olympic cycles, we've seen nothing but failure.
Life and soccer, of course, go on. Herzog, despite still processing the defeat, offered that three or four starters should come out of every four-year group. He didn't think the last team hit that number, that very few were making an impact. "With this group, we'll see," he said of his disappointed team that was still changing in the Toyota Stadium dressing room.
Starting center-back Matt Miazga should be one of those players. He already has one senior team cap to his name, a headline-grabbing transfer from the New York Red Bulls to Chelsea and limitless potential. He showed poorly against Colombia, misjudging balls and looking to be a quarter-step slow. A straight red card he picked up in the closing moments of the second match served as a fitting end for his effort and put a cap on the Americans' performance. But he's only 20 years old and he'll play another day. So will his teammates.
"A lot of the guys are really talented," he said when asked about the future during a brief stop before being one of the last players to board the team bus. "Hopefully, we continue on the full national team."
Noah Davis is a Brooklyn-based correspondent for ESPN FC and deputy editor at American Soccer Now. Twitter: @Noahedavis.