A few days ago, my colleague Seth Johnson wrote a great piece on the importance of the US Mens Team game against Guatemala last Tuesday. He made an excellent case for how important the game was to the US Men’s hopes for World Cup qualification, but also how important the game was to Jurgen Klinsmann’s future with the team. In case you haven’t heard, the US thrashed Guatemala, leaving the US in a good position to qualify for the World Cup. However, the same day, the US lost a game slightly more under the radar that might have long term effects on the development of US soccer.
While the US Men’s senior team enjoyed a sparkling turn against Guatemala, the US under 23 team played a game in El Paso against Colombia and lost. Not a huge deal at normal times, but this loss meant that the US Men, for the second cycle in a row, would not compete in the Olympics. In a lot of ways, in the grand scheme of soccer, this really doesn’t matter. The Olympics are, to many people, still oddly a second rate soccer tournament. Major teams (Germany as a key example) haven’t qualified in years past, and yet continue to win tournaments at the highest level. Economically speaking it’s something of a flop too; Olympic qualifiers routinely seat under 10,000, while World Cup qualifiers seat anywhere from 15,000 to 60,000 for the US. On top of that, it’s a U-23 tournament; the best players in America aren’t even playing in these sorts of games. So why, then, has Jurgen Klinsmann repeatedly stressed the importance of qualifying for the Olympics? Why is he and the USSF (United States Soccer Federation so invested in a tournament that pays arguably very little dividends?
The long and the short answer is one of team building. Klinsmann has argued for years now that the main difference between the US and top sides in the world is player familiarity, particularly at the senior team level. A lot of this is due to constraints on training time; unlike Germany, England, or Spain where most of the players play if not on the same club then in the same league, the American senior team is scattered. This had led to a lengthy argument on team cohesion. While conventional soccer wisdom suggests that the US young players might actually develop more in preseason training with their clubs, the problem of national side consistency rears its ugly head.
Essentially what it boils down to is a gap between U-20 FIFA competitions and Senior side games. While FIFA organizes the U-20 World Cup, it doesn’t really offer any way for players to get knockout game experience between the teens and the mid 20s of player careers. Klinsmann has actually suggested that this gap in US side experience is why his current Senior Team is structured as it is. Maybe it’s Klinsmann making excuses, but there is no denying that his younger players have not been incorporated into the side easily. Players like Bobby Wood and Deandre Yedlin are the exception, rather than the rule. A lot of younger players simply haven’t gelled with the current senior team, and Klinsmann has pointed to missing the last Olympics as a key reason why. His young players simply don’t have the international experience necessary for understanding the team.
The US men’s U-23 team lost their chance to play in this Summer Olympics this week, and it remains to be seen if that will hamper the US side in general over the next few years. With less international experience in the younger talent, the next World Cup Cycle might be even harder than the last for the US Men’s team. With Klinsmann and Sunil Gulati (USSF President) putting so much emphasis on an underperforming US U-23 side, Seth Johnson’s question still remains unanswered: is the USSF leadership taking the team in the right direction? With the Olympics out of the question, the next referendum might be the World Cup in 2018, but that might be too late for a generation of young players now left in the lurch.
Latham, Brent. “Make No Mistake, the Olympics Matter.” Goal.com. Goal. Com, n.d. Web. Accessed online at: http://www.goal.com/en-us/news/1587/olympics/2012/07/24/3263384/brent-latham-make-no-mistake-the-olympics-matter
McCarter, Nathan. “Missing Olympics Doesn’t Matter.” Bleacher Report. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Apr. 2016. Accessed online at: http://bleacherreport.com/articles/1230434-usmnt-6-reasons-missing-the-olympics-doesnt-matter/page/5
Rosenblatt, Ryan. “Olympic Qualifying Is Huge to Jurgen Klinsmann, but Not the USA Players.” FOX Sports. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Apr. 2016. Accessed online at: http://www.foxsports.com/soccer/story/olympic-qualifying-is-huge-to-jurgen-klinsmann-but-not-the-usa-players-032416
Rosenblatt, Ryan. “The United States Men’s Soccer Team Didn’t Qualify For The Olympics And It Doesn’t Matter.” SBNation.com. N.p., 27 Mar. 2012. Web. 02 Apr. 2016. Accessed online at: http://www.sbnation.com/soccer/2012/3/27/2905165/usa-2012-olympics-soccer-qualifying