The night of the qualifying failure, I could not sleep and tweeted a thread discussing the failure. This article is a more in-depth discussion of the topics I mentioned in that thread. It is linked at the end of this article.
For the 3rd Olympic cycle in a row, the US Men have failed to qualify. There is no way around the truth, this is unacceptable. Completely and utterly unacceptable. Afterward, the excuses flowed almost immediately from those that instead should have taken responsibility. This too, is completly unacceptable. There needs to be accountability for this failure because that is what it is, however, it also important to look at the situation on a macro level.
Olympic Qualifying Final Roster
First, let’s discuss the tournament roster. As the Olympics contains a smaller roster, player selection is even more crucial than for regular youth and senior tournaments. And yet the roster Jason Kreis selected contained several natural defensive midfielders and very few if any creative attacking players. The roster was designed to feature very physical and defensive players. It is not surprising that the biggest area of weakness was goalscoring and creative play to break down low-blocks. Even the decision to replace Uly Llanez, a creative winger, with Tanner Tessman, a gritty central midfielder, illustrates the direction of the roster. Concerns about the ability of the selected roster were raised almost immediately and only intensified throughout the tournament. Given the failure to qualify, those concerns were more than valid.
Another crucial part of this team is the lack of time together. When compared to the Honduran U23 team, the US seriously lacked team chemistry and experience playing together. One factor was the lack of U23 specific camps leading up to the tournament. The federation will claim that holding U23 camps was not possible due to the pandemic, and perhaps it was, but the truth is the lack of collective team experience was evident. Another unavoidable factor is the movement of top domestically based U23s to Europe during the extra year following COVID postponement. With key U23 talents such as Mark Makenzie and Brendon Aaronson moving abroad, the ability to have them available for qualifying vanished. This was obviously going to upset the balance of the team, making training camps and even friendly matches even more critical.
The roster that was brought to the Olympics should still have easily qualified for the Olympics. Yes, even with the issues and the challenges related to this particular cycle. It really is that simple. A team of players consisting of veterans of the senior national team and MLS regulars should be able to easily qualify out of Concacaf. The circumstances were not ideal, but this was a team of professional players, some with several senior caps, there really is no excuse.
Questions for USSF
Following a failure of any kind, there are always questions asked of the governing body. In this case, that is USSF. US Soccer needs to have a serious look at what went wrong during qualifying. There needs to be open communication with the fans regarding their conclusions as well. Three cycles in a row of failure, speaks to a larger issue than individual circumstances surrounding each tournament. One failure and it is a fluke. Two in a row, it is suspicious. Three in a row, it is a pattern and speaks to a culture and mentality problem around the Olympics.
An issue that USSF needs to address is the youth coach and camp situation. Going so long without youth national team coaches and without having youth camps hurt the Olympic Qualifying tournament. Without getting full youth camps together regularly to evaluate the full player pool, and without getting a look at the top U20s, the ability to select a roster was impeded. With the best U23s unavailable, USSF should have looked to bring some of the top U20 attacking talents, the weakness of the available U23s, yet they did not. Why? Even if those players were brought to bring in off the bench for some added spark when chasing a goal, it would have been better than subbing on another defensive midfielder.
One of the things we learned from this qualifying situation, is that USSF needs to improve on depth identification. Given the high end talent the USMNT is producing, there is a steep drop-off when it comes to depth players. Having top talents is important of course, but having good depth is equally important. The first choice lineup will almost never be available at the same time. There has to be depth. Right now, this qualifying failure shows the struggles with managing and getting results with depth players. This needs to be rectified.
However, the big question for USSF is this: what was your ultimate goal? The roster selection leaves a lot of questions. Take the defensive midfielders. Why bring so many? Is it because they are the best available or because defensive midfield is one of the shallowest positions depth-wise for the senior team? Here is another: why force this team to play the same style as the senior team? The skillset and talent level of the players on the roster do not match the senior team’s style, why force it?
Looking at the situation objectively, was the goal to qualify for the Olympics or exhibition players? It does not seem too far-fetched to conclude that the ultimate goal was in fact, the latter. In a lot of ways, it seemed USSF thought Olympic qualifying would be easy and the tournament could be used in place of youth camps. If that was indeed the thought process, they wildly missed the mark. Given the history of the federation’s failures, it would also speak to a lack of culture change within the organization, despite the leadership changes. In essence, the same mentality that resulted in the Couva disaster in 2017.
Big Picture, Everything Really is Okay
Despite the concern and negativity surrounding the Olympic Qualifying failure, the fact is that 16 out of 26 players named to the senior roster for March friendlies, were U23 age-eligible players. There is no need to draw conclusions about the entirety of the US U23 player pool based on Olympic Qualifying. For context, Christian Pulisic (22) captained the senior squad the same day as Jackson Yueill (24) captained the U23s in the semi-final.
To say there is anger over the age-eligible players participating in friendlies instead of qualifying is an understatement. It is justified anger. However, it is FIFA that is responsible, not US Soccer. FIFA rules require the release of players for senior squads during a FIFA sanctioned tournament or international window. FIFA does not mandate release for youth tournaments or camps. This means that the more U23 talent that is overseas and playing in big roles for their clubs, the less likely they are to be released for Olympic Qualifying, a youth tournament.
Where the USMNT differs in this compared to the rest of Concacaf, is in the number of U23s overseas. The USMNT has by far the most top talent in the best leagues of any Concacaf nation. As a result, the US was missing the most players from the U23 qualifying roster. This is how almost an entire U23 roster ended up with the senior team instead. Not to mention those that were unable to be released due to COVID quarantine (Tyler Adams, Tim Weah) or minor injuries (Weston McKennie). The truth is our best U23s have outgrown the U23 level at a rate faster than the rest of Concacaf. This is great news for the future of the USMNT, even though at the present moment, it left us exposed for Olympic Qualifying.
The best roster of U23s we have is frankly too good to let the Olympic Qualifying failure speak to the overall look of the future of the USMNT. The level of U23 talent available to the senior squad is unrecognizable compared to the talent available for Olympic Qualifying. Looking at the big picture of the USMNT’s U23s, it is hard to be anything but absolutely ecstatic. The best U23s are some of the best players the USMNT has ever had. Failing to qualify for the Olympics is an embarrassment and unacceptable, but there is still so much to be excited about.