Can U.S. players bounce back from shocking failure to make Olympics?
The unthinkable transpired in Nashville, Tenn., as the favored U.S. Under-23 men's national team failed to get out of its own group in its attempt to qualify for the summer's Olympics following a 3-3 draw with El Salvador. Here are three thoughts and player ratings following a stunning result:
With a roster full of MLS professionals and abroad-based players either already getting first-team minutes or on the cusp of doing so, this U.S. team was supposed to coast to an Olympic berth. The fact that it won't even get a chance to compete in the deciding semifinal round, while playing on U.S. soil no less, is downright shocking.
There are excuses to be made, substitutes that coach Caleb Porter could have used earlier, unmade calls that could have altered the outcome -- the late deliberate forearm to Terrence Boyd's nose should have been a straight red, for instance -- but in the end, a talented group of budding American prospects completely under-delivered.
The path to London had been carved by Cuba, which tied Canada earlier in the night and paved the way for the United States to avoid Mexico in the semifinals if only it could have beaten El Salvador. Instead a crack at the semifinals is not in the cards, but a summer full of what-ifs most certainly is.
Bill Hamid and Sean Johnson were thought to be the least of the United States' worries entering this tournament. Instead, both young MLS goalkeepers will have to progress in their careers knowing that each was a big part of the problem in the United States failing to move on.
Johnson's howler of Jaime Alas' last-second shot was the culmination of a complete team breakdown -- a failed clearance, followed by a failure to track back, followed by a failure to close out -- but it is a save he has to make in every situation, let alone with the game and Olympic hopes on the line. Johnson, a first-half injury substitute for Hamid, had come up with a couple of efforts before that instant that kept the United States afloat, but nobody will remember those in the aftermath of this debacle.
Hamid, meanwhile, was not his usual aggressive self against Canada, and he followed it up with another sub-standard showing, although the two goals he conceded Monday were after tweaking his ankle. Even so, the psyche of a young goalkeeper is fragile, and the lingering effects of this tournament can either serve as motivation or be totally detrimental to both players. Time will tell.
For players on the path to becoming the future of the senior national team, failing to qualify for a major international tournament is becoming a disturbing trend. Four players on this U-23 team -- Zarek Valentin, Perry Kitchen, Amobi Okugo and Joe Gyau -- were part of the favored U-20 team that did not qualify for last summer's World Cup. That's not to say that it is a clear indication of the future, but it's far from a comfortable development to cultivate a culture of coming up short. And failing to get the chance to compete in international competitions means these players are missing out on the chance to go up against the world's best and continue their development.
Nations can fail to qualify for the Olympics and still have their young players go on to success. Look at Mexico in 2008 and the United States in 2004. But the fact of the matter is, when trying to create a federation-wide standard of winning and excellence, coming up short repeatedly only leads to self doubt down the road.
As a side, what about all of the emerging dual-national prospects who are considering the United States but see a track record of failure? Does another qualifying setback change their opinions or preferences going forward?
And as for Porter, some will question his merits as a coach on this level, but he is and will continue to be one of U.S. Soccer's brightest young minds. Unfortunately for him, he failed to deliver with a team that should have gotten the job done. He's far from finished as a coaching prospect, and he can use this as the ultimate learning experience, but in the end, his individual approach was just not good enough.