Olympic team's failure leaves U.S. still searching for new stars

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The dateline on this piece was supposed to be "Kansas City." If all had gone according to plan, I was supposed to be covering the U.S. men's Olympic qualifying tournament as the under-23 Yanks, who'd looked so promising beating Mexico last month, got ready to earn a berth in the London Games on Saturday.

You already know what happened. The U.S. lost to Canada, tied El Salvador and exited the tournament at the group stage on Monday. I'm not in Kansas City, but I am here to answer your questions in today's Mailbag, so let's dive in:

Is the U.S.'s failure to qualify for the Olympics just a blip or a sign of major issues regarding the future of the national team?

-- @bloodhoundmuse

It's a lot easier and fairer to draw conclusions about the performance of this U.S. team, so let's do that first. Words like fiasco and failure and embarrassing are entirely appropriate here. Even in comparison to recent U.S. and Mexican teams that have failed to qualify for the Olympics, this '12 U.S. team stands apart. Unlike the '08 Mexico team that failed to advance beyond the group stage, the '12 U.S. outfit failed on home soil, which had been a true gift from CONCACAF since the U.S. had hosted the '08 qualifying tournament as well. And unlike the '04 U.S. team, which missed out on Athens thanks to a loss to Mexico, this U.S. crew came up short against much less powerful CONCACAF foes Canada and El Salvador.

If you're just looking at this U.S. team, there were plenty of reasons for the flameout. The back line, particularly Ike Opara and Jorge Villafaña, played poorly. The goalkeepers, Bill Hamid and Sean Johnson, both let in soft goals. The midfield was often outnumbered (in its 4-3-3 formation), and the fluidity that style requires often went missing as the Americans hoofed the ball upfield. Moreover, coach Caleb Porter showed a surprising tactical naiveté, failing to come up with the changes necessary to deal with Canada's unexpected 4-3-2-1 or to make the U.S. approach more conservative after the team had gone up on El Salvador in the second half on Monday.

That said, I find it hard to make any bold pronouncements about the future of the U.S. senior national team, except that following the Olympic qualifying snafu the question still remains: Who are the gifted attacking players that are going to be the next Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan? It's likely that Brazil 2014 will be the third straight World Cup in which Dempsey and Donovan are the U.S.'s top attacking threats, and while they have been great servants to the national team you would hope that someone would have stepped in by the time 2014 rolls around.

Those superior talents are going to best reveal themselves not in age-group tournaments, however, but rather through their success at the club level. Which brings us to ...

Despite the results, do you think Freddy Adu did enough to get a shot at the USMNT?

-- @ninerboy14

In a word: No. What Adu needs to do more than anything is to establish himself as a consistent threat at the club level, which he has yet to do in his nine years as a professional. Adu is the rare player who has shown more talent and effectiveness at the international level than the club level, including his periods with U.S. youth teams and even his brief stint with the senior team during the 2011 Gold Cup. But sustained performance for Philadelphia will be the key if Adu wants to be a part of Jurgen Klinsmann's team. Besides, the Union needs Adu, having gotten off to a brutal 0-3 start. Adu's performance in Olympic qualifying came down to a very good second half against El Salvador, in which he assisted on both U.S. goals, and pedestrian stuff otherwise.

Is there a goalkeeper crisis looming for the U.S. national team after the Howard/Guzan era?

-- @midemac

I think there's reason for concern, considering Hamid and Johnson are the leading prospects for the future and had tough Olympic qualifying tournaments. But I wouldn't say there's a crisis looming. Brad Guzan is still just 27, and while Tim Howard is now 33, it's possible both could play for several more years. Nor do I think we should write off Hamid and Johnson, who are in the right spots in MLS and could both move to Europe in the not-too-distant future. I laughed recently when I heard suggestions that Brad Friedel should come out of his seven-year-long U.S. retirement due to concerns about U.S. goalkeeping. I recently asked Friedel if he had been approached in recent years to come out of retirement, and he told me Bob Bradley had spoken to him before World Cup 2010 and asked if he'd accept a call-up. Friedel said no, explaining that it wouldn't be fair to the guys who'd gone through qualifying, but he added that if all three goalkeepers were injured or sick, he'd come in in an emergency.

How can MLS become a more technical league? I feel tactics don't matter as much as in other leagues.

-- @cjkxx

It's funny that you ask this now, because I feel like MLS is starting to get more tactical variety these days after a lot of 4-4-2 over the years. Kansas City has had the most success with a swashbuckling 4-3-3, but we're seeing other teams stray from the 4-4-2 as well, from Toronto to Vancouver to Colorado. As for technical skills taking a higher priority over a more physical style of play, that will come as more domestic players are developed to value skills over athleticism and as more money can be spent on bringing technical foreign players to the league.

How much of a chance does Toronto FC have in winning against Santos in the away leg?

-- @robgreeneII

Count me as one of the people who was impressed with Toronto's 1-1 opening-leg tie against Santos earlier this week. TFC has played at a higher level in the CCL than it has at any point in MLS, and the team deserves to be here. But I'll still be stunned if Toronto can get the result it needs in Torreon. Seattle got smacked there, and Toronto isn't Seattle. That's OK; the Reds have already overachieved in this tournament.

Do you think that, by failing to find the net in Milan, Barcelona has dug itself a hole? Giving up one in the Nou Camp will be very costly.

-- @colinhofenomeno

In the wake of Milan's 0-0 tie with Barça this week, I'm hearing from some quarters that Milan is now the favorite in the Champions League quarterfinal. But that seems wildly off-base to me. All Barcelona has to do here is to win at home. I'm not saying Milan won't score -- we've seen it happen before at the Nou Camp -- but Barcelona knows what it's doing and should find away to get what it needs.

Despite how awful his tweet was, Liam Stacey does not deserve jail time. Free speech! Thoughts?

-- @sabofpa

For those who aren't aware, Stacey is a British university student who was sentenced to 56 days in jail for deplorably racist tweets about Patrice Muamba, the Bolton player who had a cardiac arrest on the field during a recent FA Cup game. I was surprised at the jail sentence too, but it's clear that the laws regarding free speech are different in Britain than they are in the United States. It's a topic that has come up a few times in soccer recently. Chelsea's John Terry is facing not just a Premier League ban but a criminal complaint for his alleged racist abuse of Anton Ferdinand on the field of play. And a Scottish man was criminally punished for the racist abuse on Twitter of Rangers and U.S. midfielder Maurice Edu.

I have to admit, I'm uncomfortable with criminal prosecutions of what is normally considered government-protected free speech in the U.S., even if I hate the content of that speech. But I also wish that people in the U.S. would have a better understanding of what government-protected free speech really is. Example: Last week some readers complained that Houston's Colin Clark shouldn't be punished by MLS for his anti-gay slur to a Seattle ball boy because the first amendment protects free speech. But Clark's slur was in fact government-protected: He wasn't prosecuted for it. He was given a three-game suspension and fined by MLS, however, which was perfectly within the league's rights (and was the correct response).