The Missed Opportunity and Big-Picture Perspective of U.S. Men's Olympic Qualifying Failure

While the U.S. men missing out on the Olympics is certainly discouraging, there were several mitigating circumstances that didn't work in their favor.
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Jason Kreis slipped the warning in during his pre-match press conference.

“I think in some ways it’s a little unfortunate that we have to have one-off games to qualify for the Olympics, but it is what it is,” he said.

He had grasped the concept. A bad day—one mistake—can send you packing. Concacaf set up its Olympic qualifying tournament to produce two semifinal matches that send the survivors to Japan, and for the U.S. U-23 national team, everything would come down to those 90 minutes. Past performance and pedigree were immaterial. What mattered was the play on the day. And on Sunday in steamy Guadalajara, Mexico, the unimpressive USA made one too many errors and simply wasn’t good enough. Unable to possess the ball, create chances or threaten their Honduran counterparts for most of the evening, the Americans fell, 2–1, to Los Catrachos and were eliminated from Olympic contention. The U.S. men now will miss the Olympic finals for the third straight time, having qualified most recently in 2008.

"Obviously we’re devastated—absolutely devastated. In the locker room, the guys are like it’s a tragedy—a tragedy," Kreis said following the defeat. "I think we all wanted this so bad, so badly for so many different reasons. And I think it could be that sometimes when you want it too bad, you put yourself in a position where you can’t perform to the level needed. And at the end of the day, I just don’t think we had enough."

Concacaf’s second berth to this summer’s 16-team Olympic tournament will go to Mexico, which beat Canada in Sunday's second decisive semifinal.

Kreis and his players said repeatedly throughout the competition that past American failures didn’t weigh on them. Nobody involved in the current qualification push had anything to do with defeats in 2012 and 2015, and there’s little question that U.S. soccer has entered a new era. A slew of young, talented athletes have emerged under senior U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter, many of whom play for top European clubs. The senior side, which beat Northern Ireland in a friendly earlier Sunday, is 8-0-1 in in its past nine matches.

The USA U-23s fail to qualify for the Olympics

Unfortunately for Kreis, however, all that young talent doesn’t mean much in this youth competition (the Olympics are usually a U-23 event but are U-24 this year due to the pandemic). Under FIFA regulations, clubs aren’t required to release their players for junior tournaments. So instead of deploying any of the 15 Olympic age-eligible players Berhalter used this week in Europe (or the likes of Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams and Timothy Weah, who missed the senior camp), Kreis was left to call up a squad of MLS players who hadn’t contested a competitive match in months, along with three men on the periphery of their foreign clubs.

Take a group in preseason form that hadn’t had the chance to play meaningful games together, bring them into the heat and altitude of Guadalajara for games against opponents well into their own club seasons, and hope they jell quickly enough to succeed. That was Kreis’s assignment—manufacture results under adversity—and he and his charges ultimately weren’t up to the challenge. Their failure isn’t as much an indictment of the program as it was in 2012 or ’15. The overall trajectory remains good. It’s still a massive disappointment, however, as this generation of players now will miss out on a chance to test themselves in a meaningful tournament on the global stage.

“It’s a big opportunity for the whole team and the whole coaching staff and for U.S. Soccer to get us back to the Olympics and to kind of show that we’re a good team in Concacaf and that we deserve to be in the big stages and in the world tournaments,” U.S. captain Jackson Yueill said on Saturday. “U.S. Soccer and our team is looking at this as a big opportunity.”

On paper, Yueill and his MLS counterparts should have been good enough to beat a Honduran side composed almost entirely of domestic players. A handful of Kreis’s Americans have already been capped by Berhalter’s senior side. But apart from a second-half spell during the group-stage game against the overmatched Dominican Republic, and then the desperate late moments on Sunday evening, the USA was a feeble attacking side lacking chemistry and menace. Players seemed unsure of themselves, productive combinations were few and far between and the pace of play was too slow. That was the case again in the early going against Honduras, as the Americans failed to generate anything going forward. That gave them no margin for error.

The USA U-23s fail to qualify for the Olympics

"We have players that aren’t moving," Kreis said of Sunday's display. "We have people on the ball that aren’t committing defenders to make decisions to open up spaces. We have guys that look like they just don’t really want the ball, and so again, it just kind of goes back to mostly mentality for me. ... At the end of the day it just wasn’t quite there from a confidence point of view."

Honduras took the lead with the last touch of the first half thanks to a goal by, ironically, a New York City–born forward who plays for Rio Grande Valley Toros in the USL Championship, the American second division. Defender Denil Maldonado headed a long cross back across the face of the U.S. goal and Juan Carlos Obregón, the New Yorker, bundled it over to give Los Catrachos the lead.

The U.S. seemed spooked even after halftime. Goalkeeper David Ochoa, a rising star at Real Salt Lake, was having an excellent tournament before firing an inexplicable, 49th-minute pass straight off the foot of Honduras’s Luis Palma. The ball rebounded into the empty U.S. net.

The Americans finally came to life in the 52nd minute and pulled to within one thanks to Yueill, the San Jose Earthquakes midfielder, who found a bit of time and space in the offensive third and blasted a 25-yard shot into the upper corner. 

Offensive substitutions and desperation then combined to push the USA forward as shadows covered the field at the Estadio Jalisco. Jonathan Lewis saw a point-blank header cleared off the line, and Yueill came close on a subsequent free kick. In the 84th, a well-hit cross from substitute midfielder Tanner Tessmann was misplayed by Lewis on the doorstep. Honduras held. The tying goal wouldn’t come. The onslaught was too little, too late.

"I think it just comes down to general sharpness of players. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a game where we’ve had players mis-control the ball so much. Balls rolling under people’s feet, passing out of bounds—these are things that are just really, you kind of scratch your head. You think, ‘What’s going on here?' " Kreis said.

"But I also have been around the game enough in our country at a pro level to tell you this is what you see in preseasons and at the beginning of MLS seasons. It’s typical," he continued. "And then, you know, on the quality in the final third, I felt like we got there enough times. We’re just lacking, mostly, the last pass. But then we even got into areas where we should finish and we don’t. ... The commitment level was there. The guys ran hard and fought and tried to get themselves in the right spots. It’s just that when we really needed the quality, when we really needed difference makers, I don’t think it was there tonight."

Elimination represents a big missed opportunity for a building U.S. program. The Olympics would’ve been a rewarding experience for a group of young players eager to make their mark, and several of Berhalter’s men—including Christian Pulisic—expressed an interest in participating if the Americans advanced (Chelsea might have had other ideas). Now that opportunity has gone, and the U.S. must recover and stay humble as it looks toward the beginning of World Cup qualifying in September. It isn’t a dominant force in Concacaf just yet.