[USA CONFIDENTIAL] Aside from humiliation at not finishing at least second in a group that included Canada, Cuba, and El Salvador, the U.S. failure to qualify
for the 2012 Olympic Games may not bode well for the future.
Playing in the Olympics isn’t a secure stepping stone to the senior team, but quite a few players have done just that since FIFA and the International Olympic Committee reached an accord to limit Olympic men’s soccer representatives to three over-age players as supplements to an under-23 team. The 1992 tournament was restricted to players 23 or younger, the over-age addendum was added for the 1996 competition.
In the past 20 years, a steady stream of U.S. players has “graduated” to the World Cup. The last Olympic failure, in 2004, translated into the fewest World Cup representatives. Many factors affect the progression and development of players. The quality of players in certain age groups can fluctuate severely, and injuries and a coach’s preferences also play a role in which players make the cut and which don’t.
For many countries, the Olympics are not given a high priority, and their league system produces many national team players who didn't necessarily represent the nation at a youth level. In recent years MLS has strengthened its player development programs but is still largely dependent on foreign-produced players to stock its first-team rosters.
Here’s a rundown of what has transpired with the men’s Olympic teams and World Cup/national teams in the past 20 years, including both short-term and long-term progressions. Some players didn’t make the jump in the two-year span between the Olympic Games and World Cup yet showed up farther down the road.
1992/1994. Seven players from the 1992 Olympic team made the 1994 World Cup squad, many of whom had been based domestically year-round as part of U.S. Soccer’s plan to prepare the team under head coach Bora Milutinovic.
Mike Burns, Brad Friedel, Cobi Jones, Alexi Lalas, Mike Lapper, Joe-Max Moore and Claudio Reyna made the cut for USA ’94. Reyna had been projected to start but couldn’t recover from an injury that he suffered on the eve of the final and was classified as “day-to-day” for several weeks.
1996/98. Like the 1992 team, the U.S. failed to get out of the first round at the 1996 Olympics. Still, Frankie Hejduk, Brian Maisonneuve, Eddie Pope and Claudio Reyna (included as an over-age player because he’d competed in the 1992 Games) moved into starting roles for the 1998 World Cup. Friedel, Moore, Burns, Jones and Lalas repeated their 1994 representation.
2000/02. The Americans’ best-ever showing at the Olympic Games, fourth place, yielded several members of the World Cup 2002 quarterfinalist that beat Portugal in the group phase and swatted archrival Mexico, 2-0, in the round of 16.
Players from the 2000 Olympic qualifiers – Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Josh Wolff, Steve Cherundolo, John O’Brien – helped transform the national team that eventually reached the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals. (Another player who took part in qualifying, Tim Howard, is currently the No. 1 keeper even though he, like Cherundolo, didn’t play in the 2000 Olympic tournament.)
Imagine what the 2002 World Cup team would have looked like without O’Brien as the midfield linchpin or Donovan, Beasley and Wolff injecting the attack with their audacity and energy.
2004/06. Two years after the U-23s failed to qualify for the 2004 Olympics, the national team did qualify for the 2006 World Cup but failed to win a game and went out in the first round. Quantifying how much that Olympic failure affected the World Cup performance is a tricky process, since projecting how many of the 2004 age-eligible players could have mounted serious challenges for a national team starting spot is a guessing game at best.
Donovan and Beasley were so young they also played in the 2004 Olympic qualifiers that fizzled out with a 4-0 semifinal loss to Mexico in Guadalajara. While that failure didn’t set back their U.S. careers, from that group only Bobby Convey “graduated” to play significant minutes at the 2006 World Cup. (From the 2000 Olympic team, Ben Olsen made the 2006 squad as a backup.)
Recently, Kyle Beckerman has returned to the national team, but he didn’t make the trip to South Africa in 2010, and another member of the 2004 U-23s, Eddie Johnson, fell off the radar screen after a brilliant start to his national team career (five goals in his first three games). Johnson did play as a substitute in the last 2006 group match against Ghana.
None of the defenders who played for the U.S. in the 2004 Olympic qualifiers -- Chad Marshall, Nat Borchers, Chris Wingert, Ricky Lewis and David Stokes –- made the 2006 World Cup team or the 2010 squad.
2008/10. Representation of the 2008 Olympic team was strong two years ago at the World Cup in South Africa, and its influence continues with the current national team pool. Maurice Edu, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore are mainstays, and prior to the horrific injuries he suffered in a car crash so was Charlie Davies. Physical problems have knocked Stuart Holden out of the current picture and also limited him to a brief substitute appearance in 2010.
Sacha Kljestan, Brad Guzan, Michael Parkhurst and Benny Feilhaber, who played three matches at the 2010 World Cup, are in the pool. (Guzan and Parkhurst went to China as overage players.)