By Paul Gardner
So the USA will not be part of this year’s Olympic soccer tournament. Well, big deal.
Every four years we get this twaddle about how important it is for the growth of the game in this country that the USA qualifies for the Olympics, that it does well, and how wonderful it would be if the USA were to actually win the tournament.
The Olympics, you see, (ho hum) hold a special place in the American sports set up (yawn, yawn) and soccer won’t mean anything until it gains Olympic glory (zzzzzz). I’ve been monitoring this b.s. for some 50 years now. Fifty years during which the USA has achieved virtually nothing in Olympic soccer, and during which I have seen absolutely no evidence of any wildly negative effects attributable to this failure.
Nor have I been able to find out from anyone exactly what the positive effects would be of an Olympic triumph. I don’t mean the immediate pleasures of bragging and boasting, nor the artificial and quickly forgotten hype of TV noise-making.
Since 1960, there have been -- including this year’s event -- 14 Olympic Games. The USA failed to qualify for six (nearly half of them). Of its eight qualifications, two -- in 1984 and 1996 -- were automatic as the host nation. And in 1980 it qualified only when it contrived to get the Mexicans (who had beaten the USA twice in the qualifiers) thrown out for using pro players. A move of quite stunning effrontery considering that the U.S. team was made up largely of NASL pros masquerading as amateurs under cover of their so-called Olympic Contracts.
Out of 14 tournaments, then, the USA can point to only five qualifications achieved on the playing field. Hardly a stellar record. It gets no better -- worse really -- when one looks at the performances in the tournament proper. In seven of its eight appearances, the USA went home early, knocked out in the first round. The only exception was in 2000 when Clive Charles’s team reached the semifinal, where it lost to Spain.
But those 2000 results were interpreted as being the right ones. This was what the USA should be doing at the Olympics (where, after all, the USA won nearly everything, didn’t it?). At last the show was on the road. But not for long. In 2004 came a failure to qualify, in 2008 the USA made it to Beijing but suffered another first-round knockout, and now comes the shattered attempt to be part of this year’s Games in England.
Of course it’s highly disappointing. But I’m doubtful it represents the disaster that is being gloomily painted. Well, no, I’m actually damn sure it represents no such thing. We have certain problems at the moment in the development of the game -- and the performance of the Olympic team is merely a symptom of them.
And not a particularly revealing one, as it happens. That is because of the absurd age eligibility requirements. What on earth is an under-23 group supposed to represent? Difficult to work it out. The best of those players are surely now good enough for the full national team. Most of the others will be MLS, or maybe European, pros. The younger ones may even be members of the under-20 team. A hodge-podge. Certainly not a youth team, and not the full national team -- although that aspect is further confused by the regulation that allows three over-age players.
That all of the players on the U.S. team in 2000 should go on to lengthy MLS careers tells us nothing -- that was always likely, Olympics or no Olympics. And you can study the MLS attendance records for as long as you like, but you won’t find an Olympic “bump” in 2000, there is no indication that the positive results boosted crowds.
The situation to be faced now is not the supposed fiasco of failing to get to the Olympic Games. That is irrelevant. What matters is the manner of that failure.
I suppose coach Caleb Porter will take a lot of the criticism, but that seems totally unfair. If our players are simply not up to it, the blame lies with the generation of coaches before Porter.
It belongs with the generation represented by Bruce Arena -- who is now telling us that we need “new leadership, a fresh way of doing things.” We have needed that for quite a while. We have the beginnings of it with USSF President Sunil Gulati and his attempts to broaden the horizons of the American game by appointing a Hispanic coach or two.
But Arena, I think, does not mean that sort of change. If anything, he is looking back to the good old days when one could speak confidently of “the American player,” knowing that such a player really did exist: it was the typical middle-class white athlete, the college player, of decidedly limited abilities, but of great coachability.
Arena did wonderfully well with that approach in the 2002 World Cup. That came just two years after the Sydney Olympic heroics, and it does mark a high point. But the fact that things have slipped back since then should not be attributed to what Gulati is trying to do. Which is to shift the mindsets about the nature of “the American game” and “the American player.” Mindsets that have been in place for decades, mindsets that Arena and his pal Bob Bradley have done much to perpetuate.
The retrogression since 2002 can be seen as an almost logical happening, after Arena had taken his team, and the soccer that they represented, as far as they were likely to get. The next step was needed then -- that was when Arena’s talk about “a fresh way of doing things,” or more incisively, a fresh way of seeing things, could have had most effect ... and Arena himself, still the national team coach, was in a position to make things happen.
But no new visions came from Arena, and the upshot was the forgettable 2006 tournament, and the unimaginative years of Bob Bradley that followed. An overnight change would be nice, of course, heralding the sudden arrival of US teams that possess creative midfields, that play with rhythm and style, that do not find it necessary to rely to an excessive extent on physical attributes.
There will be no overnight transformation of course. There will be a slow advance, maybe not so slow, to the recognition that the days when coaches could confidently speak of “the American player” and “the American game” are gone. New versions of both are being created. If not by coaching and curriculum (and I have serious doubts about that approach), then by more natural growth processes.
Whatever the route may be, I don’t think qualifying or failing to qualify for the Olympic Games will be a factor. That is merely a pipe dream, an irrelevance, a distraction.