[USA CONFIDENTIAL] To shore up deficiencies exposed at the Concacaf Olympic qualifying tournament, the proper selection of over-age players would have been a
goalie (maybe Brad Guzan), defender (Michael Parkhurst?), and midfielder (Michael Bradley), all veterans of the 2008 competition.
Overage players? Why bother? When the plane leaves for London, the Americans won’t be on it.
This isn’t a moot point, though for practical purposes discussions of over-age players ended Monday night when Jaime Alas’ shot caromed of Sean Johnson’s mitt and into the net. As slipshod as the U.S. U-23s performed against Canada and El Salvador in Nashville, they were one good save away from reaching the semifinals and a somewhat favorable – compared to Mexico, certainly – matchup with Honduras.
And that save might have come from starter Bill Hamid, who soldiered on with a bad ankle long enough to concede two goals in the final minutes of the first half. He hadn’t played well against Canada, and Coach Caleb Porter can be admired for sticking with his No. 1 in the belief he could get the job done in the group finale.
Maybe a healthy Hamid gets it done, yet when he hobbled for a ball shortly after the collision in which he was injured, sufficient evidence had been presented that he needed to be substituted. His desire to stay in the game is admirable, and if necessary a trainer could have let him test his ankle for a minute or two just to be sure, but if all head coaches elected not to overrule their players, injured or not, subs would be an endangered species. By putting a player ahead of the team, Porter shirked his responsibility, even if he did so for the “right” reasons.
In any case, either the selection of Hamid or Johnson for the Olympic Games would have been risky. Both are athletic, courageous, promising goalies plagued in their MLS performances by errors not uncommon for young players in their position. Over a long season, hiccups here and there are expected and can be tolerated; it’s part of the process. In a three-game season -- also known as the group phase, be it qualifying or the tournament proper -- such errors are onerous.
In this theoretical exercise, then, we can debate if player development or results takes top priority at the Olympic tournament. If the primary focus is to groom top young goalkeeping talent, come what may, the young guys go. But if neither can honestly be deemed up for the task, it would be irresponsible not to take a Brad Guzan, for example, who despite his struggles for playing time in England has more MLS experience, along with a few U.S. caps, than Hamid or Johnson.
Guzan played as an overage player in Bejing four years ago, so maybe someone else would deserve a shot. Tim Howard, Nick Rimando, Tally Hall, there are plenty of candidates. The point remains; the Americans’ goalkeeping is the primary reason they are not going to London, as in both the Canada and El Salvador games the performances were subpar. There were major gaffes in many facets of play, but one essential of goalkeeping is to plug the leaks that may spring.
The addition of overage players for the Olympic Games is both seductive and dangerous. Great Britain, for example, could deploy Ryan Giggs and David Beckham, not only for playing ability as players but their leadership, experience, and star power as well. There’s a tendency to believe that the right three players can turn just about any qualifier into a medal contender; more practical is the idea that those three players can strengthen spots deemed to be weak or at least mediocre.
A rickety U.S. back line didn’t inspire a lot of confidence. There were some mitigating circumstances; one centerback, Perry Kitchen, probably was miscast, and partner Ike Opara, an incredibly gifted athlete, has missed most of his first two pro seasons because of injuries. That inexperience impaired his decision-making and positioning at critical moments.
The back four looked out of sync far too often, so a Michael Parkhurst could have brought the confident, vocal presence crucial for success in high-pressure environments. Plus, his skill on the ball – which both Porter and U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann have established as a requirement for defenders – would fit snugly with their philosophies of possession.
Parkhurst also played in Beijing as an overage player (by a year). In his MLS career, before departing for Denmark after the 2008 season, he displayed the poise and savvy at the centerback position that was sorely missed last week in Nashville.
Much criticism has fallen upon the 4-3-3 formation chosen by Porter, who used both Jared Jeffrey and Amobi Okugo in the holding midfield spot and started Joe Corona and Freddy Adu in all three games as attackers. That Canada overran the Americans in the second group game was not a flaw of formation, though this one does demand a lot of those three players in the middle. Whether caused by fatigue or overconfidence, a shocking inability to hold the ball set up the fresher, hungrier Canadians to dictate play. The goals conceded came on set pieces, which perhaps confirms the impression of tired, unfocused players, who tend to react too late.
A courageous rally in the group finale against El Salvador wiped out a 2-1 deficit – the goals conceded by a gimpy Hamid -- yet with a 3-2 lead, again the Americans proved to be much better offensively than defensively. This is an admirable trend, and hopefully brighter attacking play will be a staple for U.S. teams going forward, yet locking up a game in the late stages is essential.
Adu, who played brilliantly and set up two goals, couldn’t handle the grunt work of killing time by holding the ball, and a few of his teammates faltered, too. Michael Bradley, who played in the Beijing Games a week after his 21st birthday, would have brought the steel and bite to win balls along with the vision to distribute them. So, too, could another 2008 veteran, Maurice Edu. They have their faults but in tough situations they man up.
Had the team qualified for London, players like Jozy Altidore, Tim Chandler, Danny Williams and Alfredo Morales would have been age-eligible. (Editor's note: FIFA announced Friday that clubs are now obligated to release their under-23 players for the Olympic Games tournament.)
So the under-23 player pool is richer and deeper than what events in Nashville may indicate. Yet compared to the 2008 pool, which in the age group also included Sacha Kljestan, Stuart Holden, Marvell Wynne, Robbie Rogers, Benny Feilhaber, Eddie Gaven and Charlie Davies, it does seem to have slipped.