U-23 basket emptier than imagined

[USA CONFIDENTIAL] There was a lot to be worrying about the USA's 2-0 loss to Canada Saturday in Olympic qualifying -- its first defeat to its neighbors to the north at this level in two decades -- but perhaps the most puzzling aspect of the loss and its aftermath was how unprepared to USA seemed to be for how the Canadians came out.

U.S. coach Caleb Porter admitted as much when he talked about how Canada came out. And we're not talking about how he was "a little surprised" with the seven changes in the Canadian starting lineup or the "Christmas tree" formation -- a 4-3-2-1 -- the Canadians lined up in. "That’s not a shape they’ve used," he said.

As the game unfolded and the Canadians began its concerted assault on the U.S. goal late in the first half, Porter says the USA "was vulnerable and that in some ways rattled us psychologically and then going forward we never got comfortable." Bottom line: the USA looked lost.

Much has been made of the U.S. talent at the U-23 level, making qualifying seem a formality. Sure, there are lots of prospects at this level, but it isn't exactly a deep group, or deep enough to coast through Olympic qualifying.

Indeed, the recent past for this age group is not good. The USA failed to qualify for the 2011 Under-20 World Cup in Colombia and exited in the group stage at the 2009 Under-20 World Cup -- the first time that the USA has failed to advance past the group stage at the U-20 World Cup since 1987.

If you thought Ike Opara had a tough night Saturday against Canada, you should have seen him in Egypt, where he conceded penalties against Cameroon and South Korea and get sent off against South Korea.

While Opara showed some promise with the San Jose Earthquakes, he's only played 19 games in two-plus seasons in MLS because of injuries. His partner in the middle of the U.S. backline, Perry Kitchen, doesn't play there for D.C. United, which uses him as a holding midfielder. In front of them was holding midfielder Jared Jeffrey, who has yet to play a first-team pro league game in three and a half seasons in Europe.

That inexperience is telling when you consider how vulnerable the U-23s looked down the gut against Canada.

But it's up front, on the wings, that the Canada game was lost. The Canadians let the USA try to beat them down the flank and it couldn't.

Brek Shea has perhaps the best best resume of any player on the U-23 squad: 2011 MLS MVP finalist and Best XI pick, and appearances in every game since Jurgen Klinsmann took over as national team coach.

Needing to carry the U-23s against Canada, Shea didn't get the job done. Neither did Freddy Adu, who has the longest resume of any player on the team: 10 years competing for the USA at the age group level!

Of the two German-based players who came on as second-half subs, neither Joe Gyau or Terrence Boyd could break down the Canadian defense. Neither has yet to get off the bench for their respective Bundesliga teams. Both remain prospects, still raw and unproven.

The weekend's results from Nashville and Carson set up the likely scenario that the USA must beat El Salvador and then Mexico to earn its ticket to the London Olympics. A tall order, based on what we've seen Saturday and Sunday from the two venues.

But if the USA does advance, all but two field players might be replaced.

On top of the three overage players who can be used as jokers, there were three sure-fire under-23 starters who were not called in -- Jozy Altidore, Tim Chandler and Danny Williams -- because their commitments to their European clubs and the senior national team took priority.

Alfredo Morales
started in last month's friendly against Mexico but did not return from Hertha Berlin for qualifying. Josh Gatt was called up for the Concacaf tournament but left camp to rejoin Molde -- for which he scored the deciding goal in its opening game.

(Also U-23 eligible is Real Salt Lake's Luis Gil, who might have helped in midfield, but he is presumably being held out for the next U-23 cycle.)

Like most decent soccer nations, the USA doesn't throw all its eggs into its Olympic basket.

The lesson of the Canada debacle, though, is that there may have been fewer eggs in the under-23 basket Porter took to Nashville than we previously imagined.

23 comments about "U-23 basket emptier than imagined".
  1. Joey Tremone, March 26, 2012 at 9:40 a.m.

    The omelet was bad, but that doesn't mean there weren't eggs in the basket. This U23 team is a great deal more talented than the Canada team it lost to, or any other team in the group. The problems may have been with the mix (there might not quite have been enough sheer size), and with the mentality.

  2. Chance Hall, March 26, 2012 at 9:51 a.m.

    While I admit I'm not an expert on soccer, I must say that the US team seemd to be lacking in a very simple element. That element is desire, more pointedly the desire to win. Time after time the US players would lose challenges on 50 - 50 balls. And even when they won them, the Canadians would refuse to give up and eventually win the ball back.
    An average team with the desire to win almost always beats a team with superior players and skills who think they've won before they step foot on the field.

  3. Luis Arreola, March 26, 2012 at 10:08 a.m.

    Maybe that omelet should have included the 2 Usa bred Salvadorian players it will face tonight. We will see tonight .

  4. Joe Sendobry, March 26, 2012 at 10:24 a.m.

    Can you say "spoon fed v hungry"?

  5. Amos Annan, March 26, 2012 at 11:27 a.m.

    Nonsense... one bad game and the whole program is a problem?

  6. Amos Annan, March 26, 2012 at 11:29 a.m.

    And Freddy Adu is not a U23. He LIED about his age to gain an advantage in the US (like many foreign born players).

    Looks much more impressive when you are a 14 year old phenom versus 17 or 18.

    Funny how they question the Presidents birth certificate but not the kind you can buy for $50 in Nigeria.

  7. beautiful game, March 26, 2012 at 12:09 p.m.

    When soccer IQ is elevated, when comfort on the ball and ability to defuse pressure can be overcome, when panic is no more and efficacy becomes a norm, then we'll see evidence of improvement and an ability to compete with the frontrunners. So far, nothing much is happening.

  8. Tyler Dennis, March 26, 2012 at 12:20 p.m.

    The players just don't have the tactical awareness to adjust to what the other team is doing on the fly. Seems if the coach prepared them for formation A and B, but the opponent comes out in formation G... well, you saw the game...

  9. Roy Pfeil, March 26, 2012 at 12:25 p.m.

    Scoring goals is the problem every team in the world is trying to solve...playing good individual defense in the final third is a problem the USA is continually trying to solve (ex. Senior team vs. Brazil, Argentina, etc.) Can we start with the simple things first, i.e., like playing good defense?

  10. Roy Pfeil, March 26, 2012 at 12:29 p.m.

    Oh yeah, watch the marking in the Canada game...watch the replay tonight...and then watch how we mark vs. El. Salvador.

  11. Art Robles, March 26, 2012 at 12:59 p.m.

    I put a great deal of blame on Coach Porter. Of course, it would've been good for the US players to recognize what was going on and play appropriately. Working to ball to the feet of guys running into the seams and playing 1-2 touch soccer in the attacking third would've been better, but the personnel out there wasn't capable of it. Corona can do it, but look who he is surrounded by. Bunbury is awful. Adu is no good, and the great Brek Shea is overrated. Porter's best option was to sub out the pathetic Jared Jeffreys at halftime and change formations. Why is the US playing a 4-5-1 under those circumstances? Take out a defensive mid and insert a 2nd forward. Joseph Gyau would've been a good choice. More movement up top, more width and maybe the wings can get into the play. Better speed means some of these long balls might actually be dangerous. For some reason, Porter subs out Corona, puts Adu as the center mid (huh? he has no work rate!), puts Gyau on the right wing, and keeps his formation intact. Why? Why have four backs and t holding mids for a team playing with one forward and two attacking mids? Then, he subs off Bunbury for another overmatched forward five minutes into the half. Very strange. I can only assumed that Porter is tactically naive. If the players were lost, its because their coach was lost. Credit for his success with Akron, but he needs to grow as a coach at the international level. I like the way he wants his team to play, but coaching requires making good tactical adjustments, and he failed.

  12. Luis Arreola, March 26, 2012 at 1:10 p.m.

    The first step to improving our national teams is and must start with adequate player identification. To say its in the process of improving is and has simply not been enough. Why are we debating formations, style of play, coaching, etc. when it is very clear we do not and have not had the best 11 on the field representing us? The usa player identification system is what we are way behind, more than anything else, than the rest of the world. How can so many 3rd world countries display much more efficiency in tracking down the best talent that country has to offer? This is inexcusable and no one is appalled by this? How can countries like El Salvador with basically no youth program or major funds for recruitment show a better understanding of talent recruitment than the usa? Everyone here is content with the "Academy" strategy that is being implemented but will take a few years to evolve. It is flawed in so many ways and it will always come down to money and politics. There is no system of reward for developing players in place. All these foreign coaches know that all they need to make a decent wage is an accent and at least some semi pro experience to sell themselves.

  13. Eric Hernandez, March 26, 2012 at 1:35 p.m.

    Are the Academy Programs really selecting the best, is the more vs. less theory really working for the year around schedules and its players. How much time do we give the Federation Program time to give results? Are the Academy's and Coaches around the country really buying into this training venue? Too many moving parts, obviously the Master Plan didn't for us last time, we are getting players out, but not at the volume we need. Grass Roots, I hear is the buzz word, but what are we doing with it and are we tapping into the youth that are being missed at all Socio economic levels? I have been in the business for over 30 years, and to this date I have seen so much talent cultivated at the Grass Roots level, then loss to high priced training, and programs that are very limiting. Maybe its time to support the programs that are sprouting up in the inner cities, non-academy associated, non affiliated with any bottom line, and see what we can learn from them since the are producing players that are ending up playing for other County's.

  14. Art Robles, March 26, 2012 at 2:28 p.m.

    You are making good points, Luis. I have my doubts about the Academy program and ODP process. And I think a lot of the players on the team right now are products of the old system. With Corona on the field, at least it shows that the usual paths to selection are being challenged. BUT, I think coaching is part of the equation. Klinnsman and Porter must be able to identify the right players that are available right now. But these coaches still need to be tactically astute and able to teach these players how to play at this level. We still have a long way to go.

  15. Daniel Clifton, March 26, 2012 at 3:15 p.m.

    What does is it say about our development of youth and the inability of this team to adjust on the fly to what must be an inferior team talent wise. The lack of tactical saavy of these young guys is not exactly a new development. If they beat El Salvador they will have a tough time with Mexico.

  16. John Foust, March 26, 2012 at 3:51 p.m.

    Art hit the nail squarely on the head - preparation for every game requires not only planning and training coming from the coaching squad, but also reaction when those plans start going south. Porter gets paid to mentor and coach (i.e., respond) ... he didn't.

  17. Gak Foodsource, March 26, 2012 at 10:48 p.m.

    Luis - Identification is certainly a problem. Throughout the 1990s, newly minted A and B liscensed coaches would emerge from the USSF programs suddenly preaching the unteachables of size and speed. Our national team suffered the results. That quality players are being passed over I don't doubt. But if we were to briing Arsene Wenger to pick our team, we would likely see many new faces, but I'm not sure the result would look much better than what we currently see. in my opinion, creating the environment that can produce talented players is far more important than identification. Lots of talented players in US never find the right environment that could turn them into stars. Very few are bon with those skills, everyone else has to work at it.

  18. Gak Foodsource, March 26, 2012 at 11:20 p.m.

    I can't believe these kids are 23. If this was how our u-15's played, I'd be really happy. but by 23, we cant still be this raw. I know our kids are much younger in soccer years for somewhat justifiable reasons, ( our kids are in grade school when europe and south america kids play with the ball 4 hours a day), but Our 23 year olds would struggle against European and South American teams 3-5 years younger.

  19. Luis Arreola, March 26, 2012 at 11:46 p.m.

    There should be no excuse whats so ever as to why Usa was eliminated and outplayed by tiny El Salvador. If you guys believe its because of not having the talent, soccer culture or whatever you are being naive to the fact that there is ,o real effort to select the best players in Usa. This Salvadorian team had 2 Usa born players. Are you telling me they thought El Salvador would be a better chkice for their playing career as pros? Or maybe they never had a shot at being on Usa team.

  20. Luis Arreola, March 26, 2012 at 11:55 p.m.

    I have seen the selection process and youth players from small or hispanic clubs have very little chance of even getting looked at. Scouts exclusively look at the big acadeny clubs for players being pushed by them. It comes down to money and politics. El Salvador invests much less money in scouting or development. No excuses!! Lets start holding people accountable!!

  21. Art Robles, March 27, 2012 at 1:51 a.m.

    No argument there, Luis. It is indeed a minor miracle that Joe Corona is on this team. Size and speed, physical play, and money get you on the rosters of the "big" clubs, and that's who ends up getting through. When MLS clubs start spending the money to actually have real youth programs, we'll see the best players come up IF the MLS clubs don't just become another branch of the pay-to-play racket.The model that is in play right now seems to be good enough to get good players to college, but the international program needs something better. I don't doubt Klinsman knows. If we believe the story, his emphasis on changing the US youth development culture is what kept him from getting the job sooner. So, if there is anyone in the USSF that is making the argument that the current system is working, that person needs to resign or be replaced. Everything needs to improve. I'm glad that Caleb Porter isn't from the Old Boys network (Thomas Rongen, Sigi Schmid, etc.) and I will cut him some slack, as there is a learning curve. But this wasn't good enough.

  22. Gak Foodsource, March 27, 2012 at 10:30 a.m.

    Luis and Ric - I certainly agree that talented players are being left behind, and that pay to play unfair disadvantages specific players along the way. And of course, I agree that the old boy network has so thoroughly permeated player identification that skilled players slip through the cracks. I do not believe, for example, that a player like Iniesta or Xavi have a chance of being identified in our system. HOWEVER, fixing this system isn't a matter of finding better talent evaluators, or even adjusting our conceptions of what a good soccer player looks like - instead, we have to reform the structural impediments that make pay to play a necessity. Club soccer coaches, the only ones currently developing american soccer players, get paid to help suburban moms and dads get their kids college scholarships. Athletic players play in college, not skilled ones. We have to find a way in the interim to provide club coaches a financial incentive to developing talented players, not signing up as many as they can. As much as they have been maligned here before, they are the only ones developing players and they need to be able to make a living doing so. Academies pay their salaries in Europe to develop players. We offer no such amenities to club coaches here. And in the long term, we must release the chains of single-entity and provide each MLS team the true control to manage their rosters. Only then will they take an interest in youth development. There is no incentive to develop players with the current homegrown academy signing system - at most, it produces one to two players over the course of a couple of years for an MLS team. Structural changes at the highest levels of the US Soccer federation are impeding the development and identification of our players (Gulati and Garber). It isn't the coaches. All of our attention and calls for accountability should be directed at them.

  23. Luis Arreola, March 27, 2012 at 10:53 a.m.

    Gak, I have been saying this forever. It all goes together. Maybe if scouts were instructed to be honest in their selection of top talent and bypass Academy showcases if needed and go to the "barrio" leagues if needed the Academies would be forced to make a change, given their credebility would be exposed. Something!! So many clubs say they are development but yet offer no more than 2 practices and 1 game a week. That 1 game a week is shared by too many players only to keep the better paying clients happy. Many times it comes down to greed. Why else would you need 5-6 Subs in a 7v7 game with 2 30 minute halves??

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