Olympic flop a minor distraction, not a major disaster

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.

13 comments about "Olympic flop a minor distraction, not a major disaster".
  1. Paul Lorinczi, March 29, 2012 at 10:37 a.m.

    But - I am supposed to be outraged by their loss.

    It was disappointing, but I saw far more positives than negatives. Just look at the racial make up of the team. It was a diverse group of kids. Now, we have to put it together. When we do, we will be world beaters.

  2. Paul Lorinczi, March 29, 2012 at 10:38 a.m.

    Our coaches need to spend more time in Brazil to learn integration from them. 5 World Cups later, they are still the masters.

  3. Steve Greene, March 29, 2012 at 11:27 a.m.

    While never stating he is talking Men's Paul clearly states USA and specifically it's failures in the Olympics. USA has won three GOLD medals in Olympic Soccer competition and one silver and one bronze. Yes, the three gold are by the US Women's team and the silver and bronze were 1904 by men's club teams so point well taken IF he had bothered to differentiate rather than assume away the women's teams.

  4. Jogo Bonito, March 29, 2012 at 11:35 a.m.

    the reader comment from Paul Lorinczi is interesting because he says that we need to send coaches to brazil .. I agree that a "Brazilian" style would be great but it has very little to do with coaching. it's more about the players you select and the belief in those players to perform. American coaching school graduates tend to lack patience and tolarence for creative mistakes. there's no elaborate tactical plan for reinforcing creative play. It's about trusting great players to discover ways to attack a defense. it's about empowering them by not filling their heads with tactical talk and restrictions. it takes a clear vision of what it should look like and choosing players that can carry out that vision and giving them the freedom to make it happen. Barcelona has done this and they developed and found players that see the game the same way. It's not as hard as the coaching schools would make you believe. the truth is that if we did this there would be no need for coaching schools

  5. Ron Crowley, March 29, 2012 at 11:36 a.m.

    With all due respect, Paul, any American progress, and any greater awareness in the public's mind, of soccer would be beneficial. To suggest otherwise is silly. It's a missed opportunity to advance the cause, and that should be disappointing to anyone who wants to see the game grown in the States.

  6. Futbol Genio, March 29, 2012 at 11:52 a.m.

    Paul makes a good point -- understanding the manner of the/our failure is critically important for our national team(s) to progress. It is clear, that "field" thoughts and effort have to improve for our young pro players to succeed (i.e., tactical awareness).

    First team games would really help, but MLS is now mired in recruiting foreign players. Same thing happened with the WPS, where first team games really sharpened the skills of starting foreign players, and they used these skills against us on their national teams.

    How do EU countries protect their best leagues? Stringent limits on foreign players. La Liga protects Spaniards; Spaniards fuel the best national team; the Spanish national team wins the World Cup. The EPL requires work permits and national team starts for U.S. and other foreign players.

    We cannot continue to stock MLS with foreign players that do little for our national team's growth. 8 highly paid (starting) foreign players on each MLS team forces our young pros to wither on the vine with few real games under their belt. Critical MLS team slots are taken away by journeyman foreign players looking for the peace and safety of American life.

    This largesse to players coming from failing foreign leagues seems self defeating for the U.S.'s progress as a soccer nation. And, worry not, WE ARE A SOCCER NATION. Go to just about any MLS market, and you will see that we have found our stride as knowedgeable supporters of "el juego bello".

    Now, we just need to respect our own sons, and push to foster the use of our homegrown young players by MLS. Tactical awareness comes with pro games under your belt.

  7. Tyler Dennis, March 29, 2012 at 12:40 p.m.

    Its the funnel guys...

    1)coaches pick the athletic kids to play, who almost always happen to be big/fast
    2) coaches want to win = no patience for the creative/technical, less size/speed player because they want to place kids in college
    3) Youth clubs advertise their college player successes
    4) youth coaches need to win.. its not about the National team (who hears about the coach of Claudio Reyna when he was 14), so their perspective is on the season - not on developing players for the first team

    Its the incentives and motivation that are built into the system.

    This will change as the first generation of mass soccer players in America are now parents and have a slightly more educated view of what good soccer looks like. So, there expectations of what happens on the field when little jimmy is playing will be increased.

  8. Brian Something, March 29, 2012 at 12:59 p.m.

    As usual, Paul takes cynical chic to a new level. Of course, it’s a minor distraction, not a major disaster, but as often, he misrepresents the argument. It’s not that soccer won’t catch on until we win the Olympic gold. It’s that their failure denies this group of players a chance to compete in a prominent tournament. It’s that this group of players, like the U17s and U20s before them, will not be participating in the highest-level tournament in their age bracket. It’s an opportunity denied.

  9. James Froehlich, March 29, 2012 at 1:48 p.m.

    The big problem is that no one ever bothered to set proper
    expectations when Klinsmann and Porter, and others, were brought in –---
    sure there were the expected comments that in order to move to the
    next level, we would have to make some dramatic changes. But, NO ONE
    bothered to explain how changing the “style of play” might impact
    short term results! The shaky start to Klinsmann’s era has been all
    but forgotten with the Italy win but I have news for everyone, the
    bumpy ride aint’t over. Doing what needs to be done, ie., changing
    the style of play and the skill sets of the players is not going to
    be easy, sort of like turning an ocean liner in the middle of a
    rocky rapids. The ‘boo birds’ like Eric Wynalda are already in full
    throat and the villagers with their torches and pitchforks will
    soon follow. We Americans are a bit short of patience when it comes
    to the performance of our sports’ teams (with the exception of the
    Cubs of course), and if anything is going to require patience it is
    going to be changing the make-up and style of our national teams. Despite the
    knee-jerk reactions like Wynalda’s, emphasis on the “jerk”, Caleb
    Porter is still a bright star in our coaching fraternity. One loss
    for a novice coach is not the end. Someone in a position of
    authority needs to step up and explain what is being attempted and
    what the problems will be, someone with guts—oops, that leaves
    out most of US Soccer.

  10. John Soares, March 29, 2012 at 2:37 p.m.

    Of course it is not the end of the world.
    However it is a missed opportunity. As already stated, any and all exposure to USA soccer, especially at the world level is "a Good Thing". Perhaps the only real negative is the lack of progress. OR at least the progress that had been expected/promissed.

  11. John Miller, March 29, 2012 at 2:49 p.m.

    Come on Paul. Blame this on Arena? I got news for you. The Hispanic coaches SG hired aren't that great and one has NEVER coached before.
    It all starts at the top and the top has to go.

  12. Mark Zimmerman, March 29, 2012 at 4 p.m.

    At practice with my U13 boys team last night one of the kids brought the subject up. No one was feeling particularly proud about being unable to even qualify. So, disaster? No. Embarrassing? Yes.

  13. R2 Dad, March 30, 2012 at midnight

    I have a theory. I believe that for both the MNT and the U teams, they are/will be forcing the 4-3-3 in order to expose the weak links. This is necessary as it's the only way to purge the unqualified. Otherwise, these coaches will continue to invite and play favorites. The MNT did the same during those friendlies. Remember TH playing out of the back every time, to see which back line members could manage? It's going to be very difficult for those U23 defenders to get over their horrendous play, especially that second goal where they're watching the keeper while the striker blows past them all and taps in. So Paul's correct, big picture.

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