By Paul Kennedy
Olympic qualifying has been an essential part of the U.S. men's national
team program for more than a quarter century.
The two games that jump-started the national team as we know it today were Olympic qualifiers against Canada and El Salvador in 1987.
There were then no restrictions, within Concacaf, on who could play, so the USA was up against Canada a year removed from our friends to the north having played in the World Cup for the first
time. The USA's chances of advancing out of the first round of qualifying looked bleak after losing the first leg of a two-game series, 2-0, in Canada. But it rallied to win, 3-0, in the return leg
played at the Soccer Park outside St. Louis, its go-to venue at the time, getting two goals from right back Paul Krumpe
The final round of Olympic
qualifying began with a pair of wins against Trinidad & Tobago, but the deciding test came in San Salvador, where the USA prevailed, 4-2, against El Salvador. Lothar Osiander
's squad was a rag-tag bunch of indoor veterans and players in or just out of college, but it jumped out to a 3-0 lead after 19 minutes and never looked back.
For many of the U.S. players, it was their first taste of what play on the road is like in Concacaf. Youngsters like Brian Bliss
and John Kerr
came back with tales of disgruntled fans in the crowd of 45,000 at Cuscatlan Stadium throwing bottles on the field and lighting seat cushions and throwing them from the upper
The USA qualified for the 1988 Seoul Olympics and the nucleus of that team, mostly the college group, went on to qualify for the 1990 World Cup after U.S. Soccer gave players, who
had no way to make a living playing outdoors, stipends to keep the team together.
The USA has qualified for every World Cup since then. It returned to the 1992 Olympics, where future
national team stars like Brad Friedel, Alexi Lalas
, Claudio Reyna
, Joe-Max Moore
and Cobi Jones
all played. The USA hosted in 1996, where its only loss was to eventual silver-medalist
Argentina, and finished fourth in 2000 with a team coached by the late Clive Charles
Since then, it has been hit or miss. The USA failed to
qualify for two of the last three tournaments, and its first-round exit in 2012 qualifying on a stoppage-time goal Sean Johnson
allowed after letting a
long-range shot slip through his hands ranks as one of the low moments of the modern era for the men's program. Jurgen Klinsmann
, for whom 2012
Olympic qualifying was his first test as the big boss of the men's program, vowed that what happened in Nashville, where the USA exited after losing to Canada, 2-0, and tying El Salvador, 3-3, would
never happen again. His No. 2 man, Andi Herzog
, was appointed to coach the U-23s, who have gathered off and on for camps, games and tournaments for more than a
The USA will get another chance at qualifying for the Rio Olympics when it again hosts the Concacaf qualifying tournament Oct. 1-13.
advancing will be no sure thing.
The basis for the under-23 team is the last two U-20 teams, both of which went to world championships. But from the older group that Tab Ramos
took to Turkey two years ago, just two players can be sure that they'll find their name penciled into their first team's starting lineup: Kellyn Acosta
and Wil Trapp
Acosta also played on the team that reached the quarterfinals this June in New
Zealand -- his tournament ended with a red card in the round-of-16 win over Colombia -- and returned to regain his starting job in midfield on one of MLS's best teams, FC Dallas. Matt Miazga
continues to grow with each game on the New York Red Bulls and could be the best national team prospect ever at center back, while Marky Delgado
has won a starting job at Toronto FC.
But breaking into first teams remains very difficult for young Americans. Just eight Americans with
U-23 eligibility started their MLS team's last game: Connor Hallisey
, Eric Miller
and Tyler Turner
, along with Acosta, Trapp, Miazga and Delgado. That's a lot less than, say, English or German players of the same age in the
Premier League or Bundesliga. Last weekend, 15 Englishmen and 15 Germans from the same '93 and younger age group started in the Premier League and Bundesliga, respectively.
Of the 12
players from Ramos' 2015 U-20 team playing abroad, most are unsettled. Encouraging has been the play of Paul Arriola
at Tijuana after an unhappy second season,
but both Emerson Hyndman
and Rubin Rubio
has seen their roles reduced at Fulham and FC Utrecht after promising starts a
The national team program does not operate in a vacuum. As its development program moves forward in fits and starts, other Concacaf programs are moving forward. It's easy to say
the USA should finish in the top two in a group that also includes Canada, Cuba and Panama, but in Nashville it was placed in a very similar group with Canada, Cuba and El Salvador and paid dearly for
underestimating the opposition.
Canada returns Samuel Piette
from the U-23 team that beat the USA in 2012 and its squad includes MLS Rookie of the
Year favorite Cyle Larin
, an out-and-out target man better than anyone the USA can put out. Cuba reached the final eight thanks to a 2-1 win over a very strong
Jamaica team in Caribbean qualifying. The goals came from Arichel Hernandez
and Maykel Reyes
, among six U-23s listed on
Cuba's Gold Cup roster.
Perhaps Panama offers the strongest case yet that other Concacaf teams aren't sitting still. The Canaleros can bring in four players for qualifying who played
against the USA when they won the third-place game at the Gold Cup: Miguel Camargo
, Alfredo Stephens
, Darwin Pinzon and Abdiel Arroyo
Panama's coach is Leonardo Pipino
also led the U-20s to the group title in Concacaf qualifying, beating the USA, 1-0, in a match they were the much better team. Pipino can choose from five player named to the Concacaf U-20 Best XI.
Perhaps the biggest news at last week's Central American under-23 qualifying tournament was the return of Roberto Chen
, who starred on Panama's 2013 Gold Cup
runner-up team but missed this summer's Gold Cup.
Would failing to qualify for the Rio Olympics be a missed opportunity, as Klinsmann termed missing out on the London Olympics? For sure.
But Olympic qualifying no longer is the be-all, end-all it was in 1988 or 1992.
It will be much more important, for example, how Miazga does in leading the Red Bulls deep into the MLS
playoffs or whether Hyndman and Rubio can grab first-team jobs in Europe than whether they lead the USA to Rio.