Commentary

Qualifying for the Olympics will be no sure thing

By Paul Kennedy
(@pkedit)

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 deck.

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 year.

The USA will get another chance at qualifying for the Rio Olympics when it again hosts the Concacaf qualifying tournament Oct. 1-13. But 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, Tim Parker 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 year ago.

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, who 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.
8 comments about "Qualifying for the Olympics will be no sure thing".
  1. Miguel Dedo, August 20, 2015 at 11:18 a.m.

    As to Matt Miazga being the best national team prospect ever at center back, I hope he makes it, but Eddy Pope set a very high standard.

  2. Santiago 1314 replied, August 20, 2015 at 11:34 a.m.

    Carter-Vickers "OUT SHINED" Miazga on the u20s...The Bonfires in El Salvador is a True Story; They also gave us Food Poisoning; But it didn't kick in until Halftime, by then it was too late to effect the Outcome...Still took 2 Hours and Military escort to get out of the Stadium due to Rioting Fans...

  3. Santiago 1314, August 20, 2015 at 11:42 a.m.

    I must disagree that Olympics is Not a "Big Deal"...Granted for the Men Its not level of WC, but For the US Fan Base and Culture, The Olympics are the "Be All and End All"... Most Americans Don't Get World Cup, Confederations Cup, Gold Cup, FIFA, CONCAcaCrApF, Champions League..etc.etc.etc... WE GET OLYMPICS.!!!... That's where we get to go KICK EVERYONE'S A$$...

  4. Thomas Hosier replied, August 20, 2015 at 2:19 p.m.

    Spot on Santiago .... should the USMT not qualify for the Olympics a second time would be a horrendous disappointment.

  5. Andrew Kear, August 20, 2015 at 4:08 p.m.

    Could not qualifying for the Olympics now be a new negative Klinsmann trend. Boy, things have really gotten bad in the last four years. The whole US national team system seems to be decline.

  6. David Mont replied, August 21, 2015 at 11 a.m.

    Nothing to worry about. I trust in Klinsmann's ability to dig out a few more Germans for the US national team, with an odd Scandinavian thrown into the mix as well.

  7. Santiago 1314 replied, August 21, 2015 at 2:13 p.m.

    Jks Got his boy Herzog coaching the Olympic team... If we Crash Out in Olympics and Confed Playoff, maybe Sunil will Finally pull the plug on the German Experiment. .

  8. Andrew Kear, August 21, 2015 at 6 p.m.

    Obviously, mediocre German players are not comparable to good American players. Maybe Klinsmann wants the U S national team to be a place where Germans who can't cut in Germany can play. You could call it a German reserve club. A mediocre player like Brooks would not even be considered for the German national team. In fact he shouldn't even be on the USMNT.

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