Funny how it seems that qualifying for the 2016 Olympics has been dropped by U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann as his main priorities.
Several times since the first training camp of 2016 opened Jan. 11 he’s stated the objectives for this year are a) advancement to the Hexagonal round of World Cup qualifying, and b) doing well in the Copa America Centenario, which is just four months away. (The presale for tickets starts Wednesday.)
The Olympics were very important to Klinsmann last year, at least until the Americans lost their Concacaf qualifying semifinal against Honduras and needed to beat Canada in the third-place game to stay alive for a berth in Rio. A 2-0 defeat of the Canadians set up a do-or-die scenario similar to the Confederations Cup playoff against Mexico in which the senior team was beaten, 3-2, in extra time.
Klinsmann did select a hefty number of Olympic age-eligible players for the January camp in preparation for the Olympic playoff series against Colombia, to be played March 25 and 29 in Barranquilla and Frisco, Texas, respectively. But regardless of how well Jerome Kiesewetter and Co. perform, this is a stopgap measure at best to ramp up for a winner-take-all showdown in Texas.
Recent struggles to reach the Olympics prompt critics to cite faltering domestic development programs as the cause. This is certainly part of the issue, but there’s no question that many South American and European confederations have sharpened their focus on programs and competitions for the younger age levels. UEFA rewards its top performers at the U-21 level with slots in the Olympic tournament and though not every club is eager to let players participate, each quadrennial some excellent players are showcased.
Concacaf nations have followed suit in addition to Mexico, which among its international youth honors boasts of the vanquishing of Brazil in the 2012 Olympic gold-medal match. Both losing semifinalists came from Asia, and in the third-place game, South Korea defeated Japan. Honduras reached the quarterfinals. The USA didn’t qualify.
No longer is the men’s Olympic soccer tournament a tap-in for U.S. Soccer. Only in 2000 did the U.S. get as far the semifinals but at least the USA qualified for the final tournament in 1988, 1992 and 2000. The USA hosted in 1984 (Los Angeles) and 1996 (Atlanta). It fell short in 2004 qualifying and in 2008 lost its final group match to eventual silver-medalist Nigeria and did not advance. Argentina, which first unleashed Lionel Messi upon the world at the U-20 World Cup a decade ago, captured the gold medal.
You’ll hear the argument that the Olympic soccer competition is a glorified youth event (restricted to U-23 players with three over-age additions permitted) that doesn’t bear much on how the players perform as full internationals. This may be true and if the U.S. play prompted fans to sing out “Ole!” as it slickly and audaciously moved the ball around the field, the Olympics would matter little if at all. Plus, there seems little correlation as to what an Olympic success or failure means at World Cup time.
So when the Americans play Canada at StubHub Center Friday, does Klinsmann roll out as many of his U-23s as possible to fuel their competitive fires one final time before taking on Colombia? Or does he slot in a few but otherwise treat this as an important friendly in advance of a back-to-back pair of qualifiers in March against Guatemala?
It’s hard to believe U.S. Soccer won’t schedule at least one more game for the U-23s before they take on Colombia, but getting a few of them away from their European clubs a few days earlier than the official FIFA window won’t be easy. (These clubs don't even need to release them for the playoffs.) As cumbersome as the situation is, the fact remains that beating Honduras would have landed the USA in Rio and what Klinsmann had labeled of utmost priority didn’t materialize. Andi Herzog coaches the Olympic team and collaborates closely with Klinsmann on personnel, selections, tactics, etc.
It’s quite likely that to ease the scrutiny of fans and press, Klinsmann is telling the public one thing and conveying a very different message to those players perhaps bound for Barranquilla. There’s certainly considerable pressure on them already with more Olympic failures than successes in recent cycles.
Yet Klinsmann, too, must feel the heat. The full national team failed last year to qualify for the Confederations Cup. The Hexagonal is inevitable and the Centenario will be spectacular. The grooming of younger players is one of the reasons he was hired, yet Olympic hopes are dim and flickering.
There will be a lot more on the line than national pride and a border rivalry on Friday. The Olympic course is nearing its final hurdle.