After a remarkably promising start to the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying matches, in which the United States U-23 team defeated Cuba 6-0, the Yanks unraveled just as remarkably in their following two matches, losing 2-0 to Canada, and drawing El Salvador 3-3. While Jaime Alas’ 95th minute long-ranged effort bouncing over the outstretched body of substitute goalkeeper Sean Johnson will be the lasting image of the US’s elimination from the 2012 Olympic games, events earlier in the game, and the squad’s performance in its loss to Canada, are even more responsible.
What makes the US’s untimely exit that much more unpalatable is the hype and excitement generated from their convincing pre-tournament 2-0 victory over Mexico and 6-0 drubbing of Cuba. The flair and murderer’s instincts they demonstrated in these victories gave fans an ephemeral taste of a brand of soccer that US supporters had been dreaming of for their senior squad. How could we have been so fleeced, and to a further extent, how did the players become so satiated after just two wins?
I don’t want to put the onus strictly on the back four and goalkeepers but where else should it lay? Cuba were down to 10 men after just 19 minutes, which created inordinate space for the midfielders to operate, and with all the possession they retained, kept the defense from ever being under duress. When the US faced a full Canadian squad, whose mission was to bottle up midfielders Mix Diskerud and Joe Corona, the backline became suspect and was exposed to attacking runs by the opponent on the US left back – a common theme in the loss to El Salvador, as well. All of this cumulated in the well-documented failures on set pieces during which goalkeeper Bill Hamid was beat for the first goal, and center back Ike Opara was as well for the second.
Against El Salvador, again the backline was exposed on another corner for the first goal. On a weird cross-cum-shot, the backline allowed Andres Flores to sneak behind, and Hamid, who was injured, failed to come out for the second goal. The third and conclusive goal summed up the US’s final two matches – Alas pressed forward with the ball, the defense did not close down, and Alas unleashed a shot that had me having ill-timed nostalgic flashbacks of Robert Green.
The US’s failure to qualify for the Olympic games, coupled with their failure to qualify for the Under-20 World Cup this past summer marks a disturbing trend and troubled times ahead for the development of our nation’s soccer program. The U-20 World Cup and Olympic games are excellent grounds for a nation’s brightest youth to collectively mature as a single unit. Success in recent years at these two levels of play is generally indicative of future success at the senior team level. While the U-20 tournament is played every two years, the U-23 squads only get together every four, and with not much time for preparation prior to the competition. For any country, but especially the US given the complete overhaul of their footballing philosophy, this brief opportunity to drill your system with the generation of players that is most likely to determine your international fate is paramount.
The USMNT roster is currently riddled with question marks ahead of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. And while there is ample time to try and fill in the holes, the search is already well underway. As far as players outside the U-23 pool go, we pretty much know what we have. After seeing the same cycle of players under Bradley, Klinsmann has given some players new to the USMNT their due diligence. However, I think it is safe to say that every 27+ year-old player’s talent is accounted for and there are no such players that could come out and surprise us at this point in their careers. This is most obvious in the backline. The only absolute sure thing, at this moment, is Timothy Chandler at left back. I highly doubt a 32-year-old Clarence Goodson, 35-year-old Carlos Bocanegra, and 35-year-old Steve Cherundolo will be starting in Brazil at their respective ages. The aging back four has looked shaky dating back to the US’s 4-2 loss to Mexico in the Gold Cup this past summer. The hope was that at least one center back would step up during the Olympic qualifying and demonstrate that he would be ready to step into that role for this upcoming World Cup. Ike Opara was the most likely candidate but he regressed this past weekend and looked tactically raw. He now appears to be just as much of a question mark as Tim Ream, another player whose international performances left much to be desired this past summer.
After winning their group in South Africa for the first time in the history of American soccer, hiring prestigious manager Jürgen Klinsmann, and defeating Italy, in Italy, for the first time ever, American soccer had succeeded in becoming a hot button topic in the general public. Additionally, the U-23 team convincingly defeated Mexico 2-0 in a friendly the week before qualifying began, which, at the time, further propagated the hype.
After their elimination from the Olympics, however, we are forced to readjust our expectations for our nation ahead of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The current senior and youth teams are steeped in talent in the midfield and at forward, while the full and center backs suffer the opposite. Additionally, both goalkeepers, Bill Hamid and Sean Johnson were slated to fight to be Tim Howard’s understudy, but looked shaky and their mistakes cost the US a spot at the Olympics. For all of the dazzling attacking players that are coming through the pipeline such as, Brek Shea, Joe Corona, Juan Agudelo, Terrence Boyd, and Joe Gyau, without a steady backline, how can we expect the US defenders to perform against the likes of Argentina, Brazil, and the European powers, if they cannot even contain lowly squads from Canada and El Salvador?
- Alex Arthur (@SoccerStatUSMNT)