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Olympics exit won’t hurt USA

The first person I saw the morning after the United States were eliminated from Olympic qualifying for the second time in three cycles was an El Salvadorian friend.

Mighty minnows El Salvador earned a point in a 3-3 draw to progress to the next qualifying stage, dismissing Team USA in the process.

My friend was excited, and rightfully so. The Olympic football tournament presents an opportunity for small fry like El Salvador to showcase their best players to clubs in the U.S. and Europe.

But for regular World Cup entrants, such as Team USA, Olympic football is a nice-to-have, not a need-to-have.

The reaction to the draw with El Salvador has been bitter - and not just from the usual “I hate soccer (because my career is threatened by its growth)” element in the media, either.

Deeply distressed

Long-time soccer pundits are deeply distressed about the future generation of talent that will take over once Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan et al hang up their boots.

To paraphrase their concerns: if the U-23 team is this poor, will the U.S. have to take some steps back away from the goal of being part of the sport’s elite?

My answer, in a word: chill. Just to put in perspective, perennial World Cup stalwarts Germany, Italy, Argentina, Holland, Portugal, France, Ghana, and Cote d’Ivoire will also be at home watching the Olympics on T.V. as well.

It’s worth remembering that, unlike in most sports, the Olympics is a minor event in football. The World Cup is a far bigger event, as are regional international tournaments and even club football in Europe.

Even a readership as well-versed in football as Total Football commands would be hard-pressed to remember that Argentina has won the last two gold medals.

Olympics success does not translate to World Cup glory

Winning gold medals does not translate into World Cup success either: Argentina fell to Germany in the quarterfinals in both 2006 and 2010. The previous two gold medalists (Cameroon 2000, Nigeria 1996) also never came near a World Cup title.

Italy did win a bronze medal in 2004 and the World Cup in 2006, but with two very different rosters.

And the team that Italy beat for the bronze? That football powerhouse known as Iraq.

The U.S. has qualified for every Olympic tournament since 1976 bar two: 2004 and 2012. It’s no coincidence that the two failures have occurred during a boom period for the domestic league.

With MLS in place, for U.S. Soccer, the Olympics is now just a glorified U-23 tournament, with most of the players 20-23 years old playing on their first professional contract with an MLS club.

While there is a genuine thrill of representing your country at the Olympics, these players have greater sporting ambitions in mind: growing their professional careers into the World Cup national team, and potentially moving to richer clubs and more prestigious competitions.

Thus, many are happy to remain with their MLS teams rather than the U.S. Olympic team, because that gives them the best opportunity to grow as footballers.

Struggle

The inverse is also true: MLS clubs - who are universally very supportive of the national team - struggle to release their bright, young talent to Olympic qualifying for the same reason, especially during the MLS season.

In this cycle, the U.S. were without some critical pieces of the puzzle: Jozy Altidore, Danny Williams, Timothy Chandler, Josh Gatt, and Alfredo Morales.

Like the 2012 version, the 2004 U.S. team was expected to qualify with ease, but could not find a way to recover from a significant loss of talent due to club team commitments and injuries.

Despite failing to qualify for the Olympics, the 2004 U.S. U-23 squad still graduated a bevy of top-flight talent, including Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Edson Buddle, and Bobby Convey.

So it is still too early to judge the talent in the Class of 2012.

It must also be noted that the U.S. was qualifying for the Olympics under a new senior-team manager, Juergen Klinsmann. Klinsmann has not yet had the chance to develop the youth pipeline to fit his system.

In fact, he hasn’t even had the chance to name his own youth coach, and is still relying on his predecessor’s man, Thomas Rongen.

While the bitter loss to El Salvador stings painfully, it is not by any means a cause of desperation for U.S. Soccer.

By Sreesha Vaman


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