Effects of US Men’s Olympic Void Showing AlreadyHow the failures of the U23s not qualifying for the Olympics might have deeper, darker results than expected
by Abram Chamberlain | Monday, July 30, 2012
“So when does the US play?” asked my wife while I was watching the Brazilians methodically pick apart Belarus in men’s Olympic soccer. My wife is just not into soccer. She tries, she really does. Truthfully, it is not just soccer it is sports in general that she displays an apathy towards.
The fact is that she, like a good portion of Americans, is sitting down wondering why Landon Donovan – who ironically may have not been there anyway – is not in London. While it has been debated, ad nauseum, what went wrong with the U23s, now that the London games are upon us we are realizing just how deep what looked like a superficial cut truly is. The failure to qualify is now showing us the regression of players we assumed would be essential for the senior team, the inability to get closer looks at players we hoped would be in the senior pool and the lack of big game experience for all.
Looking at MLS, we can see the struggling of a few notable U23 players. It’s a stretch but perhaps the failure of making the Olympics is weighing on them. Most notably, Brek Shea is having a poor season. Once the most heralded of what many hoped would be the next wave of USMNT stars, Shea has taken a step back from last year’s MVP nominated season. In fact, Dallas manager Schellas Hyndman has left Shea off the last two Dallas rosters. Shea, who originally looked to be an important piece for the senior national team, was having his name tossed around in transfer rumors in the winter window. Those talks have all but dried up.
Then there is Juan Agudelo, who is another player that has seemed to take a hit. While the expectations of Agudelo were immense and possibly overinflated to begin with, Agudelo has not played for the senior team since the U23s failed to qualify. He was called into the camp prior to the first round of World Cup Qualifiers, but he ended up not making the roster – it should be noted that he had just been traded to Chivas USA at that time, so perhaps Klinsmann thought he should stay with his new team. The hopes of seeing Agudelo dominate for the U23s in London and then translate that into a transfer is gone. And both he, Shea and perhaps other players who were hoping to use London as a spring board to bigger things are now stuck in neutral.
Looking as Neymar, Oscar, Hulk and Pato destroy Belarus and become the clear favorite for Olympic Gold, we can see that the U23s probably were not going to win Gold in London. But the aforementioned young Brazilians, unlike Agudelo and Shea, were already being sought after by big European clubs – Oscar having already been sold to Chelsea – all now have their transfer fees and profiles raised. Most likely no American was going to garner the hype, money or profile that those four players had. Still, transferring to big teams is something that we want for a Tony Taylor or a Joe Gyau or dare I say a Freddy Adu. And while Honduras’s overaged player Jerry Bengtson, a new Designated Player for the New England Revolution, is now being talked about by bigger clubs and leagues, the United States is missing out on getting to do the same for either a U23 player or a potential overage player like an Alejandro Bedoya or a Tim Ream.
The USMNT has been looking for its next wave of senior stars. It needs the stars that will one day replace Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey. It needs the opportunity to see Bill Hamid and Sean Johnson perform at an international level, even if it is not the senior level, to see if one of them could ultimately be Tim Howard’s replacement. They need to look at the new wave of center backs to see if there is a partner, or even replacement, for Carlos Bocanegra. Is Josh Gatt going to become the right back we thought we had in Timmy Chandler? What about Sheanon Williams? Having already missed the U20 World Cup this was the last chance to test young players before the games truly mattered for the World Cup.
The fact is most clubs in the world see the Olympics as an annoyance. In a piece Michael Cox wrote for ESPN, he retells Graham Hunter’s Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World and Lionel Messi’s experience in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Originally, Barca tried to prevent Messi from going to the 2008 Olympics. Then Pep Guardiola took over, allowed Messi to go and Messi returned to Spain to become the greatest player of this generation. So while the US is still probably light years away from having a player of Messi’s caliber, we are now missing out on the chance to see just who Josh Gatt and Jared Jeffrey are. We are missing the opportunity to see Mix Diskerud and Joe Corona grow with players we hope will build a stronger senior side. The success of the 2000 USMNT U23 Olympic side, which introduced us to John O’Brien, Josh Wollf, Danny Califf and some guy named Landon Donovan, helped setup the 2002 senior team’s World Cup run. We are missing the opportunity to develop our players and create a core for the future.
But that is not all. The other story that we are missing right now is the rise of Honduras. Many rightfully believe that CONCACAF is a two horse race with Mexico and the USA. Yet we all know Mexico’s horse has a big lead right now. But looking back at how the 2000 Olympics affected the senior side of the USMNT, we might need to worry that Honduras could potentially be going through that same experience. Andy Najar, Jerry Bengtson and Roger Espinoza are all becoming Honduran heroes as the team toppled Spain. Could the rise of Honduras at the U23 level be the beginning of another CONCACAF power? We are seeing a team that is growing together, at the international stage, in the powerful spotlight of the London Olympics. Or is this just a one-off that in the grand scheme of things means little? It is a scary thought to think the US could not just be competing with Mexico, but that Honduras might be building a very quality side for the future through a tournament that many in the soccer world don’t even take seriously.
Yes, we continuously try to justify our missing the Olympics by telling ourselves that the Netherlands, France and Italy also are not there, but those nations are not the USA. They are all simply far beyond The States in the development of international level players. So while we watch a vastly superior team like Brazil, or a so-called Golden Generation like Mexico (who incidentally our U23s destroyed) we have to wonder: why not us? Why not the US?