|Less than one month after the U.S. Men's National Team beat Italy for the first time ever, the U-23 squad embarrassed American soccer with an epic Olympic qualifying collapse.|
If the children are indeed our future, then last night the kids of the US under-23 team gave us a depressing Paycheck-esque glimpse into the next generation of American soccer. The national team followed up a shocking 2-0 loss to Canada with a 3-3 tie in a "win or go home" game against El Salvador. As a result, USA has failed to qualify for the Summer Olympics for only the second time since 1980.
For U.S. fans, the game itself couldn't have been more heartbreaking. The Americans took an early 1-0 lead, but El Salvador countered with 2 goals in 2 minutes and brought a 1-goal edge into the locker room. After an uninspired 15+ minutes in the second half, the U.S. scored a quick 2 goals of their own. They held the lead until the 95th minute, when a "Hail Mary" shot snuck by keeper Sean Johnson to level the game at 3-3.
So who is to blame for the disappointing draw? Coach Caleb Porter? Absolutely. After a bold victory guarantee, the manager on the USA side might as well have been watching the game through a blindfold. Porter left a visibly injured Bill Hamid in net for not 1 but 2 goals before finally making the switch to the backup. In the second half, Porter made 2 time-wasting substitutions which included the end of captain Freddy Adu's night. A maturing Adu was one of the few bright spots last night, and his presence was missed when it mattered most.
And what about the officials? Do they deserve a share of the blame? Sure. As is the case in most big upsets (and we can certainly call a tie an upset), the center referee's calls were erratic and often incorrect. And of course, there is the issue of the game-tying goal in the 5th minute of 4 minutes of stoppage time...The biggest mistake, however, was a sucker punch (1:55 for the punch) missed by both center and assistant referee that surely should have resulted in an El Salvadorian send off.
But at the of the day, the lion's share of the blame must go to the players themselves. With the exception of the first five minutes, the American squad was outplayed, outworked, and outclassed. Midfielders couldn't possess the ball, defenders with size advantages couldn't cover opponents on set pieces, and goalies missed 3 balls that were, at the very least, savable.
The most frightening aspect of the CONCACAF disappointment is what it could mean for the future of U.S. soccer. Since its rebirth in the 1990s when America hosted the World Cup and saw the creation of the MLS, national team soccer has been on a gradual upswing. The expectation is that when great players like Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey hang up the cleats for good, the now well-established U.S. Soccer program will have new stars to fill those boots. After last night, however, that assumption must be questioned. Is it possible that United States soccer has hit its zenith, to forever be at best a World Cup round of 16 team and at worst a disappointment?
Exposure in worldwide competitions is extremely important for an American soccer program that continues to fight for both international and domestic viability. Unfortunately, come July, the United States U-23 team will be watching Olympic soccer just like everyone else. That is, everyone who cares enough to tune in.