Slide Tackle: The U-23 Mess, and U.S. Soccer at the Crossroads

The U.S. U-23 soccer team won't be going to the Olympics, but how far they eventually wind up going is anyone's guess.
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The United States Soccer Federation is at a crossroads. The 2010 World Cup proved definitively that the present kick-and-run strategy was rapidly approaching the limit of its potential. The ceiling was high when things went right—a victory over No. 1 Spain at the 2009 Confederations Cup, a quarterfinal appearance in the 2002 World Cup—but only in an "Any Given Sunday" sort of way. The Americans can beat anyone, which is better than the alternative. Still, they don't possess the top-line talent to defeat the world's best teams on a regular basis. The Stars and Stripes aren't going to top FIFA's rankings with anyone like Robbie Findley, an exceptional athlete but not anything approaching a world-class soccer player, starting at forward. Something had to change. The good news is that it’s changing. That’s also the less-good news.

In an attempt to recalibrate the program, the USSF handed Jurgen Klinsmann, the former German star who with the help of a faithful assistant rebuilt his nation's team between 2004 and 2006, a blank piece of paper upon which to draw his plans (and gave him an obscenely large contract to draw them). Klinsmann’s priorities are technical ability and possession, which was supposed to have been obvious during CONCACAF Olympic qualifying, an Under-23 tournament that included most of America's brightest young stars. At times it was, and at other times it all felt thrillingly promising. In the end, though, the USA failed to qualify in shocking fashion. Remember, that was "changing," not "changed."

The U-23 group in Nashville possessed perhaps the most on-paper talent of any American youth team ever, and played in the same 4-3-3 formation that the senior team has adopted. Klinsmann says he expects at least seven players from the Olympic qualifying group to contribute to the full national squad team in the near future, and Bill Hamid, Brek Shea, Juan Agudelo, and Terrence Boyd already have. Sprinkle in age-eligible guys like Jozy Altidore, Danny Williams, and Josh Gatt, who were not on the team during the tournament, and Klinsmann's prediction looks more like a fact, and a promising one at that.

They will not, however, represent the Stars and Stripes in London after they failed to finish first or second in their four-team round robin with Canada, Cuba, and El Salvador. The U.S, needing a victory in the last group match against the Salvadorans, conceded a horrible goal with seconds remaining and settled for a 3-3 draw (and a few bite marks).

The failure is inexcusable. None of the other three teams in competition featured anywhere near the physical ability that the USA brought to Music City. The Americans ran through Cuba 6-0 but dropped a 2-0 decision to a better prepared, defensive-minded Canada team. That loss, more than the final game, was their undoing. Then, with their backs against the wall, they couldn't beat El Salvador. Pick your descriptor—crushing, ugly, embarrassing. Not advancing to the winner-goes-to-England semifinal was a combination of all of them and more.

It was also not the first time this group of players had fallen short in a major international tournament. The U-20 team went out in the group stage of the 2009 World Cup, then followed that up by failing to qualify for the main event two years later. As Brian Sciaretta at Yanks Abroad noted, mainstays of the 2012 U-23 squad like Brek Shea, Mix Diskerud, Ike Opara, Amobi Okugo, Zarek Valentin, Perry Kitchen, and Joe Gyau participated in one of those two tournaments. This particular bad feeling is one they know well. Ensuring that it doesn’t happen again is the challenge facing Klinsmann and the rest. It is, of course, not quite that simple.

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Two competing narratives about the future of American soccer have emerged from these debacles. One centers around a group of young players constantly falling short of expectations. They cannot get it done, this story goes, and therefore will continue to struggle as the competition improves. The recent failings provide examples to support this theory, but they offer an incomplete picture.

The other narrative, which Klinsmann and U-23 coach Caleb Porter want to advance and hope to prove, is that thee recent embarrassments are nothing more than a minor setback for what is, and will become, a tremendously talented team. "I told them in the locker room that this won't define their careers. As low as this moment is for them, as painful as it is, they are the future of our country," Porter said in an emotional press conference after the match. "These guys are young players. Young players, and talented players. Are they perfect? No, they are not perfect. They are still learning, still growing, still maturing. But there will be some bright moments in these players' careers. A good majority of them will be wearing the crest, and in some ways, this will shape their character in a way that will help them achieve greater things in the future. Adversity shapes people, [shapes] winners in a way that will help them achieve more. I know that with these guys and I told them."

This U-23 team was supposed to demonstrate that the Red, White, and Blue are in good shape. They were projected to storm through qualifying by playing beautiful football, a mirror of how the senior side plans to operate under Klinsmann. Porter, who also coaches a University of Akron team known for attack-minded, possession-oriented play—ring any bells?—was the ideal man to lead the group. There was early promise, with Adu, Diskerud, Club Tijuana's Joe Corona, and others engineering a convincing 2-0 defeat of Mexico's U-23 squad in a February warm-up match. This was not just any win, either: the U.S. out-Mexico'd Mexico, controlling the ball and imposing their will with skill and brawn. It was easy to imagine that the team from that game would reach the Olympics, likely add some combination of Altidore, Williams, Gatt, and others, and offer a preview of what to expect in Brazil 2014.

Then, of course, the U-23s proceeded to finish third in Group A almost exactly a year after the U-20s failed to qualify in Central America. But Klinsmann, as much as his rose-colored glasses are firmly in place, is not bluffing when he plays the patient sage; while some sort of lose-the-battle/win-the-war cliche is exactly what one would expect in these circumstances, it also happens to be true. The defeats, although agonizingly painful for the players who participated, should qualify as a bump along the road to reaching a higher level. "Obviously you want to get the results done and you want to be in a big competition like the Olympics," the senior coach said after the match. "But I think you could clearly see the way they played against Mexico, the way they played Cuba, and tonight, there's a very good group here doing tremendous work."

"That's a learning experience now," he continued. "At the early stage they need to handle such a big disappointment, which is not so easy. It doesn't kill them. It makes them stronger at the end of the day. ... That is very important for us to see that we are on the right path here in terms of style of play."

The heart of the matter is not the U-23 failure, anyway. It's the American program and its German savior, who needs more time to remake the program in his vision. Stalwarts including Clint Dempsey (29), Landon Donovan (30), Carlos Bocanegra (32), and Steve Cherundolo (33) are not yet aged out, but will be in their primes for, at most, one more World Cup. Klinsmann has a strong core in the next generation with Michael Bradley (24), Maurice Edu (25), Fabian Johnson (24), and others, but he also needs more talent. The California transplant knows his young charges fell short, but feels fine about his ability to meet the larger challenge. "These players have a tremendous potential. We can see where they could be in two, three, four years from now. I think you saw some players out there who can only get better," he said in a concrete corridor underneath LP Field. It's not the end of the world, in other words.

While the U.S. head coach offered his sunny outlook, 20 distraught American kids dejectedly wandered one by one out of the locker room and on to a waiting bus. Instead of traveling as a group to Kansas City for the semifinal they had expected to play, their future held too-soon flights to Philadelphia, San Jose, Dortmund, and various other places from which they would go back to work, try to forget about the past and work on creating a future free of similar disappointments.

That’s Klinsmann’s task, too, but if it’s weighing on him it’s pretty much impossible to tell. "You're very welcome, you guys," he enthusiastically told four reporters as he wrapped up his impromptu interview. "See you around!"


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