Consider the just-closed international window the latest missed opportunity for the U.S. men’s national team.
While the USMNT saved some face by coming from behind to secure a 1-1 draw in Tuesday’s friendly match against fifth-ranked Uruguay, it wasn’t enough to kill the vile taste still lingering in the mouths of U.S. fans since last Friday, when the Americans suffered through an ugly 3-0 defeat to chief rival Mexico less than two months after narrowly losing to El Tri in the 2019 Gold Cup final.
Long seen in global soccer circles as a rising nation whose tenacity and defensive organization made it a tough out even against the game’s elite, the USMNT’s reputation at home and overseas has been in the toilet since its previously unfathomable failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
Nearly two years on, the program remains desperately in need of good headlines. But with four Nations League games left against regional also-rans Canada and Cuba to close out coach Gregg Berhalter’s first full year at the helm, even four dubs and an avalanche of goals in those contests won’t be enough to convince many supporters and media that the U.S. is on track to reclaim its previous status – let alone exceed it – as a team expected to consistently reach the knockout stage of the planet’s quadrennial soccer championship.
This is where the 2020 Olympics comes in. With qualifying for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar not scheduled to begin for another 12 months, the summer Games in Tokyo represent the U.S. men’s next, best chance to create some positive buzz.
The men’s Olympic Football tournament is essentially an under-23 competition — each of the 16 participating teams are permitted just three over-age exceptions on their 18-man rosters. And it just so happens that many of the U.S. senior team’s top players — guys like Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams — are age-eligible this time around. Add in other budding prospects such as Josh Sargent, Tim Weah, Miles Robinson, Paxton Pomykal and Jackson Yueill (all but the injured Weah played for the USMNT on Tuesday) and on paper at least, you have a team capable of making a deep run in Japan.
The Olympics isn’t the World Cup. The list of past champions proves that it’s not just the usual suspects have a shot. Cameroon won the gold in 2000, four years after Nigeria did the same. Mexico finished atop the podium in 2012. The U.S. national team was and is closer in quality to those sorts of nations than to traditional heavyweights such as Brazil, France or Germany.
Asked last week by Yahoo Sports if his generation could emulate El Tri’s success seven years ago in London, Pulisic was unequivocal. “Absolutely,” he said. “We are a confident young group of guys and I think there’s no reason why we couldn’t. We set big goals for ourselves and yeah, that would be one of them. That would be something I think we can do.”
Of course, they’d have to qualify first. After reaching the semifinals at Sydney 2000 with a squad that included many of the young players who would help the U.S. reach the World Cup quarterfinals two years later, the Americans have failed to make the cut for three out of the last four Olympics, including the last two.
The next Olympic qualifying tournament will be held in March in Guadalajara, Mexico, That’s not an easy place to play for the Americans; the last time Olympic qualifiers were held there, in 2004, an American side led by all-time greats Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley fell short.
It’s also no sure thing that the likes of Adams and Pulisic will be available for qualifying. Club teams are not obligated to release players to national federations for anything other than senior team games. That goes for the actual Olympics, too. And while MLS teams have been cooperative historically, European teams have tended to dig in their heels.
But the decisive qualifying matches will coincide with FIFA’s March 2020 fixture window, meaning European-based players would be gone for a pair of to-be-announced senior team friendlies that window anyway. Surely a compromise could be worked out. And if the Americans qualify, every effort must be made to ensure that the strongest possible squad is sent to Tokyo.
With the Games running from July 22-August 8, the timing isn’t perfect. Those European teams will be deep into their preseasons. In order to secure the release of Pulisic et. al., Berhalter would almost certainly have to agree not to call his U-23 players for the final four of the Nations League next June. With another finale against Mexico potentially on tap, that might be a tough idea to sell to a coach who has already demonstrated a stubborn streak. If necessary, U.S. Soccer sporting director Earnie Stewart ought to make the call.
Because with no Copa America or Confederations Cup in the cards this cycle, the Olympics would provide the lone opportunity for some of the USMNT’s top players to test themselves in meaningful games against competition from outside the region. Success would build confidence among the program’s young core just weeks before World Cup qualifying begins. It would also excite some of the fans U.S. Soccer has alienated over these last two years and change the perception of the program among a skeptical but Olympics-crazy general public in a way even a Nations League triumph over El Tri never could.
Even Chelsea would understand how the opportunity to have Pulisic break into the mainstream American consciousness — as he was supposed to at Russia 2018 — would benefit its bottom line. He probably wouldn’t even miss a Premier League game.
Make it happen, U.S. Soccer. Because if not, it will go down as yet another opportunity missed.
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