Jon Levy and Neil W. Blackmon
So Mexico are Olympic Soccer Gold Medalists– U-23 World Champions. They won the Gold Medal match this afternoon 2-1 on two goals by Oribe Peralta. Sure, they received a “that’ll never happen again” reprieve by Oscar, who missed a free header from six yards late in the match that would have leveled after Hulk cut the lead to one– but Mexico are worthy champions. But it was more than Mexico. CONCACAF had a tremendous moment in the sun at these London games. Honduras eliminated Spain– the first time since 2009 a Spanish national team lost a game it had to win. On the women’s side, Canada and the United States played an all-time classic, and the USWNT, days later, capped a magnificent redemption song with a gold medal.
Much more on Mexico, and what this all means in a few paragraphs– but from a US perspective,The 2012 Olympic soccer tournaments have served to do nothing if not justify the outrage felt by many in the US Soccer community when the Under-23 Men failed to qualify. Soccer at the 2012 Olympics has had absolutely everything. Unlikely medal contenders, check. Korea and Japan crashed the party and one of them will leave with a bronze medal. Potential transfer window heroes? They’ve come in all forms, from previously unknown game-changers like Moussa Konate, to proven internationals like Gio Dos Santos. Soccer even authored one of the defining moments of this Olympiad; yes, I’m defining all 124 minutes of the USA/Canada women’s semifinal as one “moment.” That match epitomized the Olympic spirit, so I refuse to be bound by time or syntax.
What if the US Men did make it to the UK for the 2012 Games? Sure they might have played poorly and taken an early exit. But not without Josh Gatt showcasing his skills for the likes of Arsenal and Dortmund, or Bill Hamid/Sean Johnson starting on the path to becoming the real next great American keeper. And maybe it’s attributable to the fact that Olympic soccer is essentially a youth tournament on the men’s side, but don’t Olympic results seem a bit more fickle than their senior tournament counterparts? A free kick, a bad piece of goalkeeping and a rash challenge kept Kljestan, MB 90, Stu Holden, and the ’08 Beijing squad from advancing to the knockout rounds. And Mexico won their quarterfinal, semifinal, and yes, Gold Medal matches not primarily through their capable ball movement, but goals stemming from their opponents’ poor back passes. Who’s to say this year’s US Olympians wouldn’t have benefitted this time around from another set of seemingly random miscues? No one. They might still be playing. But you gotta get there first. And yes, the Americans were missing Josh Gatt, Alfredo Morales, Timothy Chandler, Jozy Altidore and had an injured Juan Agudelo in qualifying– but that’s no excuse.
All of us were right, missing some pieces or no, to be outraged when perhaps the most talented group of Under-23 American males ever assembled conspired to miss the cut for this great experience. A handful of those players also had the dubious honor of representing the US at Under-20 level in the spring of 2011, albeit without qualifying for that summer’s U20 World Cup (Mexico took 3rd.)
For the first time in the modern age of US Soccer (defined here as post-Caligiuri’s goal), we have a crop of tried and true international underachievers coming up through the ranks. Super talented underachievers, but then again, they couldn’t earn the “underachiever” moniker without having something to fail to live up to. As a program, it is time for the US to respond. The next couple of years are the most critical since Caligiuri scored against Trinidad and Tobago in 89. So where do we look for hope? To some extent, we look to the fledgling development academies in our first division domestic league, MLS. That’s something new. In an equally unfamiliar turn, we look south.
Right now Mexico is streaking at all levels. That’s normally not a cause for hope. They’re the primary rival after all. But look at the state of El Tri five years ago– or really, look at Mexico in the aftermath of dos a cero in Jeonju, South Korea in 2002. Mexico were left facing an up and coming generation of Americans, led by Landon Donovan. American developmental programs were growing and what was more, they were working. The U.S. became unbeatable against Mexico anywhere in the United States. For El Tri, things looked grim.
Mexico may not have been missing international tournaments at each age level regularly, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to say the Mexican “golden generation” was floundering. In any case, they were clearly second best to the US within CONCACAF. Since 2007 they’ve done more than right the ship. They’ve unlocked all the potential within their highly talented habitual losers, and they’ve done so without some secret playbook. Mexico cut out the ever-present BS in favor of structure, simplicity, and directness. Traditional American strengths.
And here’s the tally– the reward for their increased focus on development and playing the game in a more simple fashion. U-17 World Cup Champions. U-20 World Cup third place. Pan-Am Games Champions. Toulon Champions. Milk Cup Champions. Gold Cup Champions. Olympic Champions. And don’t think for two seconds a World Cup run isn’t there to be had. The Mexicans will add a few trusty veterans to the group that won this tournament, and by 2014, a U-17 World Champion or two may be ready to be a super sub. The World Cup is, of course, in South America, where Copa America results demonstrate that Mexico is never intimidated, and often plays superb. In large part due to repeated defeats to American teams whose goalkeepers won the day, the Mexicans have improved at goalkeeper, always a position of weakness– gold medalist Jose Corona, marvelous in the Olympics, just adds depth to the senior group. Javier Hernandez needs to get healthy, but at United he’ll have every opportunity in the world to truly become a global superstar. Gio Dos Santos still has two years to figure out how to be something more than Clark Kent for club– but he’ll likely still be Superman for country. You get the idea.
So can our American non-Olympians turn it around and be part of a bright winning future for US Soccer? Can Klinsmann help turn a group of serial underachievers into part of the solution? Absolutely, but it’s going to be appreciably harder than if those players got the Olympic experience.
There are reasons for excitement in US Soccer, and reasons for concern. It’s time to start being brutally honest about both. The bright spots, from a 2014 and 2018 standpoint, are pretty clear. The midfield appears to be strong, and there’s a future captain who just turned 25 playing in Rome. Had the USMNT made the Olympic Games, it would have been an exceptionally strong team in the center and at the front, where Jozy Altidore (still a young, young man), Juan Agudelo, Terrence Boyd, Dilly Duka, Teal Bunbury and others could give the US its deepest forward pool in the modern era of US Soccer.
MLS Academies might not be too influential in crafting the 2014 side, but as they grow and streamline their developmental programs with the interest of US Soccer (a stated goal between Klinsmann and MLS commissioner Don Garber), they should produce consistently strong players for the United States. It would be an entirely different, and longer post, to make too lengthy a comparison, but it should certainly be noted that the entirety of Mexico’s starting 11 today plays in the Mexican Primera. The allure of Europe means that likely doesn’t happen with MLS for the US again– but given how competitive the top MLS sides have been in things like the CONCACAF Champions League– one shouldn’t sell MLS too short. The league gets stronger every year, and anyone who saw Andy Najar or Generation Adidas product Roger Espinoza play for Honduras this summer should understand that not all those academy guys won’t play for the States. The league has become a destination spot for young talent. The facilities are excellent and the playing time is ample. It’s a matter of time before some of that talent produces for the Yanks.
The concern for the immediate future is that it is nearly time, as the old-guard USMNT golden generation (Donovan, Howard, Eddie Johnson, Dempsey, Beasley) ages, to pass the torch. And the torch will need to be passed not just to Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore, but to a handful of these young players who as a whole played zero games in the U-20 World Cup and Olympics. Did the US get complacent? Perhaps. It certainly could be said that the Americans felt comfortable, winning their qualifying region two consecutive times, handling Mexico on home soil over and over. If there was complacency, Klinsmann and company need to root it out, and there shouldn’t be now, not after seeing your primary rival celebrate a gold medal.
Did the program focus too much on developing one kind of player, or was it simply bad luck that predominantly central midfielders were produced? Probably a bit of both, but if you are actually excited about backline up and comers like Ike Opara, Gale Agbossoumonde (who is currently plodding along in the NASL), Tim Ream (if this is a slump, it’s an epic one), Sean Franklin (not int’l caliber), Zarek Valentin (serviceable), Perry Kitchen and Sheanon Willams, well– you’re either kidding yourself or really, really optimistic. There’s a reason Klinsmann is relying on a pair of 30-plus year old defenders, a Scandanavian journeyman in Clarence Goodson and German-Americans who never played stateside to shore up the back. And despite all those young players mentioned– Klinsmann still calls in the likes of Oguchi Onyewu for depth. America has a problem developing defenders, and if Omar Gonzalez’s knee doesn’t rehab right, it might get worse before it gets better.
The good news, however, is that soccer is a forgiving game too. And once you do figure out how to win, momentum can snowball. Just ask Mexico. So with a bit of forgiveness for their prior failures, the USMNT, and its fans, should embrace this group of U-23’s moving forward, and find belief that like Elway, Lebron, Landon or your favorite redemption parable, they willl find a way to get it done, and on the grandest stage.