They had me excited. Even before the Olympics started they had me excited. Then they beat Japan and outplayed UEFA’s back-to-back U-21 champions and I had to start annoying people.
I assaulted friends and coworkers with unprompted diatribes on the merits of Sacha Kljestan, and all the permutations that would see the US through to the knockout round (don’t feel bad for them though, the friends know what they’re getting into, and it’s because of the coworkers that I have to listen to Evan Longoria Hall Of Fame chatter halfway through his rookie year). Then the Nigeria game happened and another US national team proved they could continue to find new and different ways to exit an international tournament after group play. Harsh? Yes. True? Also yes. But the question I was left asking myself was this: Why was I, a seasoned sports fan and no stranger to USA Soccer, so excited for this particular Under-23 (plus three) version of the men’s national team?
It’s not like this team completely broke the US mold in terms of style of play. They weren’t out there playing Tottenham Hotspur football, pinning back their ears and hoping the defense would sort itself out. They weren’t dazzling with inspired passing on every attack or winning every 50/50 ball in the box. In fact, by most accounts, this team’s aim was to do what American national teams do when they’re playing well. Play great defense. Control ball possession in the midfield. Score on counter-attacks and set pieces.
It wasn’t this team’s style of play that inspired such excitement, it was their results. Half of this team reached the quarterfinals in Canada during last summer’s U-20 World Cup well before they eeked out a 1-0 win over Japan in the first game of the Olympics. Freddy Adu struck a hat trick against Poland and Jozy Altidore’s brace powered the US past a Brazil team, eliminating them from the tournament. Yeah, ELIMINATING BRAZIL.
Couple this with the gritty win over Japan and 90 minutes of inspirational play to tie the Netherlands and my excitement was a little easier to understand. Sadly, we may never see this exact team take the pitch together again. We will; however, see most of the players that comprised this team on the international stage for many years to come, and this is promising.
I only hope that rather than letting the “almost got there” feeling haunt them for the rest of their international careers, these players derive a lesson from the disappointment. The lesson exemplified by the successful Dutch free kick in stoppage time against the US, and the Nigeria debacle. It’s the lesson embraced by all quality strikers, and lost on the 2007 New England Patriots. FINISH.