The aftermath: US misses out on 2020* Olympics

It’s been a busy week around here, but let’s hop back and relive the worst part of it, when the United States U-23 team lost to Honduras and failed to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics! Plenty of very bright people have written interesting things about it. Let’s add to the #takes.

It’s not a reflection on the state of the program. Failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup was a big deal. Missing out on the Olympics is a big deal. They have different meanings and implications when it comes to both US Soccer (big S) and US soccer (little s), though. For starters: regardless of whether a B or C team should be able to beat Honduras, the fact remains that this was indeed far from an A team of U-23 eligible players. From those unavailable because they wouldn’t get releases, to some who simply weren’t called up (more on that in a moment), this was something different than “literally the best team we can beat on the pitch doesn’t make [tournament]” like 2018 was.

Following from that, it felt awful, felt like the sky was falling to not qualify for that World Cup. Not only was it a step backward for the US, it was indicative of incredible cracks in the American system. I would contend that 2018 turned out to be more “growing pains” and “lost generation” than “we’re doing everything wrong” – which is not how it seemed at the time. We were and still are imperfect, but the imperfections were overblown then, and there are fewer and less-obvious ones now.

Growing pains at the U-23 level are far less damning (particularly because some of the growing pains are “the top-end players are too good to be released for this tournament, and the second tier hasn’t filled out yet). We would love to not have those growing pains. But we’re still less than four years removed from Couva and need to keep that – and the progress in the time since – in mind.

It was a fluky loss. The United States was not the better team on the day, and probably didn’t deserve to win by any reasonable read of the game. But the biggest mistake – David Ochoa clearing the ball into an opponent’s foot – was maximally punished with a goal, and that’s the difference in the game. If the game played out with a similar flow 10 times, the luck would probably see the United States win about half of them.

Take into account: including the game-winning goal (which again, was not a shot but a deflected clearance), the Hondurans had 10 shots to the Americans’ seven. Only two of Honduras’s shots came from inside the penalty area, and both scored (also one of them was not actually a shot). The US wasn’t exactly racking up xG, either, but this was a pretty evenly-played game.

The nature of the competition. So given the nature of the loss, a little compare-contrast with the infamous Trinidad and Tobago game is probably reasonable. The Americans lost a “win and win” game, and didn’t qualify.

But Olympic qualifying’s format means that no matter what the team did previously, they were going to have a do-or-die semifinal. Certainly the team could have won the group in order to play against Canada, rather than Honduras. But either way, there wasn’t a mechanism through which the semifinal was just another game in a sequence. It’s still one that the Americans should have won.

In Couva, on the other hand, the Americans needed a win (actually just a draw), because of prior failures over the course of World Cup Qualifying. The Hex – may its memory be a blessing to us – was a home-and-home group play scenario. There are plenty of times earlier in the process that the USMNT could have taken a single point to lock down qualification before ever stepping foot in Ato Boldon stadium. The loss in Trinidad was important because it was the continuation of a trend with such data points as “lose two games to Costa Rica by a 6-0 aggregate.”

BUT! Honduras took Mexico to penalties. Actually this result wasn’t bad! Eh, it’s still bad. The US should have beaten Honduras because of the stakes. It may not be quite the great shame it felt like at the time – that Honduras team is fairly legit – but when you’re the US or Mexico, you should be able to put yourself in a position to beat other Concacaf teams, even pretty good ones.

It’s less about the who and more about the why that makes it such a problem. You win this game because if you don’t, you don’t make it to the Olympics. You went through this competition building toward this single game (that’s more a “what” than a “why” but it follows logically). You play to win the game, or whatever.

Does this game mean the Honduran domestic league is better than MLS? I’ve seen this one floating around. It may very well be Hondurans talking (deserved) smack, and woe-is-me USMNT fans playing the patsy, but it’s worth examining.

A data point that’s been raised in support is Concacaf Champions League. Olimpia beat Seattle Sounders in penalties in the Round of 16 in the 2020 tournament. That’s literally the entire data point (and again: given a sample size of one, I suspect not raised in good faith). Typically, Honduran teams – including Olimpia – don’t get out of the group stage to even face a knockout game against MLS sides. It’s a disingenuous argument at best.

There is something to be said for a co-causal factor as to why Honduras has found (occasional) success against Americans, including Sunday evening, which is the calendar of the season. That’s so deep into “it is what it is” territory (and I actually think the benefits of not adhering to a European schedule far, far outweigh these sorts of downsides. In a non-pandemic year it may not have even affected this tournament that much!).

Reasons aside, it’s still a big deal. Perception is key here. I’ve seen arguments raised – and I don’t think in bad faith, unlike the above – that it doesn’t matter, because the Olympics don’t mean a ton in men’s soccer. This won’t help us win the 2022 World Cup. Etc.

From a soccer die-hard standpoint, “nobody cares about soccer at the Olympics” is true. But it’s not for the soccer die-hards, either. The average American cares much more about the Olympics than about the USMNT. Attention to the sport of soccer generally and the Men’s National Team specifically can get dragged upwards by the platform – regardless of whether the team were to win in Tokyo. Making the Olympics is not in service of micro-level, short-term improvement in the product on the field, it’s about improving its perception among American fans. The general sports fan may not watch a game. But you bet your ass that now they’ll be saying, “well, it’s the US, so we aren’t in the Olympics, we still suck, I will still not care.” It’s a major missed opportunity to make the program more a mainstream interest with a big NBC platform than a niche sport that the United States is bad at.

And once you wade into that territory, the opportunity to take it even further if the US were to advance to the medal round is a huge miss. The Americans could win the next 10 Gold Cups, and it would make a fraction of the impact on the American public as a bronze medal in Tokyo.

Also it was still bad on the field. Yes, this is all true. Plenty of it comes down to personnel and tactical choices either in the weeks and months before the game or on the day. Whether that happened because USSF doesn’t take the Olympics as seriously as it should, or because they care and just didn’t do a good job… ultimately doesn’t really matter at this point,.

It’s worth noting what made this a B or C team, because that can provide a little bit of optimism, or at least context. Here are some of the players who weren’t in Guadalajara, with their current TransferMarkt values and the reasons they weren’t there:

  • M Christian Pulisic ($55 million) – European pro
  • M Giovanni Reyna ($41.8 million) – European pro
  • M Weston McKennie ($27.5 million) – European pro
  • FB Sergiño Dest ($27.5 million) – European pro
  • M Tyler Adams ($22 million) – European pro
  • M Brenden Aaronson ($11 million) – European pro
  • M Yunus Musah ($11 million) – European pro
  • [many more with “European pro” distinction]
  • FB Cole Bassett ($5.5 million) – Coach’s decision after camp
  • M Gianluca Busio ($4.4 million) – Coach’s decision (not called to camp)
  • CB Miles Robinson ($3.3 million) – Not released by Atlanta United
  • M/CB Keaton Parks ($3.3 million) – Coach’s decision (not called to camp)
  • M Paxton Pomykal ($3.3 million) – Injury
  • F Jeremy Ebobisse ($3.08 million) – Coach’s decision (not called to camp)
  • FB George Bello ($2.75 million) – Not released by Atlanta United
  • M Anthony Fontana ($2.2 million) – Coach’s decision (not called to camp)
  • CAM Frankie Amaya ($2.2 million) – Coach’s decision (in camp but not selected to 18)

…and the list goes on. Whether his hand was forced (I understand Atlanta United not releasing its players with a CCL game next week. MLS should probably have mandated releases given the overall business benefit of making the Olympics for the league, especially given no reasonable method of selecting for CCL would have included Atlanta anyway) or by choice of the head coach, it wasn’t a very good roster, and coach Jason Kreis didn’t put the team in positions to generate scoring opportunities on Sunday.

That raises the final point which is… should the US U-23 gig be a placeholder for a guy who’s washed out at multiple stops in MLS (and has his next full-time gig lined up), or a job for a coach who’s earned and bought into the task of developing a U-23 side? And should the Federation prioritize both the position and the treatment/competitive environment of the U-23 team to avoid incidents like this in the future?

Hopefully, in a non-pandemic year with the finances back under control after a lawsuit against the USWNTPA – and a financial windfall expected as we build toward the 2026 World Cup – some of the controllables will be handled better. I have a hard time killing people too much for results not meeting expectations at the tail end of a pandemic year, but that’ll at the very least be one less reasonable explanation to worry about going forward.


Charlie Boehm on the factors that led to the loss. Most (not all) of them were micro in scale. His other column is a more distilled version of same, and makes that concept more clear. … Paul Tenorio’s column sort of aligns with my “not a referendum” take. … Sam Stejskal takes on some of the tactical and personnel issues that went into the loss. … SSFC‘s Parker Cleveland takes the Taylor Twellman route in reacting. … Meanwhile, ASN‘s Brian Sciaretta takes the more-measured approach.

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