Here we go again.
The US men have failed to even qualify for another global tournament, this time the Tokyo Olympics, after a sloppy 2-1 loss Sunday to Honduras. Even worse, this is now the third straight Olympics the US will miss, in addition to failing to qualify for the last World Cup.
On its face, this latest failure looks all too similar to that heartbreak four years ago, when the USMNT suffered a shock loss to Trinidad & Tobago in World Cup qualifying. That defeat became a referendum on not just the state of the US men’s program, but the US Soccer Federation as a whole. But this time is different. In some ways, it highlights how far the USMNT has come since then.
The Olympic squad was missing its best age-eligible players because, unlike on the women’s side, the Olympics are mostly an under-23 tournament and clubs are not obligated to release players for youth events. The USMNT’s best under-23 players are also its best senior players: Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, Sergino Dest, and a bunch more.
In other words, the under-23 players are so talented and are enjoying so much success playing for European clubs that they were too good for the Olympics. The USMNT’s golden generation has more important duties than qualifying for an Olympics.
But that doesn’t mean this failure is excusable. The defeat shows lingering structural and cultural problems that US Soccer was supposed to fix after the 2018 World Cup campaign failure.
First, it’s important to understand where the blame for Sunday’s loss sits, and it’s mostly on manager Jason Kreis, who had called in the wrong players and then used the players he had ineffectively.
It was a shock to not see Jeremy Ebobisse, the Portland Timbers striker who has more professional minutes and goals than all the forwards on the Olympic team combined over the last two seasons. The Timbers were more than willing to release him, but he still did not make Kreis’s roster.
The 20-man US squad also had no creative attacking midfielders, but included five players who typically play more holding or defensive midfield roles. Cole Bassett, a 19-year-old who has generated goals for the Colorado Rapids at a higher rate than the midfielders who did make the squad, wasn’t there. The Timbers’ Eryk Williamson, who could have provided a much-needed two-way presence, was also missing. Kreis insisted the midfielders he brought were more versatile than people thought, which didn’t prove true, leaving the US underpowered.
But Kreis surely won’t keep his job, so rather than criticize his decisions, it’s worth scrutinizing how he got hired in the first place – and what it reveals about US Soccer.
Coming into his stint with the U-23s, Kreis had struggled for years in MLS, having been axed by New York City FC and Orlando City SC after awful tenures. While not as prestigious as the World Cup in soccer, the Olympic Games are still a high-profile tournament, and it’s unclear why US Soccer thought he was the best choice.
In fairness, the Olympic job is probably not very appealing to the best managers, but that’s at least partly because of US Soccer. The federation waited three years until after the US men failed to qualify for the 2016 Olympics to hire their next coach, and it was a part-time gig.
While Mexico, for instance, invested time and resources into its U-23 team, playing more than 20 tune-up games before the pandemic, the US had played just two over the same time frame. Why would that appeal to an ambitious coach?
But this wasn’t just one bad hire in Kreis. The federation made a similarly odd choice with its U-20 coach last year, hiring Anthony Hudson after he had been fired due to his abysmal performance in MLS.
It’s unclear how US Soccer made these hires. But if they were anything like the process to appoint Gregg Berhalter, which involved interviewing just two candidates from MLS and ignoring other obvious top contenders, it’s a concern.
After all, US Soccer named Earnie Stewart as its first-ever sporting director so the federation could make better technical decisions and avoid having non-soccer executives hire coaches. But so far, US Soccer’s approach seems as narrow and as insular as it was before.
That may underpin the biggest cause for concern about the US men missing the Olympics again: a winning culture and a leave-no-stone-unturned philosophy still apparently aren’t part of the USA’s DNA. That has seemed true when it comes to selecting coaches, and also whenever the US men need to prove themselves.
Simply put, winning isn’t a habit for the US men. Unlike with the women’s program, there are too many examples of the men not showing the right mentality. Talent wasn’t what was missing on Sunday, even without the likes of Pulisic, and it wasn’t missing in Couva four years ago either.
The players competing against Honduras looked like they didn’t even want the ball. They lacked confidence and leadership on the field. Given how little the squad has played together, it’s perhaps not surprising they didn’t seem ready to fight for each other.
Maybe the Olympics just didn’t matter enough to US Soccer to warrant more investment of time and resources. After all, if winning a World Cup is the be-all and end-all, it’s worth considering that France didn’t even qualify for the Olympic men’s tournament from 2000 to 2016. France still won a World Cup in 2018 – and reached the final in 2006 – and no one disputes its status as a footballing nation.
But if US Soccer wants to grow the sport in America, which is its stated mission, then the men have to start winning, and they have to start earning their place on world stages like the World Cup and, yes, the Olympics too.