On Saturday night, most in the United States soccer community and the general sporting population were stunned and saddened to see the sights of Mexico celebrating a CONCACAF Cup victory over the United States on the Rose Bowl turf.
No doubt it was the biggest of blows to the publicity train and the egos of the American soccer fan and the United States Soccer Federation. However, the real big blow came hours earlier as the U-23 side failed to make the final of the Olympic qualification tournament thanks to a 2-0 loss to Honduras in the semi-final.
It left the United States with a rough road to even limp its way in to the 2016 Rio Olympic games. The U-23 side must now win its third place match in the CONCACAF Qualification tournament, and then face off with Colombia for the final berth in the tournament.
With a contest against Canada first, and then a matchup in March in Brazil against Colombia the road is not easy. Rather than just having to reach the final, the U-23 side must climb a two-game mountain to get to the tournament in Rio.
If the U-23 fails to qualify, it would be third time in the last seven Olympic games that the team wasn’t there.
Jurgen Klinsmann may stay or go, but developing the next group of players to make an impact on the senior USMNT is of utmost importance. Missing out on any international youth tournament is a huge blow to those hopes.
Ironically, it is the story of the bitter rivals to the South that tells us all we need to know about the significance of making youth tournaments count towards future success on the biggest stage of them all.
Debate the significance of the CONCACAF Cup all you want, but the reaction to the extra time win by El Tri speaks volumes as to who cares about getting to the Confederations Cup in 2017. Mexico celebrated like it had just won the World Cup and the Olympics all-in-one.
However, it is hard to notice that one didn’t come without the other, as Mexico took home the gold medal at the 2012 London Olympics. Since then, the team advanced to the round of 16 at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and managed a tie with the host nation in the group stage. It also won the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup and now will represent the region the FIFA Confederations Cup ahead of 2018 World Cup in Russia.
The soccer world stood up and took notice back in 2012 though, as Mexico defeated Brazil in the finals to win its only medal in its history of the sport at the Olympic games.
Winning there was seen as a spring board, and it has proven itself out. Most importantly though, it is the growth and depth that the Olympic team has provided for this Mexican national side that matters most. Five of the players on the U-23 roster for the Olympic games were on the roster for Saturday’s win against the USMNT, with many of those five having a massive impact on the outcome as well.
While Olympic qualification is no guarantee of future success, the more experience the youth players get, the more depth is built and the more future success can be attained.
It’s also no coincidence that this team missing out on the 2004 tournament foretold of bad things to come for this team. At the next World Cup in Germany in 2006, the USMNT finished last in its group with just one point and failed to make it past the group stage for the first time since the 1998 tournament.
One also can’t overlook the ability of this team getting in to the Olympic tournament in 1984 and again in 1988 as fundamental instruments in making the USMNT in to the team that eventually went out and got to the 1990 World Cup and started this whole thing.
It’s hard to ignore the coincidence of the experiences gained from playing in this type of tournament for teams from CONCACAF. While it may not matter as much to future success for teams from Europe of South America, there’s nothing like the bigger stage to help the youth players of CONCACAF squads grow.
So, while everyone was crying over Saturday night’s loss, it was the one that no one was watching (because TV coverage was slim pickings) that actually hurts the USMNT program in the long run.