ANATOMY OF A LETDOWN
As the US U-23 team crashes out of Olympic qualifying after a failure to even emerge from an easy Concacaf group, many lessons can and should be learned.
It will take some time to let the dust settle from this stunning setback but once it does, and it will, here will be the overarching themes.
U-20 failure leads to Olympic failure
This team was built on the backbones of the 2009 and 2011 US U-20 teams and neither of those teams performed well. In 2009 the team qualified for the World Cup but didn't emerge out of group play after looking terrible against Germany and South Korea. In 2011, the team didn't even qualify for the World Cup.
In 2009 the U-20 team had Brek Shea, Mix Diskerud, Ike Opara, Jared Jeffrey, Sheanon Williams, Sean Johnson, and Jorge Villafana. The 2011 U-20 team had Amobi Okugo, Zarek Valentin, Perry Kitchen, and Joe Gyau.
The warning signs were written that this team was going to struggle and it all came to a head in Nashville.
So in four years as the US U-23 team prepares for qualifying for the Brazil games in 2016, pay attention to how the US U-20 teams do in 2013 and 2015.
MLS development must improve for Olympic success
It was only recently that MLS reestablished its reserve league and more money was pumped into development. It will take time for those results to come into effect.
But it is clear that with European clubs unwilling to release players to play in this Olympic qualifying tournament, the burden must be carried out by MLS players. That is just the nature of how it is right now and how it will be in the future.
The signs have been encouraging recently with the money being spent and the desire to grow the sport in this country. In fact, the will to grow the sport has never been higher in the United States. But whether or not that money and desire will be channeled wisely is another issue and one worth following in the years ahead.
The team did not play up to the sum of its parts
There is talent on this US U-23 team just as there was talent on the Mexican team in 2008 that did not get out of its Olympic qualifying group.
But it is crucial to look at why this is the case. This US team lacked a mental toughness to respond to adversity.
Against Canada, when it was clear that their opponents had a good game plan, the US team seemed to go into a panic. They continued to force their original approach when they needed to try something different. If Canada was clogging the middle, the US failed at exploiting the wings.
In the broader sense, this team was not tough. El Salvador is a dirty team and reports (and evidence) of punching and biting US players have surfaced. Still, that is the nature of soccer in some areas of the world. This is nothing new for Concacaf. The US cannot let those things take them out of games.
The US had more talent than El Salvador or Canada, but they need to be aggressive and allow their talent to dominate opponents. Mexico struggled with that for years. They failed to qualify for the 2008 Olympics, the 2009 U-20 World Cup, and the 2009 U-17 World Cup. Their problems during those years were largely mental and now the United States are in a similar situation.
Porter's lack of flexibility was an issue
Caleb Porter was hired last November because he achieved great success in the NCAA with Akron. It wasn't so much his titles that were impressive but it was his attacking style that made many think he would be a good fit with the US team.
The problem is that Porter was exposed in this tournament for not being flexible. In the loss to Canada, the opponents came out with a 4-3-2-1 formation to defend the middle. Instead of controlling the flanks, the US game plan was to have three central midfielders in Diskerud, Joe Corona, Jared Jeffrey and a left footed Adu start wide right - thereby forcing him into the middle.
The US fullbacks also hindered strong flank play as Zarek Valentin, Kofi Sarkodie, and Villafana showed limited ability in getting forward effectively.
Brek Shea received a lot of criticism for his play in these tournaments but he was the only true player who had good ability to control the outside. As a result, opponents had an easier time taking him out of games.
When it was clear the US was unable attack in the middle of the field, Porter's only adjustments was to change the players within the 4-3-3 but not change the formation itself. That hurt the team in the end.
It has been a long time since a US youth team had strong defenders
The US U-23 team did not play well defensively and this has been a growing problem for a long time with US youth national teams.
Perry Kitchen and Ike Opara did not have good tournaments in the middle of the field. Also in the defense, the fullbacks were unable to push forward into the attack or control the flanks.
This has been a reoccurring theme and it is now affecting the US senior team.
Look at the top defenders that Klinsmann relies on: Bocanegra, Onyewu, Chandler, Cherundolo, Goodson, Johnson, Parkhurst, and Ream. None of those have been developed within US youth soccer in a long time.
It becomes problematic when you try to actually think of the last US youth player that had a significant impact on the US team. Jonathan Spector was age eligible for the 2008 Olympics but even his contribution to the US team has been inconsistent recently.
If the US wants make the needed improvements to youth development, it must start in the back.
There will be good players who come out of this age group
US head coach Jurgen Klinsmann said he wanted seven players to come out of this team to contend for roster spots on the senior team.
I am not sure that the team that was in Nashville will produce seven players into the senior team but the age group certainly will.
Jozy Altidore, Timothy Chandler, and Danny Williams are already regular US national team players who were not in Nashville.
Josh Gatt withdrew from the team to stay with his club and Juan Agudelo only played 45 minutes before getting injured. Gatt is still awaiting his first cap and Agudelo has seen time under Klinsmann but both have good chances to be regulars sooner than later.
Of the players who played significantly in Nashville, Joe Corona and Mix Diskerud were both inconsistent but made a case that they could get their first caps under Klinsmann this year.
Terrence Boyd and Joe Gyau looked good in their limited mintues and both could get fast tracked onto the national team in 2012. What must happen first is that they each need to play regular minutes with their club. Gyau and Boyd have both made the bench for their respective Bundesliga teams and both have shown promise. Still, until they can play first team soccer with some regularity, Klinsmann really won't be able to do much to get them into his team.
What is disappointing is that Bill Hamid, Sean Johnson, and Teal Bunbury have all earned callups recently to the full team but all three do not look like they will be contributing more in the near future
So is my list of players of this age group who are either able to contribute to national team now or who could contribute within a year. I am not considering players young enough to be able to contribute to the 2016 U-23 team.
Adu looked good at times but he has always looked good at youth tournaments. His success beyond this will be determined at the club level where he has yet to have much success
(*denotes players not involved with the U-23 qualifying team).
1) Timothy Chandler *
2) Jozy Altidore*
3) Danny Williams*
4) Brek Shea
5) Juan Agudelo
6) Josh Gatt*
7) Joe Corona
8) Mix Diskerud
9) Alfredo Morales*
9) Joe Gyau
10) Terrence Boyd
A quick look to 2016
It's almost impossible to predict how players in their teenage years will develop over the next four years but there are a few players who are showing positive signs.
Luis Gil is already one of the most promising young midfielders in MLS and Jason Kreis is doing a very good job with his development.
In defense, John Anthony Brooks already has a first team contract with Hertha Berlin and he turned down an offer from Bayern Munich last May. Will Packwood is playing central defense and he is showing signs that he may get first team minutes with Birmingham City in 2012 despite only being 18. Sean Cunningham's loan to Stabaek could see him become a first team regular in Norway's top flight.
If fullbacks Adam Henley, Danny Potts, or midfielder Fabian Hurzeler decide to play for the United States, they would be very significant pickups.
Forward Villyan Bijev and midfielder/left back Marc Pelosi are currently signed by Liverpool and it will be interesting to see their progression with the US U-20 team this year.
There are not many positives to take from the US U-23's failure. The Olympics may not be the biggest soccer tournament and it is still just a youth event. But they were rightfully given a priority by US Soccer.
Without a strong regional championship like in Europe or South America, there are not many opportunities for US players to gain international experience and the Olympics give a good opportunity for young American players who are about ready to make the transition into the full senior team.
So the failure to get out of the initial group is very alarming.
Will it set the program back significantly? No. There are still many effective players of this age group to keep the national team relevant for the years ahead.
Are there any radical changes that have to be made? Not at this time. The radical changes were made last August when Klinsmann was hired to run the national team and have significant power over all levels of US teams. The significant changes at MLS were also recently put into place so it's way too early to determine if they have been successful or not.
But that is perhaps what is of most concern. There have already been drastic steps taken within US Soccer. It is way too early to say that they have been failures but now it is clear what failure could look like, and it is not pretty.