The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U.S. men’s soccer keeps failing to reach the Olympics. The reasons are complicated.

Jason Kreis’s under-23 squad did not perform well at the Concacaf Olympic qualifying tournament, culminating with a 2-1 defeat to Honduras on Sunday. (Refugio Ruiz/Getty Images)

With a bounty of resources and players, the United States should qualify for every global men’s soccer tournament. No exceptions, no excuses.

No one is demanding world titles because — let’s be real — the program is still years behind much of the world.

It should, though, be expected that U.S. teams, at the bare minimum, advance out of an undaunting region known as Concacaf, which covers North and Central America and the Caribbean. Europe and South America, it is not.

Population and basic competence alone should be enough to usher the United States to the final tournament.

Mexico and the United States begin as favorites at almost every men’s qualifying bash, whether it’s an under-17 scrum or a World Cup fight. Yet, as American soccer fans have seen at the three most prominent events, the program continues to stumble.

It missed the 2016 Olympics, the 2018 World Cup and, with a drab performance Sunday against Honduras in Guadalajara, Mexico, this year’s Summer Games in Tokyo. The latest spill left the U.S. men out of the Olympics for the third consecutive cycle and the fourth time in five attempts.

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Although they pale in comparison to the World Cup, the Olympics are, to most Americans, the pinnacle of athletic competition. They are a showcase, an opportunity to engage casual fans, spread soccer’s gospel and introduce the public to emerging talent.

Another Olympics without men’s soccer is another setback to the sport’s mainstreaming efforts in the United States. Again, the responsibility will fall entirely on the women’s team, which has won four of six gold medals and, as reigning world champion, will be favored this summer.

Qualifying for the Tokyo Games also would have helped explain the unusual setup of Olympic men’s soccer. The team that failed in Guadalajara — and its predecessors the past decade in Salt Lake City and Nashville — is not the U.S. men’s national team that, until four years ago, had played in seven consecutive World Cups and is making a strong recovery.

This point can’t be emphasized enough.

Olympic soccer for men is for players 23 and under. (The women have no such age restrictions.) FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, designed it that way to avoid any confusion — or competition — with its prized jewel, the World Cup.

Furthermore, FIFA does not require pro teams to release players for under-23 competitions, whether it’s a qualifying tournament or the actual Olympic Games. Clubs have invested millions in top young players, and they don’t want to risk injury at an age-specific tournament. FIFA agrees.

So what American fans were left with Sunday was an incongruous arrangement: some of the best under-23 Americans, such as Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna and Sergiño Dest, playing for the senior team in a meaningless friendly against Northern Ireland instead of suiting up for the U-23 squad in a vital Olympic qualifier.

In official match windows, such as last week, clubs are required to release players for senior duty, regardless of game importance.

The situation became even more confusing because of the schedule of the weekend, which had both squads playing on the same day. That meant the general public was watching the senior team’s success in a friendly, then watching the Olympic qualifying team fall short when it mattered on the same day.

The program, as a whole, is in a good place. Numerous young players are employed by prominent clubs in prominent leagues in Europe, fueling optimism that the United States will not only qualify for the 2022 World Cup but potentially advance deep into the 2026 tournament, which will be hosted by the United States, Canada and Mexico.

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The average age of the U.S. starting lineup against Northern Ireland was a little over 24. And that was with top striker Josh Sargent, 21, on the bench and usual starters Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams, both 22, not in camp.

The squad that flopped in Guadalajara included very few who, if not for Olympic qualifying, would have been summoned to the national team last week.

If it were up to Jason Kreis, the under-23 coach, and Gregg Berhalter, leader of the senior squad, the U.S. roster in Guadalajara would have looked entirely different. They tried, but most clubs declined the requests. It wasn’t just European clubs; MLS’s Atlanta United withheld three players.

Only four foreign-based players were allowed to join the U-23 squad, none of whom are regular call-ups to the senior team.

To a lesser degree, other countries were affected by call-up limitations. Kreis and his players just failed to make the best of the situation. Despite a pretournament camp in Mexico, they were sluggish throughout the group stage, then were terrible in the first half against Honduras.

“I don’t know if I have ever seen a game where we’ve had players lose control of the ball so much — balls rolling under people’s feet, passing out of bounds,” Kreis said. “These are things where you scratch your head: What’s going on here?”

The Americans played with typical determination after intermission, but the die had been cast. The defeat was an indictment of not only the players but of Kreis’s personnel choices and tactical decisions and of MLS, which supplied most of the roster.

“When we really needed the quality, when we really needed difference-makers” in the decisive match, Kreis said, “I don’t think it was there.”

A lot wasn’t there Sunday. And when the Olympics commence this summer, the U.S. men won’t be there, either.

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