Tuesday, March 27

Olympic Failure or an Evolving, Maturing Psyche?

There have been a lot of excellent and interesting examinations of the 'colossal' failure of the US U23 Men’s National Team over the past week.
U23 MNT prepares | photo: US Soccer
Perhaps something that should also be examined is the role of Major League Soccer in this. Fourteen of the 20 players on the squad were from MLS clubs. Canada, which faces tough odds to qualify with Mexico looming in the semifinals, features seven players from MLS and another three from the NASL.

Aside from the demolition of a 10-man Cuba, neither side acquitted themselves very well at the tournament. Canada played El Salvador to a scoreless draw to open the tournament and defeated the US on two corner kicks. On the final day Canada again came out with a minimal result, playing Cuba, which came in outscored 10-0, to a 1-1 draw.

Is the problem that these younger players are not playing together enough leading up to the tournament, or does it lie in the development and preparation they are getting at their clubs? You have to wonder if the fact so many of them are literally just coming in off of preseason MLS camps where they have been learning to sync up with new club teammates and then thrust into a national team where they have to go through the process all over again in addition to not being in complete match fitness like their opponents from El Salvador.

Part of the blame in that also probably falls on CONCACAF, which scheduled the tournament outside of FIFA windows that would have given the US and Canada greater access to its standouts abroad in Europe.

But in the end, I think I may know what the underlying issue is that is behind all of the above factors pointed out. Perhaps we just don’t care about the Youth National Teams’ success anymore; at least in tournaments.

We often say that we are a young soccer nation. And while that is true, we are also maturing. Part of that process is outgrowing a need to obsess over winning youth tournaments.

I think the obsession really began on the heels of the 1998 World Cup debacle and the explosion of the internet over the next 10 years. Fans became savvy and could follow the development of players at all levels, making the success of our youth teams a much larger representation of who we were as a soccer nation; that if we couldn’t contend in the World Cup, maybe we could slip in somehow and win at the youth level.

But now that MLS is becoming a success and the senior national team is firmly set as a CONCACAF power and has more or less established itself as one of the second-tier quality nations in FIFA, we don’t need to rely on the youth programs for respect. I think a lot of the coaches and executives in US Soccer and MLS have come to this realization, but fans and media have not quite turned that corner. While attention from the ‘outsiders’ is still on living up to expectations, the insiders have turned the youth teams into what they are around the world for the other establish nations: development and scouting programs.

And while I think Jurgen Klinsmann would have liked the boys to get some more international experience, what he ultimately cares about is finding out which players can succeed on this kind of stage. MLS teams know the youth events, in the big scheme of things, are not the most important aspect anymore and want their players back.

And if the coaches and executives feel this way, perhaps the players also now do not treat these games as the holy grail; that a loss could be the end of their careers. No, they know a good individual performance can land bigger club contracts and that poor performances can be put behind them with future success with their club(s), earning senior call-ups later in their career. That kind of psyche takes the focus away from worrying about every little 'team interaction' on the field and makes it more difficult to find a cohesive team performance by the group. 

Sure, my initial reaction to the performance was that it was extremely disappointing. But let’s face the truth; NBC was not going to all of a sudden change its Olympic programming plans to make soccer its top focus. And ultimately, all I could really do was shrug my shoulders and say, “oh well.”

I think the time has come for everyone on the outside to also grow beyond living and dying on each youth national team result. We need to begin treating the youth teams for what they are – development programs. When we watch the games and examine what happens, it should be in concert with the bigger picture. Perhaps a little less of the blame searching and a little more constructive criticism is in order... at least for the youth national teams.

1 comment:

  1. Gerald:
    Good article. How come you don't put your email address anywhere on your blog?