US MNT

Sweeney: With three major men’s tournaments now missed, US Soccer desperately needs to take a long look in the mirror

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You may have already heard the news this morning: the United States men’s U23 National Team failed to qualify for the 2020* Summer Olympics in Tokyo Sunday evening (ESPN/Trifecta Sports recaps). The Baby Yanks fell to Honduras, 2-1, in a CONCACAF U23 Olympic Qualifying Tournament semifinal, and that’s that.

But it’s not exactly that.

As usual, I have no pithy words of solace to give you, but I’m sharpening my ever-famous scalpel. Let’s take a moment to refresh here.

Coming into this tournament, it had been known that the United States wanted to make this year’s Olympics and compete in the men’s soccer competition for the first time in 13 years. That’s right, the Americans hadn’t been in that portion of the celebration of sport in London in 2012 nor in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. And when one throws in the fact that the United States men’s senior team failed to qualify for Russia 2018, Sunday’s gaffe represents the third major men’s international tournament that the US has missed since its Round of 16 exit against Belgium in the 2014 World Cup.

Let me repeat that: three major tournaments, fallen by the wayside. Sunday was supposed to be the night Americans tuning in on FS1 would have finally forgotten about the horror show of October 10, 2017, when the US failed beat a Trinidad & Tobago team that had been winless in its last nine matches leading into the Hexagonal’s final game.

A draw against Trinidad would have sent the Americans to the World Cup for the seventh consecutive time. A win Sunday over Honduras would have sent the Americans to the Olympics for the first time in three cycles. It’s symmetry, these two defeats, with unfortunate classic results. Honduras, however, moves on to its fourth straight Olympics, and good for them. Great for Honduras. Phenomenal for Honduras.

But when we look at the amount of money that is poured into the sport of soccer in this country, the largest in the CONCACAF region, the fact that little Honduras beat the United States is simply inexcusable. The US has a vast Academy program through its top flight, has three divisions of professional play, and has a rather prodigious Division 1 college program, not to mention Division 2, Division 3, junior college, high school, private high school, adult amateur, you name it. It leads me to ask — with all of those kids and older players playing the sport of soccer, you mean to tell me we can’t find the right players to wear our crest and represent this country at the U23 level? Really? We can’t? I’m really finding that difficult to believe.

And some out there will make excuses for this loss, pointing directly at the fact that there were a number of European-based, 24-or-younger aged players — Christian Pulisic, Sergio Dest, Gio Reyna, eta — who played for the senior team against Northern Ireland in a friendly in Belfast earlier in the day, and weren’t available in Guadalajara. Of course, FIFA has rules about clubs releasing players for tournaments, and FIFA considers the Olympics a youth event, not a senior event, and I highly doubt that FIFA is going to change the rules on that to appease the largest country in CONCACAF.

Not having those players really should not be an excuse. Why? Again, it all comes down to money, and the amounts of money the US Soccer Federation and MLS and USL clubs are pouring into player development, not to mention the money schools in the NCAA pay for scholarships for promising soccer players. Right now, with three straight Olympics missed as well as the last three major tournaments missed, it’s looking like all that money — millions upon millions of dollars — is being wasted. No one is getting better.

Look at Sunday’s loss. The midfield lacked cohesion. The forwards lacked chutzpah. Head coach Jason Kreis looked out of ideas on the touchline. This is what these millions and billions of dollars are getting us? Taylor Twellman said it best in his infamous rant following the World Cup qualifying exit 3 1/2 years ago: With the amount of money that’s being put into player development, that loss Sunday should have never happened.

Especially not against Honduras, whose footballing player development budget is no where close to the United States of America’s, Major League Soccer’s, the USL programs, etc. Call the team which took the pitch against Honduras a C team, or even a B team, if you must, but given the money we as Americans pour into the sport, shouldn’t a B/C team from the US beat Honduras’ A? Shouldn’t they beat Jamaica’s A? Costa Rica’s? Panama’s?

US Soccer and Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber wants the US to win something outside of a Gold Cup at the men’s level, and those somethings are almost fleeting now. The United States can’t seem to qualify for anything right now, and can’t win anything of importance. In all honesty, if the amounts of money that are being poured into player development are what we’re being led to believe, then the US should be winning at the youth level internationally. In CONCACAF, surely. Against CONMEBOL, maybe. Against AFC and Oceania clubs? Oh, most definitely.

Of course, Sunday’s loss comes just ahead of World Cup qualifying in our region for 2022 and Qatar, with qualifying beginning in September. It is where all of our international focus will be now, outside of the women’s Tournament of Nations appearances in June and the Olympics. And should the men fail to qualify for their fourth straight major tournament and second consecutive World Cup, Twellman’s words of 2017 — “With failure should come change” — will come back to haunt US Soccer doubly, especially in light of Sunday’s result.

Something is wrong in Chicago and Soccer House right now. If they are not pressing the panic button and really thinking about the fallout from this disaster, then shame on them. Because if change isn’t coming from this utter failure, then the entire youth development program in the United States — which was just re-branded last year — needs to get blown to kingdom come.

Tomorrow would not be soon enough.