The US Under-23 men’s national team’s Olympic qualifying campaign petered out on Sunday with the slow agony of death by a thousand small cuts, the latest stomach-churning setback for a program that can’t seem to escape Concacaf’s version of “Groundhog Day.”
There’s no sugarcoating the 2-1 semifinal loss against Honduras. Even the difficult circumstances around player releases and COVID-19 challenges and players at preseason fitness levels and so on don’t add up to adequate excuses for falling short for the fourth time in five cycles.
But there are reasons this happened. Here’s a few.
Lack of games
COVID delayed this event a full year and disrupted preparations for it, compounding how tricky it is to gather players and schedule good games even in normal times. But even accounting for that, the US U-23s simply didn’t play enough matches over the past two years, robbing them of key data points against outside opposition.
Soccer America’s Paul Kennedy broke this down efficiently by comparing their schedule to that of their Mexican counterparts:
US U-23s coach Jason Kreis acknowledged this issue before their Group A slate began.
“You kind of go into this first game saying to yourselves, 'OK, I'm not real sure about the opponent, I haven’t been able to scout them to the level of detail that you would scout any typical opponent,'” Kreis said before the opener. “And you’re also sort of saying to yourself, 'I'm not real sure about our group.' So we go into this with open eyes and ready to work extremely hard as we move forward after the first game.”
An outgunned attack...
Jesus Ferreira was Kreis’ first-choice No. 9 (or false 9, if you prefer), and the FC Dallas man scored the game-winner in the first half of the crucial opening win over Costa Rica. But then neither he nor Sebastian Soto scored again over the ensuing three-and-a-half games.
Djordje Mihailovic scored the fourth goal in the final seconds of the 4-0 group-stage win over the Dominican Republic; that was the only tally contributed by anyone in the winger slots of the US 4-3-3 formation all tournament.
Now that Kreis’ formula proved insufficient to book a ticket to Tokyo, we can say without hesitation that the decision to leave out Jeremy Ebobisse – a proven scorer with a strong Portland Timbers side – was the wrong one. The US U-23s needed another threat (or two) both in open play and on set pieces, where they repeatedly failed to test opposing goalkeepers.
… And a paucity of advanced midfielders
If you’ve been following our Olympic qualifying coverage, you’ve heard me bang this drum all month: The list of central midfielders Kreis selected for his final roster was a strange fit for the twin-8s system this team played throughout. Even with Hassani Dotson stepping up to contribute, this eventually burned them.
Mihailovic was arguably the only true central attacking midfielder on the final 20-player roster and he hasn’t even played that position at club level lately. He looked uncomfortable as an 8 in Guadalajara and was soon shifted to the wing, where he performed better, though not to the game-breaking level that the coaching staff seemed to expect from him. Johnny Cardoso couldn’t find his feet and Andres Perea never seemed to be deployed in a way that maximized his attributes; neither are attacking mids.
As many in the Rose City have pointed out to me on Twitter, Ebobisse’s Timbers teammate Eryk Williamson was, and remains, a glaring omission. He might’ve been ideal for this interpretation of the No. 8 assignment. Similarly, I wish we’d gotten to see more of Tanner Tessmann, the late addition to the final roster who was one of Sunday’s more useful contributors off the bench.
If you value Ferreira’s false-9 skill set, and Kreis made clear he did, who was he supposed to combine with when he drifted deep? Who was going to advance the ball into the attacking third with reliability?
The U-23s’ version of 4-3-3 was handed down from the full national team with the intention of streamlining younger players’ progression into the USMNT. So it’s ironic that Kreis stuck to it so doggedly in a tourney that culminated on the same day that Gregg Berhalter trotted out his side in a 3-4-2-1 look for the friendly vs. Northern Ireland, and to good effect.
Maybe Kreis and his staff just didn’t have the time to implement alternative shapes. But it was dismaying to see him field midfields that looked suited for a 4-2-3-1, for example, only to be shoehorned into the single-pivot 4-3-3.
Similarly, the insistence on building out of the back and pressing the opponent is laudable in long-range developmental terms. But doing so amid the heat and stress of a short qualifying tournament whittled down the United States’ already small and shrinking margin for error, especially considering that most of the squad were at preseason fitness levels.
When goalkeeper David Ochoa was pressed into that costly howler in the opening minutes of Sunday’s second half – the eventual game-winning goal – it epitomized their collective miscalculation of the risk/reward proposition around playing out of the back.
Naivete and big-game yips
It may sound simplistic, but too many US players wilted under the hot Jalisco sun and crushing pressure of the Honduras game. It was a scene reminiscent not only of past Olympic qualifying failures, but also the decades of MLS struggles on Concacaf Champions League road trips and, yes, the stumbles of the 2018 World Cup qualification fiasco.
Were players carrying the weight of the past on their shoulders? Were they wracked by indecision due to cloudy tactical instruction? Was there something lacking in their soccer tutelage up to this point that left them ill-prepared for a situation of this magnitude? Conceding first and giving up goals close to halftime are certainly difficult setbacks to ride. But Honduras didn’t seem to be visited by the same butterflies.
Inquests like these will unfold over the coming days and months. None of them will sting as much as watching the Olympics from the couch this summer.