The United States will put their Olympic lives on the line in the next five days when they square off against Colombia in a two-legged playoff for a spot in Rio. Over 180 minutes, the Americans' Olympic fate, and the success or failure of the entire U-23 age group, will be determined. The first hurdle comes Friday in Barranquilla, Colombia (5 p.m. ET on FS1).
It should matter. It should matter a lot. It's the Olympics, and no matter how bastardized the men's soccer competition is, those five rings carry weight. But should they?
The importance of the U.S. making it to the Olympics depends on who you're talking about. It is important to Jurgen Klinsmann, who has poured resources into the U-23 age group, making it a full-time youth team for the first time, naming his top assistant Andi Herzog as manager and emphasizing the importance of playing in The Games. Because of that, it is vital to U.S. Soccer as well, as much to prove that the men's program is going in the right direction.
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How valuable it is to the players is doubtful, though. And seeing as youth soccer is essentially entirely about development and helping produce the best senior team players possible, the Olympics might not be the best venue.
If the U.S. qualifies for the Olympics, the players will get three guaranteed matches in Rio. At most, they can play six times in the tournament. Those matches could be great experience and help the players' growth, but the question is whether that's the best place for their development from late July, when they would begin training camp, through August 20, when the Olympic competition ends.
Frankly, it's difficult to argue that it would. Certainly not for the bulk of the players. When you get to the U-23 level, you have few youth players left, or at least ones who you want at the youth level. They are all full-fledged professionals, but most are not well-established at their clubs. July and August, the preseason, provides those players with a great opportunity to impress their club coaches and either force their way onto the first team or make the case for more playing time.
Come this summer, Emerson Hyndman will probably leave Fulham for a new club. The preseason will be his first chance to impress his new club up close and earn the regular first team place that has been hard for him to come by at Craven Cottage. Considering the 20-year-old is considered a linchpin of the U.S.' future midfield, his growth at the club level is paramount.
Julian Green also figures to move clubs in the summer and will be in the same boat as Hyndman. The same might be true of Matt Miazga, Gedion Zelalem and Shane O'Neill. Toss in Rubio Rubin, Cameron Carter-Vickers, Desevio Payne, Paul Arriola, Jerome Kiesewetter and Mario Rodriguez -- all of whom have yet to break through with the first teams at their clubs or need to make a push for a bigger role next season -- and you have much of the Olympic team's core potentially better served by missing the Games for their clubs' preseasons.
From a developmental standpoint, missing the Olympics might actually be better for the U.S. At the very least, it can be easily argued that the players won't end up much worse off if they fall to Colombia in the qualifier.
Of course, Klinsmann doesn't see it that way. He was hired in part to revamp the entire men's program, from the senior team down through the youth levels. Establishing the U-23 as a regular part of the program in the wake of the Americans' failure to qualify for the 2012 Olympics was part of that. It's why the federation has put money into the age group besides just assembling a team before qualifying and then through the Olympics and why Klinsmann has deputized Herzog.
Klinsmann sees the U-23 age group and the Olympics as an important bridge from the U-20 level to the senior team, and there is merit to it. Players can go years without international competition because the jump from the U-20 team to the senior team is so large, it takes years to be good enough for the top level. The core of the 2008 Olympic team did provide the national team with several good players, too, but was that because of the Olympics? That is tough to argue.
So while the age group may have its merits and the Olympics is the de facto pinnacle for the U-23's, giving the teams an end goal, the Games themselves don't really serve players well. At least not the American players.
The problem is if the U.S. do not qualify, Klinsmann will face heat and so will U.S. Soccer. It will appear to be an indictment on the program and what Klinsmann is doing as a technical director. Considering he is already facing questions regarding his performance in that role, as well as manager, another mark against him would be not just unfortunate, but poor timing.
It wouldn't be unfair to ask questions of Klinsmann and U.S. Soccer if the U-23's fall short considering the resources allocated and their making the team a focus in development. After all, they're only in this playoff because they fell to Honduras. It is not as if the team looks good, but the world's elite are just a little better. This would be a failure against teams that, considering the Americans' investment and level of talent, they should be superior to.
Why aren't the U.S. U-23's superior? What does that mean for the program? What is the direction of the program and is there reason to believe the Americans are improving?
Those are all questions U.S. Soccer will face if they don't qualify for the Olympics. From that standpoint it will be a big deal. But from a developmental standpoint, which matters most, the Americans will be fine regardless of what happens against Colombia. The players are coming along and the talent is there. They'll just be doing it for their clubs and against grown men, not for their country in a youth tournament. For senior team purposes, isn't that what matters anyway?