Commentary

What the U.S. really lost

By failing to qualify for London, the U.S. lost something more valuable than a medal

Updated: March 28, 2012, 1:19 AM ET
By Leander Schaerlaeckens | ESPN.com

The U.S. soccer scene rose this morning with a pounding hangover from Monday night's dramatic 3-3 draw between the U.S. under-23 national team and El Salvador. Making it to the Olympics through CONCACAF had been considered a formality, but the young Yanks' capitulation bounced them from contention. The U.S. had a 1-1-1 record in the qualifying tournament.

[+] EnlargeCaleb Porter
Frederick Breedon/Getty ImagesU.S. U-23 coach Caleb Porter addresses the media after his team's draw with El Salvador.

The U.S. was convincing in a 6-0 win against a meek Cuba on Thursday but surprisingly lost 2-0 to Canada on Saturday. Doomsday scenarios called for the U.S. to have to face Mexico in the all-important, Olympian-anointing semifinals this upcoming Saturday. Because naturally, El Salvador would be discarded in this trifling must-win inconvenience -- or so the thinking went. The U.S. was seemingly extended a helping hand by Cuba, which drew with Canada, meaning the U.S. would win its group outright -- and avoid Mexico in the next round -- once it pushed past El Salvador.

As we now know, the U.S. never did. The Americans squandered two leads, giving up a painful, last-gasp equalizer as the seconds ticked away in stoppage time.

But with aspirations of a bright Olympic summer flipped into a grim, headache-inducing reality, it's worth asking: What exactly is the net cost to the national team program of not making it to the Olympics?

For one, it isn't the opportunity missed to see the Under-23s and three lucky over-age players defend America's honor at the world's premier sporting event. Nor is it the outside shot at boosting the United States' medal count in the overall table. Or even the respect that was there to be won.

It's the participation.

According to the Olympic ideal, it is as important to participate as it is to win. This resonates for the U.S., though not on the grounds of idealism but of a less conventional take.

Participation would have been invaluable to the U.S. because it would have exposed a promising core of young American internationals to the spotlight (and pressure) of a major tournament, to better prepare it for future World Cups.

This may sound like sour grapes, but the Olympics have never been a big deal in soccer. Unlike in other sports, it is a youth tournament designed to be attractive but to not overshadow the World Cup, the highest of all soccer endeavors. Even if it's un-American not to pursue medals, that was never the chief attraction or benefit of the Summer Games.

The under-23 U.S. national team's failure to qualify robs it, plain and simple, of some quality games in an environment closely replicating the stress and scrutiny a few of its players will face for the senior national team down the line.

"While not being involved in the Olympics [is] disappointing, this is still ultimately about winning a World Cup, which is in two years," said ESPN analyst Alexi Lalas. "The experience the players would have from playing in the Olympics is what [senior team coach] Jurgen [Klinsmann] wants. [Is] not having that the end of the world? Absolutely not, but this experience might have helped some of these guys graduate to the next level. That's the end game. This is still a youth tournament. If you were to go and win a gold medal, the benefit of that would only be if the individual players and core of that team would be able to graduate to full level and make their mark in the summer of 2014."

"If five or six of the [current under-23 players] make it onto the field at the 2014 World Cup, who cares about the Olympics?" echoed fellow ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman. "As a soccer nation, we know the goal is 2014."

The future team's growth comes before all. And it is geared entirely toward World Cups, the ultimate U.S. ambition. "This is still all about producing the best possible team for the summer of 2014," said Lalas. "Not going to the Olympics this summer doesn't necessarily mean that process is stunted or that evolution is somehow set back."

Not necessarily, no. The U.S. will have to find other teachable moments and learning opportunities for its prospects instead, perhaps rotating them into more senior team games as they move through various friendlies and World Cup qualifiers over the next two years. This isn't ideal. And the quality minutes will be missed. But it isn't the end of the world.

As a country conditioned to see the Olympics as the final destination where sporting glory is won, not participating will be a bitter pill to swallow. But, as Twellman put it, "If someone told me right now, 'You'll never qualify for the Olympics but will always get out of your group at the World Cup?' No-brainer."

If this batch of youngsters flourishes regardless of its Olympic setback, Monday night's events will be quickly downgraded from calamity to afterthought.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at leander.espn@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderESPN.

Leander Schaerlaeckens

Contributing writer, ESPN.com
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a contributing writer for ESPN.com. He has previously written for The Guardian, The Washington Times and UPI.