The men's soccer competition at the Olympics is far from the most prestigious international tournament. But failing to qualify can be both a worrying omen and program stain.
And fail to qualify is exactly what the U.S. men did on Sunday – for the third consecutive Olympic cycle.
A 2-1 loss to Honduras in a decisive semifinal will extend their Games absence to at least 16 years.
A mostly-under-23 American B-team, as required by competition rules, was outplayed by an under-23 Honduran squad and deservedly beaten.
A costly goalkeeping error
The deciding goal, though, came via a fluky, inexcusable mistake. U.S. goalkeeper David Ochoa played a costly pass directly onto the goalscoring foot of Honduran attacker Luis Palma. The ball ricocheted off Palma's boot and into a gaping net.
Ochoa, who'd been excellent throughout the tournament, was distraught after the game, walking around the pitch with his hands over his head.
As he crouched alone, Palma, the Honduran goalscorer, and Ochoa's club teammate two season ago, came over to console him.
Honduras had scored a few minutes before halftime to take the lead. Ochoa's gaffe doubled the lead early in the second half.
U.S. midfielder Jackson Yueill, a 24-year-old reserve with the senior national team, pulled the U.S. back to within one with a 25-yard firecracker.
But the young Americans couldn't find an equalizer. And just as they did in 2012 and 2016, they fell short of the Olympics. Honduras qualified in their place. Either Mexico or Canada will claim the second North American spot Sunday night.
Contextualizing the U.S. qualifying failure
An Olympic qualifying failure is nowhere near on par with the USMNT's 2018 World Cup qualifying failure. But the Games are often seen as a barometer of youth development. Failures in 2012 and 2016 were alarming signs of insufficient progress.
This failure is slightly different – slightly. Youth development on the men's side has improved in recent years. A bevy of under-23 American stars are now playing at some of the world's biggest clubs. Weston McKennie is at perennial Italian champion Juventus. Christian Pulisic is at English Premier League power Chelsea. Tyler Adams is at RB Leipzig in Germany. Gio Reyna is also in Germany at Borussia Dortmund. The list is extensive, and growing, seemingly by the month.
Those players weren't part of this Olympic qualifying team. Because the Olympics are considered a youth event, and occur outside an official international window, professional clubs aren't required to release their players to Olympic teams. Very few over in Europe did. Many of those promising young stars were with the senior USMNT, beating Jamaica and Northern Ireland in friendlies this week.
Even some MLS teams didn't release players. One of them, Atlanta United's Miles Robinson, tweeted after the game: "Wish I coulda been there."
And so this was something of an under-23 B-team. Pulisic and others might have played at the actual Olympics. This squad, however, was comprised of mostly MLS youngsters.
Still, though, the U.S. was favored to qualify, and should have. This is a failure, an unvarnished failure. It's a missed opportunity, and another blemish on an awful half-decade for American men's soccer.
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