The Catch-22 for U.S. men’s soccer in the Olympics is this: The better a player gets, the less likely he is to play.
And compounding the difficulty is a structural issue, according to American under-24 coach Jason Kreis: Major League Soccer does not adhere to the international calendar of a season that runs from August to May, leaving most of his players trying to regain fitness while facing opponents in midseason form.
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The Americans failed to qualify for their third straight Olympics when they lost 2-1 to Honduras on Sunday. For the second time in three Olympic cycles, a goalkeeping blunder helped sink the U.S. when David Ochoa gifted the second goal, similar to goalkeeper Sean Johnson fumbling a shot against El Salvador that cost the Americans a trip to the 2012 London Games.
In addition, the U.S. streak of seven World Cup appearances ended in 2018.
Former American defender Alexi Lalas, now a commentator for Fox, and ex-goalkeeper Tim Howard say the onus is on the U.S. Soccer Federation and MLS to get better players from teams.
Lalas maintains the burden to improve the Olympic effort lies with Kreis, senior national team coach Gregg Berhalter and U.S. men’s national team general manager Brian McBride. FIFA regulations say clubs don’t have to release players for Olympic qualifying or the Olympics. European clubs regularly deny their players, and Major League Soccer’s Atlanta team blocked Kreis from using defenders George Bello and Miles Robinson, and forward Brooks Lennon.
“Some clubs are going to decide they don’t want to release players. There’s nothing you can do about that if that’s the ultimate decision,” Lalas said. “But you better leave every stone unturned in trying to convince them and call in every favor and be part of that negotiation in order to do that. And then when it comes to the Major League Soccer teams that decided not to release players, I think that in and of itself is inexcusable and it’s ridiculous and it’s a joke given the cooperation and the partnership and the historic connection that the United States Soccer Federation and MLS has.”
While the U.S. started 11 MLS players against Honduras, age-eligible Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna, Josh Sargent, Sergiño Dest, Antonee Robinson and Yunas Musah were with the senior national team in Belfast for a 2-1 friendly win over Northern Ireland.
FIFA restricts Olympic qualifying to players 23 and under. Qualifying was postponed by a year because of the pandemic, and FIFA kept Jan. 1, 1997, as the earliest birth date for those competing.
Five of the 20 players on the qualifying roster last year were not made available by their clubs this year: Reggie Cannon, Chris Gloster, Mark McKenzie, Erik Palmer-Brown and Brenden Aaronson.
Mexico, which beat the U.S. 1-0 in the group stage and defeated Canada 2-0 on Sunday for an Olympic berth, had five Olympic qualifying-eligible players with its national team for the past 10 days instead of at the tournament in Guadalajara: Edson Álvarez, César Montes, Jorge Sánchez, Gerardo Arteaga and Efraín Álvarez, who is eligible to play for El Tri and the U.S.
None of Honduras’ players on the roster for last week’s national team exhibition against Greece were Olympic age eligible.
Kreis cited rust: MLS teams don’t open the pandemic-delayed season until April 16. None of Sunday’s starters for Mexico on Sunday were from MLS.
“I don’t know that if I’ve ever seen a game where we’ve had players mis-control the ball so much by going under people’s feet, passing out of bounds,” Kreis said. “These are things that are just really — you just really kind of scratch your head, you think of, what’s going on here? But I also have been around the game enough in our country at a pro level to tell you this is what you see in preseasons and at the beginning of MLS seasons it’s typical.”
MLS Commissioner Don Garber was not available Monday to respond to Kreis’ remarks, spokesman Dan Courtemanche said. USSF spokesman Neil Buethe said federation sporting director Earnie Stewart was traveling from Guadalajara and was not available. Atlanta technical director Carlos Bocanegra declined comment, spokesman Chris Winkler said.
Former U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard, who spent a decade with Everton, said U.S. weather made timing of the MLS season unchangeable but access to players needed to improve.
“The U.S. player at this level is not accustomed to big moments in big games,” he said. “Our players — and I say this as a product of that, my daughter is a part of this now — the American player is not put in difficult situations, where they have to be able to claw themselves out. And so when you look across the board at these big tournaments and big moments when things are on the line, we have oftentimes stumbled. And so that is a massive criticism of the system.”
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Howard thinks a catalyst is needed in the manner of Jerry Colangelo, who sparked changes that led to the U.S. Dream team in basketball at 1992 Olympics.
“If you needed Romelu Lukaku for your under-23 team and Inter Milan said, ‘Absolutely not. He’s banging in 20 goals for us and we’re going to win Serie A,’ you say, OK, you’ve got a point. We’re not asking for that,” Howard said of the 27-year-old Belgian striker who was his former Everton teammate. “So what needs to happen is there needs to be relationships made and fostered with sporting directors and clubs throughout Europe. There needs to be a massive onus to say the Olympics is of the utmost importance.”