It has been nearly three-and-a-half years since the darkest day in U.S. men’s national team history.
On October 10, 2017, the U.S. fell to Trinidad & Tobago at the Alto Bolton Stadium and saw their World Cup dreams dashed.
The U.S. team had not missed a tournament since Mexico ’86 and the Soca Warriors were meant to be a stepping stone. The game should have been a coronation, not a disaster.
For many, seeing the USMNT collapse in what should have been a routine CONCACAF qualifier was unfathomable. But this defeat had been coming.
Missing out on the 2018 World Cup was not some sudden implosion, but rather the consequences of an entire cycle’s worth of players never truly becoming what the U.S. needed them to be.
What happened in Couva was the culmination of a steady decline that had begun years previously. It had been evident in the U.S. Under-23s’ Olympic qualification defeats in Nashville and Frisco, in 2012 and 2015, respectively.
Indeed, it was telling that not a single player from either squad featured in the senior side’s 2-1 loss to Trinidad & Tobago.
Players that were supposed to be in their prime were not in a position to contribute to the World Cup cause, leaving the U.S. with a combination of veterans such as Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard to go with a young star like Christian Pulisic, who was only just beginning his national team career.
The players from those 2012 and 2015 teams, for whatever reason, were not ready when they needed to be. And the USMNT, lacking key players in several key positions, were punished for it, left in tears in Couva.
And that brings us to the here and now, an era in which the U.S. has more U23 talent than ever before.
Pulisic is still in that group, as are Weston McKennie, Gio Reyna and Sergino Dest. But those players are not part of the latest panel of players hoping to secure a spot in this year’s Olympics.
The road to Tokyo begins on Thursday against Costa Rica, the U23s’ first game in a difficult group that also includes Mexico and the Dominican Republic.
However, coach Jason Kreis has enough talent at his disposal to secure a spot at the Olympics and allow the US to put the pain of the past failures firmly behind them.
“There have been some failures, but I think that’s what led to such a great group and such a great group coming up with the first team and the youth team,” Kreis said Wednesday. ”So, we’re excited for this challenge.
“I think the message within the team has just been to focus on the moment. We’re not too worried about the past, not too worried about the future. We’re focused on the next game.”
He added: “I don’t feel any extra pressure about what’s happened in the past, because, frankly, I think we’re at a different place in our country in this game.”
These Olympic tournaments, generally, offer little margin for error, and that is what makes Thursday’s meeting with Costa Rica so important.
With a win over a traditionally awkward opponent, the U.S. will be in the driver’s seat, heavy favorites against the Dominican Republic in game two and not needing much against Mexico in their group finale as a result.
A loss on Thursday, though, would dredge up those feelings of doom and gloom, leaving the U.S. likely needing to win out to advance in the tournament.
In 2012, for example, a 2-0 defeat to Canada in the team’s second group game left them needing a win against El Salvador to progress. The U.S. choked, though, conceding a 94th-minute equaliser in a 3-3 draw that consigned them to third place in the standings.
Three years later, the mishap came in the knockout rounds. Facing a do-or-die semi-final, the U.S. were trampled by Alberth Elis and Honduras, outplayed on their way out.
That loss set up a playoff against Colombia, who took down the U.S. at FC Dallas’ Toyota Stadium in the second leg to end the country’s Olympic hopes once again.
This is a tournament and a region that is unforgiving. This is no extended World Cup qualifying campaign with a little bit of wiggle room. It is a sprint, not a marathon, and one false step could end it all.
It is a lesson that this program has learned and that this team, in particular, understands. Many have experienced similar games and situations.
Of the 20 players in the squad, 11 have earned caps with the senior team, while 10 have previously won CONCACAF championships at the U20 level, in 2017 and 2018. They have been through this, and they know what is coming.
“It’s for sure, on our minds,” said defender Justen Glad when asked about the program’s previous failings in qualifying. “We’ve seen what can happen if you’re not 100 per cent focused and not 100% prepared, and we don’t want to repeat those same mistakes.”
“I think being aware of that, and realizing that it can happen like this, you go down a goal and all of a sudden, your back’s against the wall,” Glad added. “We’re aware that that can happen. So, we’ve got to be ready and make sure it doesn’t. We’ve got to flip the script.”
Most that follow soccer will say that youth team results are not always the best indicator of future success and, by and large, that is true. These tournaments are so much more about the micro than the macro.
With luck, a handful of youth players will become senior national team contributors, using this tournament and potentially the Olympics as a springboard towards bigger and better things.
Countless players have benefitted from the experience of playing in the Olympics, and the U.S. sure does have plenty of young stars that could certainly use the exposure.
This is a big deal from a development standpoint and a personal standpoint because, let’s be honest, who wouldn’t love to represent their country in the Olympic games?
But you do not get handed that; you have to earn it. It is something that the U.S. has not earned in quite a while, but something this group is determined to do, starting on Thursday.
“I look at things from a perspective of ‘Can we play to our potential?’, and because of what I believe our potential is, yes, I feel that this group should be capable of qualifying to the Olympics,” Kreis said. “That is our clear objective and is what we’re going to move forward for.”
“I think we all know we can and we should qualify,” Glad added. “We have the quality to, and anything less than qualification is obviously a huge disappointment in our eyes.”