It does not matter how you get through. Just get through.
That is the message that some of the players from last cycle’s U.S. Under-23 Men’s National Team have for the current crop of Olympic hopefuls.
The present-day U.S. U-23s are set for a do-or-die, two-legged series against Colombia in a couple weeks, the direct result of not doing well enough in CONCACAF’s qualifying tournament. Fair or not, there is even more pressure on Andi Herzog and his players to deliver after the previous group failed to reach the Olympics in 2012.
Making it past Colombia to punch a ticket to this summer’s competition in Brazil is no sure thing, of course, but a key to preventing another letdown is to seize the moment and worry only about getting the necessary results regardless of how you do it.
Scrap, grind, squeak by. Whatever it takes. Just find a way.
“Every minute matters, every touch matters, and at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how pretty you play,” former U.S. U-23 midfielder Amobi Okugo told SBI. “You’ve got to do whatever you’ve got to do to win the game because no one remembers if you played pretty and didn’t qualify to the Olympics. You’ve got to get to the Olympics first and then you can worry about the rest.”
The U.S. and its youth teams have tried for years to go with a more proactive style of play, but the results have largely been mixed. Even the talented 2012 group of U.S. U-23s that was led by Caleb Porter attempted to dictate the tempo of games, but ultimately was not able to get the job done when it mattered most.
The young Americans fell to Canada in their second group match of the qualifying campaign, and then gave up a last-gasp equalizer to El Salvador in an infamous 3-3 draw that painfully and shockingly eliminated the U.S. from Olympic contention. On home soil, no less.
With failure comes experience, however, and U.S. Men’s National Team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann made it a point to have some of the players who missed out on the 2012 Olympics share that bad memory with the current generation in the recent winter camp.
“(Klinsmann) said, ‘They can tell you all about it. They were in the former cycle when they didn’t make it,'” former U.S. U-23 midfielder Mix Diskerud told SBI. “Of course I would’ve done anything just to go back to those last five minutes against El Salvador. It’s all about when you have the chance, you’ve got to take it.”
Capitalizing on your opportunities also means staying concentrated and sharp for an entire game, or, in this upcoming case, games. The previous U.S. U-23s not only took a lead vs. El Salvador within the first minute of their must-win group-stage finale, but overturned a 2-1 deficit to take a 3-2 lead that they entered second-half stoppage time with.
Then, a bad pass, some shoddy defending, a hopeful shot, poor save and bad bounce combined to create a perfect storm that haunted that batch of U.S. youngsters for quite a while.
“This is the Olympics. It happens once every four years, and, especially for soccer, it’s only for a certain age group unless you’re an overage player,” said Okugo. “For many of us at that time, we were planning on using the Olympics as a springboard to a big move overseas, a better deal within your MLS team, or even more exposure within your own MLS teams because I know a couple of the guys on the team weren’t even key members on their clubs.
“The situation with the current group, I’m pretty sure all of them, if not all of them, are young professionals that have been in environments and big games and playoffs and stuff like that, but do whatever it takes to win. Everyone is saying the beautiful game, the beautiful game, but no one remembers if you don’t give yourself a platform to play the beautiful game. Getting to the Olympics is the first and foremost responsibility.”
Ignoring the outside noise might also come in handy for the Americans. There is more pressure from media and fans for these U.S. youngsters to get by Colombia on March 25 and 29 given last cycle’s unsuccessful attempt to reach the Olympics, but throwing that out the window and not looking back at something they had no control of should only help in their quest to punch a ticket to Brazil.
“A lot of people want to talk about how the previous team didn’t make it or how they’ve struggled not qualify (directly), but at this point in the game it doesn’t matter anymore,” former U.S. U-23 centerback Ike Opara told SBI. “You have to be focused on the now. That’s all they should be looking at it. It doesn’t matter what was done in the past. They’ve got a great opportunity now to make history and do something that many people in this world don’t get to do.”
The current U.S. U-23s might not be the favorites on paper to advance to the Olympics, but, as the previous cycle’s group knows all too well, games are not won on paper. Herzog’s group might have quality players, but could pull off the upset against Colombia.
The Americans just have to seize the moment, and find a way through to do so. Any way through.
“A lot of quality, a lot of good players are a part of that, so there’s no doubt in my mind that they can come through,” said Diskerud of Herzog’s team. “Of course, they wanted to qualify directly and are now making it a little more, exciting than it could’ve been, but I’ve got full confidence that they’re going to make it.”
Added Opara: “I think all American teams, we all know, they’re fighters. When their backs (are) against the wall, we tend to play at our best. I think their chances are probably better than people are thinking. I’ve got confidence in them. I wouldn’t write that team off by any means.”