The U.S. Men’s Under-23 National Team has had some nightmarish experiences in Concacaf Olympic Qualifying over the past two decades, having failed to qualify for three of the past four Olympics. As much as that failed history began 17 years ago, the Americans know full well about the history and are determined not to repeat it.
“It’s for sure, on our minds,” U.S. defender Justen Glad said of the program’s poor track record in Olympic qualifying. “We’ve seen what can happen if you’re not 100% focused and not 100% prepared, and we don’t want to repeat those same mistakes.”
The Americans head into the Concacaf Olympic qualifying tournament with a good team, but also with the knowledge that Olympic qualifying can be a tricky proposition, and the current tournament’s path is no different.
The United States is in a group with Costa Rica and Mexico, knowing a stumble against the Ticos in Thursday’s tournament opener could doom them, especially with a stacked Mexico side waiting in the group finale next week.
“We’re just going to go as if Costa Rica is the final, that’s just kind of how you have to think about it,” Sebastian Soto said. “And then once you get over that hill, the next one comes and that’s just tournament play.”
The U.S. team’s history in Olympic qualifying has been a painful one over the past 20 years, starting with the 2004 qualifying tournament. That U.S. team, featuring Landon Donovan, dominated the group stage with three straight victories, but wound up facing host-country Mexico in the decisive semifinal and suffered a 4-0 loss.
The Americans qualified comfortably for the 2008 Olympics, but the 2012 qualifying tournament delivered another brutal failure. After opening with a 6-0 humbling of Cuba, the United States suffered a shock 2-0 loss to Canada, but still had its fate in its own hands heading into the group finale against El Salvador.
After battling back from a 2-1 deficit to take a 3-2 lead, the Americans looked well on their way to a victory to move into the knockout rounds, but a stoppage-time equalizer by El Salvador helped by a goalkeeper blunder from Sean Johnson doomed the Americans to a stunning group-stage exit.
The 2015 qualifying tournament was much like the 2004 tournament in that the Americans swept through the group stage a perfect 3-0 only to suffer a semifinal loss to Honduras that cost them a chance at an automatic berth to the Olympics. The United States still had a chance to qualify via a playoff with Colombia, but lost to the South Americans, 3-2, over two legs to miss out on the London Olympics.
U.S. coach Jason Kreis isn’t likely to be spending a ton of time dwelling on that painful history, but his players are fully aware of how challenging and dangerous the qualifying tournament can be, and as Glad noted, the players know the history and are determined not to repeat it.
“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 said. “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.”
Working in the U.S. team’s favor is the fact that the current group boasts more professional experience as a collective than any previous U.S. Olympic qualifying squad. All of the team’s projected starters have spent time as first-team regulars, and while there is some concern about the team potentially not being as strong as it could have been a year ago when players such as Brenden Aaronson, Reggie Cannon, Richie Ledezma and Mark McKenzie were slated to be on the team, Kreis still has plenty of talent to work with.
“If we do what we’ve been working on these past two weeks, the goals will come, the wins will come,” Glad said. “And then we just got to perform and play how we can.
“I think we all know we can and we should qualify,” Glad said. “We have the quality to, and anything less than qualification is obviously a huge disappointment in our eyes.”