With an ugly 2-1 loss to Colombia Tuesday night, the U.S. Under-23 Men's National Team won't need to worry about travel plans this summer. For the second straight Olympics, American men will not be represented at the Summer Games.
If you think that's a disaster, you’re not alone. Plenty of Americans think the U.S. should compete for gold in men's soccer just as it does in nearly every other sport at the Summer Games. They should understand that it's not that simple.
At the Olympics, men's soccer is a trifle complicated. For starters, the teams are comprised of players 23 years and younger. That means that the roster at the Olympics doesn’t come close to resembling the one at the World Cup. Imagine if Olympic basketball players had to still be in college. That’s what men's Olympic soccer is like.
Because of that, many countries don’t really care about the Olympics. It's not a competition for national preeminence because each nation's preeminent players aren't involved. Spain, France and the Netherlands, three of Europe’s great soccer powers, won’t be in Brazil and you won't hear much moaning about it. Fans in those countries understand that their best young players are too good to be wasted on the Olympics; they're more interested in winning World Cups anyway. Not so here in America, where World Cup glory seems as likely as France, Spain or the Netherlands besting the U.S. in the Olympic Game medal count.
Unlike France, Spain and the Netherlands, the U.S. needs Olympic soccer. Not because it helps young players develop—plenty of people would argue quite the opposite—but because Americans watch the Olympics and most of them will expect to see the stars and stripes playing soccer.
By missing out on the Olympics, U.S. men’s soccer is missing out on a chance to grab the attention of the American sports fan, something it only manages to do every four years at the World Cup. If America is to ever reach the point where it produces a World Cup contender, increasing the popularity of the game will play a part in that. A deep run in Brazil would undoubtedly hook a few more young boys who could be the next Landon Donovan, or even better, the first American Messi.
The silver lining to all this is that the failure of U.S. men's soccer will allows Americans to focus on the women's team in Brazil. And unlike American men, the women will be going for gold.