Want to know what the best part of tournaments is? The drama. Want to know what the worst part of tournaments is? The anxiety. In this case, the drama and anxiety are pretty much the same thing. Could the United States, one of the tournament favorites really crash out in the group stage and not qualify for the Olympics? For the neutrals, the drama is probably salivating, but for the U.S. fans out there, the anxiety is nauseating.
The biggest question of all is how the U.S. handles this anxiety. The players, while professionals, are not exactly the most seasoned of players. There are a lot of players in their first or second season and there are even a handful with zero first team professional appearances to their credit. The kind of pressure that they will experience tonight is unlike anything some of them have ever felt. Some players respond well to the pressure and other crumble, but what is scary for the U.S. is that they have no idea what their players will do because they have never been there before.
As much pressure as there might be on the U.S. players tonight, there is even more on head coach Caleb Porter. The University of Akron head coach is considered a rising star in the U.S. soccer ranks for the incredible job he has done with the Zips, not just winning, but also developing a slew of guys for the pros. That success earned him interest from MLS clubs in recent years, which he declined, and then this appointment as the Americans' Olympic coach, but the shine seems to have worn off of Porter in the last couple of days.
Many fans were quick to point the finger at Porter when the U.S. lost to Canada and put themselves in the precarious spot they now find themselves in. The team looked to be short of urgency and some fans blamed Porter for that. The team was unable to show a bit of creativity to break down the Canada defense, which some saw as a result of a poor tactical approach. Joe Corona came off at halftime for Joseph Gyau and the Americans only got worse, a substitution that Porter took heat for.
This is a U.S. team that was billed as one of the most talented ever. The attacking talent was unmatched by any U.S. youth team before it, the creativity in the midfield was sublime and these were all professionals. Whether any of that is true or not does and whether it is enough to make up for a shoddy defenses not matter because perception is reality. The perception was that this team could battle for a medal in the Olympics and if they don't even qualify for London then the blame will be heaped upon the easiest target -- Porter.
Right now, there aren't a lot of people in Porter's corner. That isn't to say that everybody is anti-Porter, but many are now on the fence, waiting to see how the U.S. responds. That's a far cry from just a few days ago when Porter was still the golden boy of young American coaches, but if the U.S. can't beat El Salvador, Porter will long for the days when people were on the fence because you can bet that he will be blamed. Fair or not, Porter's reputation, at least in the short-term, is on the line tonight.