The United States' Olympic dream came to an end on Monday night with a draw against El Salvador, and U.S. fans weren't happy about it. Then again, who is happy about losing? The problem was not in the disappointment of losing or not qualifying for the Olympics, but the scope of the outrage. Many were quick to deem this a massive failure for American soccer, but doing so shows an ignorance of a simple point -- Olympic football does not matter that much.
Olympic soccer begins in an odd place. FIFA already organizes youth tournaments for players under 20 years old and 17 years old. They do not want a competitor with the World Cup so they created an under-23 age group for the Olympics. The problem is that is an age group for players who are usually already playing for their clubs. To be more frank, it's an age group that doesn't need a youth tournament.
Take a look at the U.S. team, which went into qualifying without Jozy Altidore, Timothy Chandler, Alfredo Morales, Josh Gatt and Danny Williams. All of those players would have played key roles for the Americans' U-23 team, but they were not released by their clubs for the qualifying tournament because they were too valuable to their clubs. That isn't something to pooh-pooh, but something to applaud because players of their age should be playing regularly for their clubs. That they are too valuable is proof of their success. It It is also proof that players in the U-23 age group do not need a youth tournament.
Moreover, FIFA and the rest of world have already voiced their opinion of Olympic soccer with the list of Americans absent from qualifying. If the tournament was of any importance, clubs would be required to release players for the competition, as is the case with all other tournaments of note.
That the rules for the Olympics and qualification to the tournament differ is further proof of the makeshift nature of the tournament. Not only does the qualification come on non-FIFA dates so top players are missing, but the Olympics are not purely a U-23 tournament. Three overage players are allowed, but they are not allowed in qualifiers. What important tournament has different eligibility requirements for qualification?
The Olympics are a soccer novelty. Germany won't be in London this summer and, despite being the two-time defending champions, neither will Argentina. The Netherlands, Portugal, Italy, France, Ghana and the Ivory Coast will also be absent. The United States didn't qualify in 2004 and Mexico is dominating CONCACAF despite not qualifying in 2008. Clearly, Olympic success, or even qualifying, doesn't equal senior team success, nor is it even an indicator of it.
Most people who like to put value in the Olympics like to point to the "important development opportunity" the tournament provides. Instead of playing in the preseason with their clubs, players on the U.S. Olympic team would get to play in the Olympics, in meaningful matches, and grow as players. But are the Olympics really best for the development of the U.S. players?
Playing in the Olympics would have taken players away from their clubs in the preseason. For a group whose biggest weaknesses in the qualifying tournament was its inexperience, that doesn't exactly seem ideal. Instead of three or four matches at the Olympics, the players can work on earning playing time with their clubs, which they desperately need.
Take away Jorge Villafana and the five remaining defenders on the roster had all of six combined professional seasons to their names. Terrence Boyd, Joseph Gyau and Jared Jeffrey all played key roles for the team and none of the three has made a single professional legue appearance for his club yet. These are all players who could use a full preseason with their clubs to earn the playing time with their clubs that would do infinitely more for their development than the Olympics could ever do.
The United States will not be playing in the Olympics this summer. They can take a nice comfy spot on their couches to watch the matches this summer and invite their friends from Germany, Argentina and the slew of elite soccer nations who also didn't qualify. They can go to train with their teams in the preseason and forge an identity for themselves where development is really done -- with their clubs. They can play in competitions that matter enough to have the same eligibility rules for qualification and the tournament as well as the top players at their disposal.
In short, American soccer can be exactly where it would be had they qualified the Olympics, only without the five rings convincing people that the soccer competition is anything more than a youth tournament for players who are established professionals and no longer youths.