As the U.S. Men's U-23 team is getting set to take on Colombia Friday, in the first leg of a tie that will determine whether or not the team will advance to this summer's Olympic Games in Rio, we take a look back to years of Olympics past.
The 2000 Sydney Olympics saw the United States achieve their best finish in the last 20 years, placing fourth after falling to Chile in the Bronze Medal game. The U.S.' three over-age players each had national team careers that spanned more than a decade, as Brad Friedel, Jeff Agoos, and Frankie Hejduk provided experience and stability in the back. The team was captained by a player familiar to MLS fans, midfielder Brian Dunseth, who was playing with the New England Revolution at the time. Sydney would be the pinnacle for Dunseth's international career, but that was not the case for the majority of the roster. Of the 18 men on the roster, every player went on to play professionally, while all but 3 (Dunseth, Joey DiGiamarino, and Evan Whitfield) went on to play for the full U.S. Men's National Team.
The play leading up to and during the Olympics earned Joey DiGiamarino and Connor Casey moves to the Bundesliga, with Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Dortmund respectively. Of the entire team, the "least successful" player of on the team, Chad McCarty, notched a lone USMNT cap, along with a 6-year, 100+ game career in MLS, while the presence and play of John O'Brien reminds U.S. Soccer fans of one of the greatest "what may have beens" in USMNT history. Three other men on the roster with low USMNT caps, Peter Vanegas (3), Ramiro Corrales (6), and Sasha Victorine (4) went on to lead three of the most storied careers in MLS history. And with names like Landon Donovan, Tim Howard, Ben Olsen, and Josh Wolff filling out the roster, it's easy to see why this team went on to achieve such success.
In 2004, the United States had a lot to accomplish if it hoped to live up to the standard set by the team 4 years prior. Led by legendary coach 'Mooch' Myernick, and with the likes of red-hot 17-year-old Eddie Gaven, soon to be PSV Eindhoven winger DaMarcus Beasley, as well as Olympic veteran Landon Donovan, on the roster, the team did not lack for skill or flair. However, that flair and star power would only get the team so far as they fell to Mexico 4-0 before 60,000 in Guadalajara, during the semifinals of qualifying. Follow that up with a 1-0 loss to Honduras two days later, and the US team that so much was expected from was not heading to Athens.
Notably not on that team was Manchester United's Jonathan Spector, as well as defensive juggernaut Oguchi Onyewu, however, that's no excuse for America's exit in the qualifiers. On the roster of the U.S.' failed effort was the next American prodigy Alecko Eskandarian, and much like Eskandarian failed to live up to his hype, many of his teammates followed in his footsteps. Chad Marshall, Eddie Johnson, Kyle Beckerman, and Brad Davis all went on to become MLS mainstays and feature heavily for the USMNT, but few remember the name Ricky Lewis. Joining Lewis in the list of forgettables include D.J. Countess, José Burciaga, David Testo, David Stokes, and Doug Warren. The U.S. failed in 2004, and when you look past the hype and potential of Gaven, Donovan, Beasley, and Eskandarian it's easy to see why.
The U.S. rebounded from missing the tournament in 2004 with a campaign led by four Freddy Adu goals to finish second in qualifying. In Beijing, the Piotr Nowak led team saw a promising start fade as the team went 3-and-out. The U.S. beat Japan in their first game 1-0, followed up with a heartbreaking last minute tie versus the Netherlands as the Dutch scored in the 93rd minute, and a subpar final performance against eventual runners-up Nigeria that saw the Americans exit early (Editor's Note: DAMN YOU MICHAEL OROZCO-FISCAL!!!). A 36-year-old Brian McBride captained the team, while Michael Parkhurst and Brad Guzan made up the other overage players.
In terms of the rest of the squad, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore, two of the youngest players on the team, went on to have very successful USMNT careers, however the rest of the roster wasn't as fortunate. Everyone knows the unfortunate story of Freddy Adu, while another midfielder on the roster, Danny Szetela, joins the list of Adu, Eskandarian, and Gaven of American soccer prodigies who just never made it. Other players on the team makeup what's been referenced to as "the lost generation" of American talent. Michael Orozco, Sacha Kljestan, and Stuart Holden all had okay national team careers, but none outstanding, while Charlie Davies meteoric rise was halted by that unfortunate car accident in 2009. And then there are the likes of Robbie Rogers, Dax McCarty, Marvell Wynne, Benny Feilhaber, and Maurice Edu, more stories of players who peaked at the wrong time, or who've never been given quite enough of a chance.
Ah yes, the Caleb Porter Olympic qualifying campaign. Needless to say, this one didn't end well.
The U.S. was knocked with a tie, after they were scored on in the 94th minute of their last group play game against El Salvador with a soft goal. Starter Bill Hamid went down in the 31st minute and backup Sean Johnson looked beyond uncomfortable upon entering. Brek Shea's ineptitude and Johnson's shoddy goaltending saw the U.S. give up three goals to go out. And so the U.S. men's team would not be going to the Olympics in London that saw the U.S. women claim another gold medal.
From this team very little has come. The team was hurt immensely by USMNT call-ups (Altidore), club holdouts (Josh Gatt), and non-committal players (John Anthony-Brooks), but even that considered, this roster is beyond uninspiring.
To be fair to the players, most of them are still developing, as this was only 4 years ago. Bill Hamid, Perry Kitchen, Mix Diskerud, and Jorge Villafaña seem to all have very exciting careers ahead of them. However, the excitement of Brek Shea has faded, the dynamism of Joe Gyau has been stunted by injuries, and the prodigal son, Juan Agudelo, has once again turned out to be not so prodigal. Kofie Sarkodie and Amobi Okugo are currently without teams, Terrence Boyd and Ike Opara seem perpetually injured, Sean Johnson and Joe Corona seem to have lost the faith of their coaches, and slowly the promising careers of many young players become not so promising. And then there is the captain, Freddy Adu. I'll leave it at that since we've all likely heard that story far too many times.
2012 was a very bad year for the U.S. Men's Olympic team, and 2004 wasn't pretty either. 2008 provided a decent showing, but ultimately the end product in terms of results and development has been lackluster from that cycle as well. And it comes to 2000 for the last ‘successful' U.S. Men's Soccer Olympic campaign.
The good news is however that the U.S. Men's National Team has had some great results since 2000, and it's developed some fantastic players. Nowhere on these teams is Alejandro Bedoya, Clint Dempsey, or Geoff Cameron. However great a tournament and spectacle the Olympics are, they are not the be all end all of development for U.S. Soccer. Khiry Shelton will likely not become the next Joe-Max Moore, but that's not to say Gedion Zelalem couldn't decide to replicate Tab Ramos for years to come. And so, whether or not Matt Miazga scores a towering header in the 95th minute to send the U.S. through, or if another player ends up making a Sean Johnson-esque gaffe, U.S. Soccer will survive win or lose.