As U.S. soccer fans lament the failure of the U-23's to qualify for the Olympics in the second cycle running, it's worth looking at what impact the Olympics actually have on the full senior teams going forward. The Olympics became a U-23 competition in 1992, so from then on it is a youth tournament which can be compared directly to the U-17 and U-20 World Cups. The general standard for youth tournament rosters is to graduate between 3 and 5 of those players to the full national team. Does that happen at the Olympics, or does another trend emerge?
For this analysis, I looked at the USA's teams at the '92, '96, '00 and '08 Olympics and compared the average caps per player to the eventual gold medal winners and one other team to see how they stack up. I did not take into account whether the players earned their full caps before or after the tournament in the interest of fairness to the circumstances for each team, and when overage players were allowed into the squads starting in 1996, I did not include their caps into the calculation. So what do we find?
In 1992, the U.S.' squad of 20 players averaged 40.7 caps per player, which is an incredibly high number. That squad included players such as Brad Friedel, Claudio Reyna, Joe-Max Moore, Alexi Lalas and Cobi Jones. All of those players eventually made the '94 World Cup team. The 1992 Australian team averaged 19.45 caps per player, and the champions and hosts Spain averaged 18.25 caps per player, and that team had Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique on it. The U.S. failed to reach the knockout stage while Australia finished fourth. Five of the Spain players from the Olympic team made the '94 World Cup roster, while Australia didn't qualify.
When the U.S. hosted the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, overaged players were allowed and squads shrunk to 18 players. That team averaged 22.81 caps per the 16 U-23 players, which is a steep drop from 1992, and Claudio Reyna was still considered an underage player too. If you took out Eddie Pope, Jovan Kirovski, Reyna, and Frankie Hejduk's caps from that squad, there are only 24 left between the other 12 players. Nigeria, who won the tournament, averaged 30.81 caps per player, and Portugal, who was in the USA's group and about to begin their golden generation averaged just about 13 caps per player. Portugal did not qualify for the 1998 World Cup, three American players made the 1998 World Cup Squad, and Nigeria lost 4-1 to Denmark in the Round of 16 with 10 of their gold medal holders in tow.
What about 2000? The U.S.' squad averaged 27.625 caps per player, but two players (Landon Donovan and Tim Howard) accounted for 264 of the 442 total caps on that team. Cameroon, who won that tournament with Samuel Eto'o on the team and the U.S. drew in the group stage averaged just a shade under 36 caps per player. For Brazil, three players on that team (Ronaldinho, Lucio and Alex) combined for 251 caps between them while the other 15 players on that squad combined for 14 senior caps total. Brazil brought Ronaldinho and Lucio to World Cup 2002, the U.S. brought Landon Donovan and Josh Wolff (DaMarcus Beasley was a standby player for 2000 and went to South Korea), while Cameroon brought nine players to World Cup 2002 from their Gold Medal winning team, and failed to reach the knockout stage.
And in 2008, the U.S.' squad averaged 30.53 caps, again not bad, but Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley are 44.54% of the 458 total caps on that team as of today. While looking at the Gold Medal winning Argentina squad from that year might give you whiplash (Messi, Lavezzi, Aguero, Gago, Di Maria and Banega were all on that team), the Netherlands, a team that was about to make the World Cup Final, averaged 8 caps per their 15 underaged players. The most successful U-23 player from Brazil's squad is Ramires with 52 caps which included players like Lucas, Hernanes, Marcelo and Alex Pato.
So after some number crunching, what can we glean from the results? The Olympics appear to be just another youth tournament in which a few players emerge from the pack to become senior stalwarts. And Olympic success does not immediately correlate to World Cup success either. However, more than a few players from each do earn a healthy number of caps after being brought to the Olympic Games. The U-20 level is said to be a better indicator of talent development than the Olympics, so what do the numbers bare out about U-20 World Cup squads.
Once again, I performed the same cap per player analysis comparing the U.S.' squad to the eventual champions and other teams. I did this for the U-20 World Cups from 2003 through 2009. And, even though the squads are larger and players more unpolished at the U-20 level, the results do not deviate much from the Olympic calculations.
2003 U-20 World Cup
In 2003, the 20-man USA squad averaged 16.3 caps per player, though Clint Dempsey's 122 caps is a shade more than a third of the total. Eddie Johnson, Bobby Convey and Rico Clark were the leading senior cap earners on that squad behind Deuce. That squad lost in the quarterfinals to Argentina. Brazil, the eventual winners, had 10 players on that squad that never received a senior call-up, and outside of Dani Alves, who is still amazing, the most successful senior player was Fernandinho, with 27 caps, most of them recent. The squad averaged 9.4 caps per player, obviously skewed by Dani Alves' 89. The Argentina team that the U.S. lost to had Carlos Tevez, Pablo Zabaleta and Javier Mascherano, who still consistently earn senior caps, while the rest of the squad has solid if unspectacular national players on it.
2005 U-20 World Cup
Was 2005 any different? 11 players from that squad do not have a senior cap to their credit, compared to 10 from 2003. The most successful player on the 2005 squad was Sasha Kljestan with 46 caps, and behind him we find Jonathan Spector on 36 and Brad Evans on 26. The average per player comes out to 7.19 per 21, which is low in comparison to 2003 and beyond but still brought many solid MLS players as well as a few national team rotational players as well. Since Argentina's squad was skewed by Messi and Aguero, let's see how the runners-up from Nigeria fared. They always dominate at youth level, does that translate to senior success? 9.47 caps per player doesn't bring about much glory, in your head but two players in John Obi Mikel and Taye Taiwo ended up becoming solid future senior team members. Brazil's third place squad didn't end up much better when the numbers were crunched either, with their leader cap earner being Filipe Luis with 22.
2007 U-20 World Cup
In 2007, while Argentina continued to dominate everybody at youth level, how did the U.S. fare in comparison? That squad had Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Freddy Adu, Danny Szetela and others on it, and made the quarterfinals just like the 2003 and 2015 teams did. The numbers bear out 12 caps per player, but again, Altidore and Bradley skew them. And the Czechs, who finished runners-up to Argentina in 2007, averaged only 3.43 caps per player.
2009 U-20 World Cup
And finally for the 2009 team, there were a total of 78 senior caps between the 21 players on that squad (plus nine for Gerson Mayen with El Salvador), but Mix Diskerud and Brek Shea have 74 of those caps between them. The champions Ghana fared a lot better, and of course the next year made the World Cup quarterfinals.
For all of the numbers presented here, what have we learned? Is Jurgen Klinsmann right to place such high importance on the Olympics as a tournament to gain experience? Even through this rudimentary analysis, we can see that Olympic teams on average have more senior caps among their squads as opposed to the U-20 level, which is deemed a fairly important tournament. And objectively, this makes total sense. Players are much closer to the finished product at age 23 than they are at 20, therefore his future will be much more clearly defined. But, there are always exceptions. Argentina's dominance at youth level continued from 2003 through the 2008 Olympics, but they failed to qualify for the 2009 U-20 World Cup as well as the 2012 Olympics, and they seem to be developing young talent just fine. Talent development and nurturing goes well beyond playing in a short tournament, and many players emerge well beyond the bounds of youth national team success. Making it to tournaments is always good, but success on the youth level does not always translate to success on the senior level.
So is the development jigzaw puzzle any closer to being solved after some number crunching? Do the Olympics help develop talent, or is the tournament merely a rubber stamp? Like most times when anyone tries to delve into the development black hole, the answers are still not clearly defined.