But it remains an important barometer of a country’s ability to produce young talent, and for a regional troupe like the United States, which still expected the senior team to fail to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia and to fail again had again become a referendum on the nation’s football progress.
The United States were once a regular for the men and last appeared in the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing when they only won the opening game against Japan, dropped out after the group stage and finished ninth. But it soon became the norm to miss the Olympics in worrying ways. The Americans who did not qualify for the 2004 Athens Games missed both the London Olympics and the 2016 Rio Games in 2012.
US football made it a priority this year to reverse that recent history. It hired Kreis, a veteran of several head coaching jobs in Major League Soccer, to lead the team and tried to take full advantage of some of the talents that the league’s recent investments in player development have brought to life. All 11 US starters on Sunday play for teams in the MLS, but some of the best U23 talent in the country – European pros like Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Sergiño Dest and Gio Reyna – were not available because their European clubs were without Commitment to clear them for the Olympic qualifier.
Still, the Americans beat Costa Rica (1-0) and beat the Dominican Republic (4-0) in their first two games before a faulty pass led to a goal in the first half and a 1-0 loss to Mexico in the group stage final . The defeat was a blow to the US team’s momentum and possibly its psyche as it marked the team’s first major test, but Kreis moved quickly to scrap it and keep his team’s focus on the semi-finals.
“I think we were looking for a bit more sharpness in this whole tournament,” said Kreis after the defeat. But the only thing that mattered, he added, wasn’t that result, but that “the most important game is coming”.
It came on Sunday. And the Americans lost it.