By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Aug 26, 2015) US Soccer Players – CONCACAF’s Olympic qualifying tournament starts on October 1, with the USMNT U-23s playing Canada in Kansas City. This strange tournament falls outside of official release windows, meaning none of the teams get FIFA elbowing clubs into releasing players. The pressure is high, with senior team coach Jurgen Klinsmann making that clear in an interview with USSoccer.com.
“It will be a big challenge for us to organize both rosters for the Olympic qualification, but also for the all-decisive playoff against Mexico,” Klinsmann said. “Obviously we want both. We want to be in Rio with the Olympic team and we want to be in Russia in 2017 for the Confederations Cup.”
Important, but a challenge. Not just because the qualifying tournament itself is fraught with strange games against bunkering CONCACAF teams, but because it comes just ahead of the USMNT vs Mexico qualifier for the 2017 Confederations Cup. That’s another tournament that US Soccer values highly, so choosing which to prioritize won’t be an easy task. Age-eligible players who could help the Americans get into the Olympics but are also crucial to Klinsmann’s plans for Mexico will likely end up in the senior squad.
That’s a problem for U-23 head coach Andi Herzog. More of a problem is the unfortunate reality that the Olympic qualifying tournament starts before the October international FIFA release day of October 5th. Putting together a first choice team is probably impossible. Herzog will get the same lesson Caleb Porter, head coach of the 2012 Olympic qualifying team, so painfully received the last time US Soccer put tried to put together a U-23 team. The Federation is dependent on the willingness of clubs to release players – some of them crucial parts of their lineups – before they are required to.
Klinsmann chose to go public, sending a message to the clubs he and his staff are no doubt already in negotiations with.
“The Olympic qualifiers start outside of the FIFA window and we badly need those players to qualify for Rio de Janeiro,” he said. “Hopefully we get the support from all the clubs to get the players in. It’s going to be an extremely busy time period, we just hope we get all the players on board and get the job done.”
That’s all they can do, really. Hope. Among the possible call-ups for the Olympic team are a host of players whose clubs are playing the weekend that follows the opening of the tournament, both in MLS and in Europe.
In the domestic league, teams head toward the finish line on a long season with playoff berths and MLS Cup dreams on the line. To ask a team like Columbus – which relies heavily on 22-year-old Wil Trapp to set the rhythm in the center of midfield – to release an important cog puts both the club and the U-23s in a difficult spot.
In Europe, the club season is just underway. Many of the teams with Americans in them can’t afford to take any points for granted. European clubs have a particularly testy relationship with FIFA and international soccer as it is. Releasing a young player who has a significant role in the first team outside of the FIFA window is a significant ask.
Rubio Rubin is a young striker on the rise in the US program. His Dutch club, Utrecht, has already turned to him as a key figure in their team. Herzog needs him to put together anything approaching the best U-23 squad possible, but with an Eredivisie game on Saturday, October 4, Utrecht has no incentive to release Rubin.
There aren’t too many countries in the world that could still put together something approaching a competitive team in an Olympic tournament if most of their first choice players remain with their clubs. There’s actually some irony here. The strongest American squad includes a number of players who have worked their way into the starting lineup of their club teams. It’s only because of that fact that Herzog may end up disappointed with his team. Progress is killing the Olympic team.
That might be drifting towards hyperbole, but an improving group of U-23 professionals makes picking a team to qualify for the Olympics next year more difficult. Herzog has his work cut out for him in part because the best American players busier than their predecessors. There was a time when a US Olympic qualifying team would be full of college players who didn’t have the conflicts popping up this year.
Even the best American roster for the tournament would have a small margin for error. In 2012, the USMNT lost 2-0 to Canada followed by a draw against El Salvador in their final group match. There are only two spots available for Rio 2016, meaning the Americans need to make the final in order to reach the goal.
The cynical view would be to imagine that Klinsmann is building in an excuse for when/if the Americans fail to qualify. Even if that was true, however, he’d have something of a point. With everyone available and no Confederations Cup player coming during the tournament, the US would be clear favorites to advance to Rio de Janeiro. Instead, with the memories of 2012 still lingering, Olympic qualifying is a scary proposition.
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