After watching the USA Men's U-23 team have victory against El Salvador, and progression to the CONCACAF Olympic Qualification semi-finals, snatched from them at the last minute I was just as disappointed as the players who sat down in disbelief on the field. But just as equally disappointing to me is the actual CONCACAF Olympic qualification process, which puts it's the best four teams from the group phase into essentially a one-game playoff with two berths to London on the line.
Regardless of my disdain for the actual qualification tournament, the true problem with the CONCACAF qualification is that the matches do not fall under an FIFA International Fixture date, meaning clubs are not required to release players for international duty. Several top US Olympic hopefuls such as Jozy Altidore (AZ Alkmaar, Denmark), Danny Williams (1898 Hoffenheim, Germany), Timmy Chandler (FC Nuremberg, Germany), Alfredo Morales (Hertha BSC, Germany) and Josh Gatt (Molde, Norway) were not released from their first team duties and Gatt was actually recalled to Norway due to injuries to other players.
That's a significant portion of the USA's talent pool that isn't allowed to be selected because FIFA doesn't care about the Olympics. Yes, while the Olympic soccer football tournament is often called the U-23 World Cup, it really isn't. First off, only 16 teams qualify for the Olympics, rather than the full field of 32 for the top World Cup and 24 for the U-20 and U-17 World Cups. And unlike those previous competitions I mentioned, CONCACAF (North/Central America and the Caribbean) only sends two representatives to London (UEFA - Europe will send four with hosts Great Britain while the AFC - Asia, CAF - Africa will send three each with a four bid up for grabs in a playoff before the games start).
Now, I took a shot at FIFA before explaining all that, and for good reason. This technically isn't a FIFA sanctioned tournament, so while they force clubs to release players for the Olympics, they can't force teams to release players for qualifying. Teams at the Olympics aren't allowed to wear their countries "badges" or emblems but instead wear their national flags in their place. The reason FIFA doesn't care about the Olympics is basically becase they aren't making money off of the tournament, the IOC is. And since most leagues are off during the Olympics, very few leagues (such as MLS) are actually affected by Olympic call-ups. And FIFA (and by FIFA I mean Sepp Blatter) is less inclined to help out CONCACAF (and the USA) by releasing players because of Blatter's hatred of MLS's league calender because it's not the same as Europe's. (I made that reason up, but it's true, Sepp Blatter thinks MLS should play at the same time as the EPL, i.e. in winter...hope LA likes to visit Foxborough, Mass. in January...)
Does this take away the sting of the USA's failure to qualify for London 2012. No, but do you really expect a team without it's two best forwards (Altidore and Agudelo, who was injured during the tournament) it's first team defense (everyone in Europe I mentioned above) and back-up keeper (Sean Johnson replaced Bill Hamid during the El Salvador match after he injured his knee) to win three games in five days and then a winner-takes-all match four days later? You'd be hard pressed to find any team in the world whose second team could qualify for a major tournament. You can question Caleb Porter's decision to not sub out Hamid until after he gave up two goals, you can question why players are being asked to play games every other day for a week with a 20-man roster, which doesn't allow a lot of room for substitutes and leads to some very tired looking players, especially those players who aren't playing regular minutes with their club teams...which is about everyone on the USA roster that plays in Europe.
And at the end of the day, the experience that many of these players are getting abroad and domestically with their club teams might be better than playing friendlies and tournaments agaisnt CONCACAF teams. But that only works if said players are actually getting first team minutes. Terrence Boyd made his senior debut for the USA against Italy as a substitute before playing his first professional game with his club in Germany, yet Boyd is being relied on to start and win games for qualification to the Olympics instead of two players in Altidore and Agudelo who are regular senior team call-ups. Certainly these players want to make the Olympics, but they have well paying club gigs waiting for them while the largely domestic players representing El Salvador view the Olympics as their Super Bowl. And they have a good chance of progressing and seeing that dream.
But for the USA, there are bigger fish to fry. And several of the players who didn't qualify for London are going to be relied on to get the Yanks to Brazil in 2014. And if you're playing in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, are you going to care that you didn't play in London 2012?
Not a chance.