EDGAR ZUNIGA - Wednesday, August 8, 2012
It's another long, hot summer day and bars across the nation are roaring with 'GO USA!' chants as fans have shown up in the middle of a work week to cheer on their nation.
The United States of America is not only competing in a respected global soccer tournament, we are actually in the final and all of America is bleeding red, white and blue in support of a soccer team that has brought hope to the hopeless and shown the world American resilience in the face of adversity.
To make things more interesting, our neighbors to the south have also reached the final and Mexicans all across North America will be screaming and pushing their team onto victory.
Don't we wish it was USA vs. Mexico?
Interestingly enough, though, this has nothing-yet everything-to do with the current state of our men's soccer program.
And, of course, I'm referring to the women's Olympic team and the Mexican men's team, who both reached the gold medal round at London 2012.
While we celebrate the continued accomplishments of our embattled women's team, we can only sit back-tight-lipped, arms crossed-and watch as the Mexican team goes to where no US men's team has gone before in the Olympics.
Some may dismiss the Olympics as a throw-away tournament, when compared to the World Cup or the UEFA Champions League, but it's still an opportunity to showcase the growth of our soccer on a global scale and maybe give everyone a glimpse of good things to come.
When the Under-23 squad failed to qualify for the Olympics, it happened in such an inglorious fashion, that it left everyone shaking their heads in disbelief.
The way the team fell apart has been dissected thoroughly by many pundits. But, no matter how you cut it, it always looks ugly and leaves a bad taste in your mouth, especially when you look at what our only two CONCACAF representatives have done.
Tiny Honduras, who was also present at World Cup 2010, shocked the proud Spanish team en route to the knockout stages and nearly cut down a not-so-flashy Brazilian team that had to resort to shady tactics to escape the Catrachos.
In the case of Mexico, although they had a relatively easier route, they have taken advantage of this and played terrific soccer to earn the match-up against Brazil for the gold medal.
How would the US men's team have fared in place of Honduras?
Can you imagine the headlines if the US had beaten Spain once more in a tournament of this magnitude? Maybe the US would have actually been able to get past Brazil. And then what? A gold medal final match-up against Mexico?
Can you imagine all the watch parties and crowds flocking to bars across the country to see this epic clash between bitter border rivals?
Too bad it's all just speculation and wishful thinking.
The only clash between these old rivals this summer will be a Mexico vs. US "friendly" exhibition to be played in the choking smog of Estadio Azteca on August 15. How do you think that will end?
It really is just very frustrating.
Before anyone just shrugs it off as, "Oh, it's just the Olympics" think about what this says about the next generation of US Soccer.
The US didn't just fail to qualify for the Olympics; this happened on American soil and against teams whose financial infrastructure is nowhere near the level of ours.
So, they crushed impoverished, baseball-mad Cuba. That was a good start and rightfully so.
However, the loss to Canada proved that this U-23 squad had a glass jaw. Do you really see Canadians pouring loonies into the development of their soccer federation when they could just continue to focus on their hockey programs?
Then, the "loss" to El Salvador was the unkindest cut of all. A draw that had all the sourness of a loss to a nation whose soccer federation is drowning in a sea of controversy because of match fixing and whose funding was suspended as punishment.
In Honduras, soccer may be king, but do you think the amount they have invested into their programs in Honduran lempiras measures up to what is invested into our programs in American dollars? Is the infrastructure of their soccer program better when compared to ours in this vast nation we call home?
If you care about US Soccer, draw breath and have a pulse, this should bother you.
The one slim silver lining in the draw against El Salvador that doomed the U-23 squad was that it took a very late goal in the last match of group play to eliminate the US.
Just one goal separated the US from an opportunity to advance to the next stage of qualifying. Sure, there is no guarantee that the U-23s would've been able to defeat Honduras after struggling mightily against Canada and El Salvador. But, it would've been one step further than where they wound up.
On the other hand, to have everything boil down to that one goal, scored by Jaime Alas in the fourth minute of added time, shows how fragile the team was. Playing at home against opposition like this, they shouldn't have had to struggle this much.
The way things are shaping up it does not bode well for the senior squad as they get more involved in World Cup qualifiers.
They already struggle when playing on the road (even against Canada!) and rely heavily on their results at home. But, what if they start losing at home against teams they should beat?
Failing to qualify for the Olympics is a very tough lesson for US Soccer. In means that in a CONCACAF that is in constant flux and turmoil, nothing is guaranteed. Nothing can be taken for granted.
Yet, the strongest blades are forged in the harshest fires of distress. And, if lessons are taken to heart and evolution follows its path, the men's team will come out of this dark time better equipped to face the future.
Irish poet Oliver Goldsmith once said, "Our greatest glory consists not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall."
Hopefully, next time, things won't come down to a last second goal. Next time, Landon Donovan might not be there to bail us out.