NASHVILLE, Tenn. – In the wake of a "brutal" setback that rocked United States soccer a day earlier, men's national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann came out fighting – on behalf of his players, himself and the system he believes can turn this county into an international powerhouse.
Klinsmann was at LP Field on Monday night to see the USA under-23s miss out on a place in the London Olympic Games in devastating fashion, when an injury-time goalkeeping meltdown from Sean Johnson allowed El Salvador to grab a 3-3 draw.
Failure to reach the Games was a stunning outcome not only for these players but for the entire program, and Klinsmann knows that such disasters are bound to raise pointed questions and a hunger for answers.
Before replacing Bob Bradley at the end of last summer, Klinsmann wanted – no, demanded – overall control of not only the senior men's team but of the whole system, running all the way down the age-group ranks.
The theory was that from a young age players needed to be indoctrinated in a certain style, one that will allow the USA to become regular contenders for major honors, not also-rans on the world stage. The Klinsmann way is reliant on an offensive mentality and technical proficiency, rather than the pure physicality past American teams leaned on for so long.
Implementing the new order will inevitably include some stumbling blocks, but as lessons go, CONCACAF Olympic qualifying was an extraordinarily cruel one.
"We all feel really sorry for the guys," Klinsmann said. "They had it. It was all there already and then comes this last-second moment. This is brutal because they worked really hard. They showed a tremendous performance and you feel bad for them.
"The year slips away, a huge opportunity to shine in an Olympics. It's not coming back any more for them. That's how football is. It can catch you really brutally at specific moments.
"Obviously you want to get the results done and be in big competitions like Olympics. But here is a very good group doing fantastic work, but they weren't consistent enough and it killed the situation. It's a learning experience now, at an early stage they have to handle a big disappointment, which is not easy. It doesn't kill them, it makes them stronger. But with things like the pace of the game, technical elements, it was very important for us to see we are on the right path for our style of play."
Klinsmann has a wealth of experience, having won the World Cup as a player and taken Germany to the 2006 semifinals as coach. Yet he knows more than anyone, that for all the technical formula he is trying to mastermind, so much in soccer comes down to mental strength.
Sadly, the men's Olympic team did not have quite enough of it when it mattered most, and it paid the price. A shocking defeat to Canada in the second match of Group A was critical and laid the foundation for Monday's heartbreaking exit.
"I went in the locker room and told them they needed to leave that place with their heads up," Klinsmann said. "They will have good moments to come. But I also said it was not lost on the night (against El Salvador), it was lost against Canada. One bad performance can kill you in a qualifying campaign.
"We are going to help them in their development. We will follow them week in week out no matter where they play. They need to know they have a coaching staff around that always has an eye on them."
The future of under-23s coach Caleb Porter is uncertain. Porter has a bright soccer mind, a good outlook and he cares about his players. It would be unfortunate if there was no place for him within U.S. soccer, although being unable to take the team out of the CONCACAF group stage in a tournament held on home soil is tough to reconcile.
As for the players from this group, a handful could find traction in the men's national team pool before too long. Freddy Adu has been in the spotlight for so long that it is hard to imagine he is still only 22, with plenty of time for improvement.
Adu's performance in the Gold Cup last summer and on Monday, when he set up two of the USA's goals, give rise for optimism. However, he needs to start shining at the club level, and quickly.
Brek Shea has designs of the left wing spot for the senior side and could figure in World Cup qualifying, beginning later this year. It is hoped that by the World Cup itself in 2014, Shea will be fully ready.
Perhaps the most exciting of all is Terrence Boyd, the German-born forward whose strength and eye for goal has put him firmly on Klinsmann's radar. If Boyd can break into the first team at his German club side, Borussia Dortmund, and start playing regularly in the Bundesliga and Champions League, he could elevate above Jozy Altidore as the USA's first-choice attacker.
Others like Mix Diskerud and Joe Gyau will also have opportunities, but the road for many of these players is tougher now. The Olympics were supposed to be their time, their opportunity to grow and bond and learn some more.
Without it, they are a little less prepared, and U.S. soccer is a little worse off.
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