USMNT failing to qualify for another Olympics would be disastrous

Leander Schaerlaeckens
US team players react after their loss to Serbia in a penalty shoot out during their U20 soccer World Cup quarterfinal game in Auckland, New Zealand, Sunday, June 14, 2015. (AP Photo/David Rowland)

It's been eight years since a United States men's team has appeared in the Olympic tournament. And should the U.S. under-23 national team fail to qualify from a two-game, home-and-away playoff with Colombia on Friday and next Tuesday, the American men will have turned up at the Olympic Games just once since Sydney in 2000.

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That's a bad look. But the contrast is particularly stark with the women's program – where the tournament is a full senior-team event, rather than under-23 with three overage players – considering that the Lady Yanks (copyright pending) have won three consecutive gold medals.

In the grand scheme of men's soccer, the Olympics don't particularly matter. Mexico won it in London in 2012, and while it's a feather in the cap of its national program, that's really all it is. It isn't relevant like the World Cup, or the Euro, Copa America or even the Gold Cup. It does, however, act as an important proving ground for generations on the verge of aging into jobs on their senior national teams.

There really isn't any other competition for 21- and 22-year olds to gain significant international experience before they get promoted to the senior side. By the time they're of Olympic age, the under-20 World Cups are a long way in the rearview mirror – by soccer standards anyway – and a series of highly competitive international games is invaluable experience.

And the Americans have been missing out on that. The loaded 2012 team didn't even survive its group stage in the CONCACAF qualifying tournament, dooming a promising band of prospects. Senior team head coach – and technical director – Jurgen Klinsmann has often and loudly lamented their failing, because this precious seasoning could have helped push that generation ahead.

Instead, and for all its talent, very little of that team has made its mark on the senior side. Only Mix Diskerud and Brek Shea, with 37 and 34 caps, respectively, have played a notable part in the senior side of late. And neither would be considered a part of the team's core. Klinsmann has referred to it as a "lost generation."

The 2016 team was very nearly lost in its own qualifying tournament. It was upset 2-0 in the make-or-break semifinal by Honduras, which won handily and deservedly. Then, only the fraught 2-0 win over Canada in the third-place game ensured that the U.S. might open up a route through the back door.

This team, too, is loaded with talent. Each player is already a professional. And defender Matt Miazga recently earned a transfer from the New York Red Bulls to Chelsea. Winger Julian Green has plateaued somewhat in the last year, but he is nevertheless highly regarded by his club Bayern Munich. Playmaker Emerson Hyndman has already played a lot for Fulham. Jordan Morris is one of the most hyped American forwards in years. Gedion Zelalem isn't available for this series but is expected to break into Arsenal's midfield in the coming years.

Short of the right sort of results, none of this matters, of course. And Andy Herzog's team has made things very hard on itself. Colombia's squad, while populated by little-known names, is apparently so gifted that it's favored to win this contest comfortably. The Americans have a tough task in Barranquilla and Frisco, Texas.

The stakes aren't so much the Olympic glory on offer but the best prospects' adequate preparation for their senior team careers. Missing out on it yet again would fall just short of a developmental disaster.

The young Yanks have just two games to find themselves.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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