A stoppage time equalizer was the difference in Nashville on Monday night, with the United States Under-23 National Team failing to advance out of the group stage in the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying tournament. After Cuba came up with a stoppage time equalizer against Canada in the early game, Canada advanced in second-place. That left the United States facing a must-win scenario to advance to the semifinals.
Terrence Boyd had the USA on track to do just that, opening the scoring two minutes in with Brek Shea picking up the assist. El Salvador answered later in the half, equalizing in the 35th and going ahead two minutes later. With starting US goalkeeper Bill Hamid injured, Sean Johnson subbed on in the 39th minute.
Boyd scored his second goal in the 65th minute and the US went ahead through Joe Corona three minutes later. Deep into stoppage time, Jaime Alas scored to send El Salvador into the semifinals as Group A winner.
J Hutcherson writes five things to consider from what we saw in the Olympic qualification tournament.
United States Under-23 National Team coach Caleb Porter had more time with various versions of his squad than most coaches in the competition. Multiple camps, a friendly, and the cooperation of Major League Soccer meant realistic player availability. The U-23's were never going to be first choice due to player commitments with European clubs, but that was a known issue from the beginning. Few can really complain about Porter's choices from the available player pool. On paper, he put together a competitive side without straying far from the obvious selections. This wasn't a situation where there was a shadow team falling victim to creative selection. Regardless of the eventual result, that's a best effort that needs to be remembered.
A coach has a fundamental choice to make, especially with a select squad like a national team. Do you adopt a formation and a set of tactics and then try to mold the team to fit, or do you select the best available players and then use the formation and tactics that plays to their strengths? Porter did a bit of both. He was committed to an attacking style of soccer, but it required a type of midfield and defense that ultimately exposed some weaknesses in the US lineup. It was a risk, one that didn't pay off. Whether or not that was the right choice isn't the same question. Porter seemed to be following the wider commitment to attacking play we've seen from full National Team coach Jurgen Klinsmann. If what Porter was doing was staying on that broader message, there's a strong argument that he made the right choice. Klinsmann himself has been criticized for playing to a system rather than the strengths of individual players. It's a tough situation for any coach, weighing a longer term vision against immediate results. Unfortunately for Porter, he was in a win or go home scenario that Klinsmann has yet to face as coach of the senior squad. Again, with youth technical director Claudio Reyna beside Porter on the bench and Klinsmann in attendance, Olympic qualifying is part of the bigger picture for US Soccer. Porter's choices have to be examined within that, rather than simply treating them as one coach's prerogative.