NEW YORK — For all the talk about the strides soccer has made in the United States, results of late have been stark and disappointing.
The Americans were eliminated by Ghana in the last two World Cups. The under-20 team's streak of seven trips to the world championship ended last year. And now the under-23s have failed to make two of the last three Olympics after their elimination Monday night.
Yes, the U.S. plays the world's game better than it did 25 years ago. The national team even notched its first win ever over powerhouse Italy last month. But the sputtering nature of the American program has even its most loyal supporters scratching their heads.
"Is it a disappointment? Yes. Is it a failure? Yes," former national team defender Alexi Lalas said after Monday's under-23 loss. "Is the sky falling? Absolutely not."
It was a crushing loss, however. The under-23 team was eliminated from Olympic qualifying when it conceded a goal in the final seconds of stoppage time during a 3-3 tie against El Salvador in Nashville, Tenn.
Despite having homefield advantage, the Americans didn't even make it to the qualification round — the semifinals this weekend. It was only the second time since 1976 they failed to qualify. They also fell short in 2004.
"We need to have new leadership, a fresh way of doing things," former national team and Olympic coach Bruce Arena said. "Usually it's a new coach. But maybe it's time for new leadership and new concepts as well. Who knows? But I think we're making progress, regardless of this result."
Still, at a time this summer when the soccer focus in the U.S. could have been on the up-and-coming American players, it will now be on preseason tours of English teams Chelsea and Tottenham and the new managers likely to be in place at both clubs.
"Obviously last night is a huge disappointment on many levels and for everyone involved," U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati said. "We've been very successful over the last 36 years in being at most of the Olympic games on the men's side, so it's a big setback."
Gulati, a Columbia economics professor, has been a driving force in U.S. soccer growth for more than a quarter century. The Americans had not qualified for the World Cup for 40 years before making it to the 1990 tournament, and they've now been to the last six — an accomplishment matched only by Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Italy, Spain and South Korea.
Gulati became USSF president in 2006 and replaced Arena after the Americans crashed out of the World Cup in the group stage — embittering the coach who guided the U.S. to the quarterfinals in 2002 and now leads the Los Angeles Galaxy.
In men's soccer, the Olympics are limited to players under 23 — with three overage players eligible for inclusion at the Summer Games. But clubs that pay the players' wages are often reluctant to release their best players, especially those in European leagues at key points in their seasons.
Still, even with Jozy Altidore, Timmy Chandler and Danny Williams unavailable, the U.S. filled its roster with professionals from Major League Soccer and players from European and Mexico clubs it was able to secure. The Americans figured they would have a relatively easy time claiming one of the two Olympic berths from North and Central America and the Caribbean.
But after an opening 6-0 rout of Cuba last week, they were upset 2-0 by Canada and forced themselves into a must-win game against El Salvador, a country whose population of about 6 million is smaller than New York City's.
After falling behind 2-1, the U.S. forged a lead and were seconds from advancing to the semis when a 25-yard shot by Jaime Alas took a hop and bounced in off the hands of backup American goalkeeper Sean Johnson, who entered after starter Bill Hamid turned an ankle on the turf during the first half.
"Having the Olympic experience would certainly be beneficial to these players. In a different way to look at it, this tournament helped weed out some of the quote-unquote talent that maybe isn't what we thought," said Lalas, now an ESPN analyst. "And for those players who do graduate to the national team, those few select players, it gives them a harsh but maybe vital lesson in terms of not only recognizing moments and opportunities but not wasting them."
Caleb Porter, who coached Akron to the 2010 NCAA title, was hired last October to run the under-23 team as part of an overhaul that followed Gulati installing former German star Jurgen Klinsmann as U.S. national team coach. Former star midfielder Tab Ramos was picked to coach the u20s, and the u17 coach also was replaced.
"The game can be really brutal sometimes. And really I just feel bad for the guys and for Caleb, who really did a good job," Klinsmann said. "They didn't lose the qualification today. They let it slip out if their grasp in the Canada game when they weren't alert enough. And they paid the price today with a goal in the last second. And of course that hurts."
When the U.S. failed to make it to the 2004 Athens Games, it was knocked out with a 4-0 loss to rival Mexico in Guadalajara, when boos nearly drowned out "The Star-Spangled Banner" and a few dozen fans chanted "Osama! Osama!"
This time elimination occurred at home.
"It's at a point now where shooting ourselves in the face and foot every five years is no longer acceptable," said Fox Soccer broadcaster Eric Wynalda, second on the American national team career-scoring list.
Wynalda delivered a blistering critique of American soccer administrators in January at the National Soccer Coaches Association of America convention in Kansas City, Mo., and has been an outspoken critic of Gulati and MLS Commissioner Don Garber.
"The truth of the matter is that Sunil has to take the responsibility for this," Wynalda said. "You can blame the players, you can blame the muck, you can blame Caleb Porter if you like, but I would argue that he had no business being in that position in the first place. Ultimately, the blame falls on the people who do the hiring."
More troubling than the failure to qualify for the London Olympics may be the lack of players on the u23s who appear to be pushing for spots on the national team, a group whose regulars include Landon Donovan (30), Carlos Bocanegra (33 in May), Steve Cherundolo (33) and Oguchi Onyewu (30 in May).
The 16-game process of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil starts this June, and among the group in Nashville only Dallas midfielder Brek Shea has become a frequent national team contributor. The major influx of new players has been several German-Americans who play regularly in the Bundesliga.
And goalkeeper, long a strength of the Americans, is now a potential problem area. Given the struggles of Hamid and Johnson, 41-year-old Spurs goalkeeper Brad Friedel might be brought out of national team retirement in the event of an injury to U.S. starter Tim Howard.
"The future of American goalkeeping leaves something to be desired," Lalas said.
But while focusing on the present, Gulati and Klinsmann also are putting more emphasis on the future.
MLS has expanded to 19 teams, creating more jobs for American players, and it relaunched its reserve league to create more competition. The USSF Development Academy for elite players 15-18 expanded its schedule from six to 10 months in an effort to establish better and lengthened training.
More Americans are with European clubs than ever before, but for every Clint Dempsey starring in the Premier League, there is a Ricardo Clark who can't even make a game-day substitutes' bench.
"We'll do everything we can to make sure we're on track, but a lot of things that have been put in place over a period of time are long-term projects," Gulati said. "Those things take time, and it's very hard to judge those on short-term results."