Cycle 1, Part VI: The Olympics
The brief competitive advantage we had over Mexico (and the rest of CONCACAF) didn't even last the six months it took for the Mexican league to fully load into the game. The reason for this was diffusion.
This diffusion came in the form of defections. As we, the United States, suddenly had a large player pool to choose from, and as I hadn't really had the chance to cap-tie many players in that pool, a lot of moderately talented players that I simply hadn't had time to cap who also held dual nationalities were looking across the way to places that would cap them immediately. I ended up getting a lot of these kinds of messages in April:
We ended up losing four American-born players to Mexico and one to England, of all teams. I've got records and screenshots of all of these defections should any of the defectors become relevant in the future.
All in all it's an unfortunate casualty of MLS and the Mexican league not being able to be fully loaded into the game at the same time. From the players' perspective at the time they defected, the US had a large, deep player pool and Mexico did not, thus, they had more of a chance of being capped if they committed to Mexico. Realistically there was nothing I could do about this save for go back in the time and have the foresight to load both leagues in the game at the start of the Cartagena campaign, or at least while I was still playing as Cartagena, which obviously was not going to happen. The defectors might not have as much game time with Mexico as they would have liked now that the Mexican league is fully loaded in, but it's time to move forward. I'm thinking of it as a make-up call for us qualifying for the Confederations Cup playoff when we had no right to do so. Our cosmic accounts are now balanced.
We turned the page on the defections with the summer set of friendlies, as I moved to cap some new players and get my perceived core more familiar with each other heading into the important period of World Cup qualifiers. Most of the "get more players capped" group played against Senegal, in which we won 3-1. Most of the "core" group played against Uruguay, which I treated far more seriously.
As I mentioned in the last writeup, Uruguay is probably the strongest team we've played since I took over, excluding the very first friendlies against England and Italy where I had taken over literally the same day as the first match. They were runners-up in the past two Copas América and their starting XI contained some players familiar to me from my days with Cartagena: striker Enrico Pacheco, who had scored a brace with Milan against us in the last Champions League semifinal, midfielder Miguel Francia, a longtime stalwart with Real Madrid who always seemed to score clutch goals against us, and midfielder Rodrigo Lacerda, who actually had a cup of coffee with us before I was forced to sell him to Chelsea. These guys were good, and they would provide an excellent barometer as to exactly how far my top players had to go.
With that in mind, I'm very pleased to report that our players were up to the challenge.
The match was about as entertaining and instructive as you could ask from a friendly. We outworked Uruguay to get the first goal; they responded with an outstanding bit of class belying their superior talent. We retook the lead on what had been my bread and butter with Cartagena, a breakaway on the counterattack, and they got the late equalizer capitalizing off a truly horrendous back pass from captain Andy Alvarez to goalkeeper Emmanuel Musah. Apparently I can't trust any of my leadership to not screw up in their own end late in games. As soon as Preston Torres is seasoned enough, he's getting the armband.
Normally, this would have done it for the summer, and I would be off until the next international break in September. The universe had different plans, though.
I'm not going to try to pretend to understand the Olympic qualifying process, especially since we were apparently eliminated in the semifinals of whatever qualifier tournament we were entered in, but from as best I can tell, we got an automatic berth as the USA is hosting the 2028 Olympics. Of course, the question now becomes why we were entered into the qualifying tournament in the first place if so, but that's for another day. We were in.
When I've run national teams in the past, I've never bothered to play the Olympics, always delegating the managing job to one of my assistants. In those instances, I was a club manager in addition to having my international duties, and the Olympics are usually timed along with the start of the European club season, so I prioritized.
This time, though, was different. My only contract was with Team USA, I didn't have any other obligations at the time the Olympics happened, and I had just been granted access to a vastly expanded player pool and didn't have much of a handle on which players I could rely on yet. The Olympics, while primarily a tournament for U23s, would allow me to take a closer look at some of our younger, more fringe players and see what they had to offer. So, channeling another invincible, merciless, and uncompromising supervillain that's left a billion-year trail of destruction throughout the galaxy that I wish to emulate, I decided to assume direct control of the U23 Olympic squad for the first time ever in my FM career.
This proved to be a mistake. The Olympics are a terrible tournament.
First of all, because the Olympics run for only two weeks, the games are clustered together, with a maximum of six matches over that period (for comparison, teams in the World Cup play a maximum of seven matches, but that tournament lasts a month). That's bad enough on its own but would ordinarily be manageable... but the squad size was limited to 18 players. Normal tournament squads have 23 players. The tournament structure basically gave you two options: either get eliminated early, or have your players die of exhaustion.
The squad I ended up picking consisted mostly of people who had either seen no time with the full USMNT at all or players who probably would in the future, but who I just hadn't given enough time with yet. Striker Escobedo, who was fully capped and underage, played. Midfielder Cherneski, who was also fully capped and underage, did not. The difference was that Escobedo hadn't played much for me to that point while Cherneski had.
Every Olympic team is allotted three over-age exceptions to the U23 rule. I ended up using two. None of the U23 goalkeepers excited me, so I recalled Dylan Moor (born: Frisco, TX) from the senior team to provide some experience and skill. The second was Swiss Army knife defender Jesús Salas (born: Carson, CA), whose primary position is right back but is skilled and versatile enough to play anywhere on the back line. This versatility is very welcome when you have a squad of restricted size.
Our group was a tough one, consisting of Iran, Brazil, and the Netherlands. Part of me was hoping that we'd put on a good showing and then finish an expected third, thus sparing the players from the true pain in the knockout round, but the kids were up for it. We ended up finishing second in the group, thumping Iran before drawing Brazil and losing to the Netherlands. But more important than that, I was getting a better idea of who I could trust with work on the senior team and who I could safely ignore.
The quarterfinals provided extra incentive to continue through the gauntlet:
I didn't see any of our defectors on the team, but they did have two familiar faces: attacker José Alfredo Guerrero was playing the role of their super sub, and arrogant defender Mario Padilla, who had spurned Cartagena, was manning their back line and had already matured into a truly terrifying statistical player at the age of 20, playing a position where players usually peak much later on:
The match, as you could expect between two bitter rivals playing under taxing conditions, was a grueling slugfest. We took the lead in the 36th minute when striker Escobedo hit a beautiful free kick that bisected the wall of Mexico defenders at an angle and gave their goalkeeper absolutely no chance. They equalized early in the second half on an attack that stemmed after they were able to tackle our midfielder Devon Jones off the ball. That was it for the scoring after 90 minutes, and naturally, because the Olympics have no regard for human life, instead of going straight to penalties we had 30 more minutes of extra time to get through.
Mexico struck first, after we were whistled for a penalty for the third consecutive game (needless to say, I probably won't be calling up many of the central defenders to the senior team any time soon). Moor had saved one against Brazil, but the odds were against him and finally caught up. 2-1 Mexico. That looked to be the end of it, but in stoppage time of extra time, we launched one final desperation counterattack and striker Luke Gee found himself with the ball and with only the goalkeeper to beat. He delivered, and we were heading to penalties.
We won't talk about what happened in the shootout.
Despite the fact that we had suffered another heartbreaking loss late in or beyond extra time to our arch rivals for the second time in a year, I was generally pleased with how the tournament had gone for us. I had taken over the Olympic team to get information, with an idea of figuring out who I could trust and who couldn't cut it, and I got some good intel. Escobedo is on his way. Goalkeeper Moor probably deserves more time with the senior team. The biggest gem is probably somebody who had already gotten capped a couple of times, though. Meet Sam Phillips (born: Carson, CA. Yes, another one):
I gave Phillips his first senior cap last fall, where between Olympic qualifiers and general injuries/withdrawals, we were really hurting for bodies, but once MLS loaded and the player pool expanded, he kind of fell by the wayside. Well, I probably won't make that mistake again. His stats absolutely exploded between then and now, and considering his age and his mentals, there are signs that he could get even better. He bossed the midfield for us in all four Olympic matches despite age and fatigue.
Phillips might not be good enough to make the senior team right now, but between him and Cherneski, if even one of the two of them continues to develop, we'll be set at a very important position in my system for a long time. Fingers crossed.
We finished off this round of World Cup qualifying in style, dispatching second-place Honduras 4-1 on their own ground. My Trident of the Future, RW Spielmann, ST Escobedo, and LW Appleby each found the net. We have two prestige friendlies in October, against Portugal and Germany, and then the next (and final) round of qualifiers begin in November. I'll tell you how those go in the next update.