The pain of the U.S. men’s U-23 soccer team not qualifying for an Olympic spot in London lingers today -- one day after the team tied El Salvador and failed to make the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Tournament. Alexi Lalas, a star defender for Team USA in both the Barcelona 1992 Olympic Games and the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games, spoke with TeamUSA.org about what this loss means for the future of U.S. soccer.
TeamUSA.org: How do you describe what this setback means to U.S. Soccer?
Without a doubt, it’s a failure and there should be some real, honest assessment of what happened, but to say the future of American soccer is in jeopardy would be wrong.
I heard you say that you hope this hurts for the players. What do you mean by that?
I did say that and I hope that it does hurt. Only a few players from this team will graduate and play for the national team and, hopefully, in the World Cup. It may be painful now, and in their world, it is probably earthshattering -- but multiply that by 1,000 and that’s what it would mean in the World Cup. It’s bad for the actual sport because you want to put your best foot forward for the sport. There is plenty of hurt to go around today. But any experience these guys can get now, both positive and negative, will only help them down the line. And if in some small way this helps us get a better team and we go on and win a World Cup, then I can deal with the pain today.
What do you think these players will miss by not playing in the Olympics?
There is a value to having the Olympic experience and it’s disappointing that this group won’t have that experience. I remember when I played in 1992 and that was my first time representing my country at the highest level, and I know how much that meant to me to wear that jersey and to march in the Opening Ceremony and to see luminaries in the stands and to sing the national anthem.
Do you still have those jerseys?
Yes, I do. I still have a lot of my Olympic swag, jerseys, rings. It was such a great experience.
Did you get to stay in the Olympic Village?
Yes, but we also went to other places because games were played in satellite cities. In Atlanta, for example, we started there, but then we were in Birmingham (Ala.) and Washington, D.C. But it was great to get a chance to be in the village.
What stands out as far as your memories from the Olympic Games?
Everything from walking in the Opening Ceremonies, seeing the Dream Team and athletes like Jennifer Capriati. There were all of these incredible athletes and they were all jazzed to be there. I think it was a great experience for me and I think I became a better person for being in the Olympics.
A lot of the mainstream public does not really understand the nuances of qualifying for the Olympic Games. It is a lot different than qualifying for the World Cup and in some ways, since there are fewer teams and younger players, it is more difficult to make the Olympic Games than it is to make it to the World Cup. How do you put this in perspective?
When I played in 1992 in Barcelona, the team was all [under-age] 23. There were no over-age players. Now you can have three over-age players (but the rest of the Olympic players are 23 and under). To soccer players, the World Cup is the be-all, end-all, but when I tell most people that I played in a World Cup, they say something like, ‘Oh, that’s nice.’ And when I tell them I played in the Olympics, they are in awe. I think the World Cup is so big for our sport and every four years it kind of sucks the air out of our sport. I think people wanted to make sure that the Olympics were not a whole other World Cup and that’s why the rules are different. I think the Olympic soccer tournament is a wonderful showcase, especially for the younger players, and I’ll be disappointed this summer when the soccer tournament is going on in London and there’s no U.S. team there. But it’s not the end of the world.