US stumbles as it pushes to join soccer elite

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NEW YORK (AP) - 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.

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