Much of the Columbus soccer community was focused on what was happening at MAPFRE Stadium on Tuesday night, with the United State's senior men's national team, at least for a moment, waking fans up from a nightmare scenario of failing to qualify for the World Cup.
But as those fans were heading home, U.S. Soccer was busy adding to its signs that things aren't quite right as the Under-23 national team was failing to qualify for the 2016 Olympics.
Much like anything that doesn't fall under the umbrella of qualifying for the World Cup, Olympic qualification is the end all and be all of absolutely nothing. It's a glorified tournament for young professionals that will move the needle for the American mainstream somewhere behind Olympic table tennis and ahead of badminton (which is awesome, by the way). Among the more soccer-minded, it's a few more games to have on in the background during a summer that will be dominated by Copa America. In simplest on-field terms, it's a handful of games on a bigger stage for a particularly tricky age group — guys who are professionals trying to make a name for themselves, but who don't have many opportunities to test themselves at the international level — that now go by the wayside. Now those guys will have more time to settle in and prove themselves with their clubs during the late-summer preseason.
Framed that way, it's not worth losing much sleep over.
But after failing to qualify for the Olympics for a second cycle in a row, there have to be questions asked. What has gone wrong?
To be clear, what happened Tuesday night was not surprising. The U.S. was out-played by a Colombian side that was more talented and in many cases more experienced. The fact that the United States even had hope thanks to a 1-1 draw in the opening leg in Colombia is the surprising part. And they probably didn't deserve it. They were significantly outplayed in that game as well.
Over 180 minutes in the two legs, the U.S. got one shot on goal. They scored on it. And that was it. They were dominated in possession and holding on by the skin of their teeth when they could even do that.
Columbus golden boy Wil Trapp — the U23 captain — was mostly average, having a bright moment here and there, but also looking uncertain at times, including two bad turnovers in the second leg, while looking a little disconnected in a midfield that couldn't control the ball, even when coach Andi Herzog said that was precisely the goal going into the second leg at home.
What made the whole thing feel so dire wasn't the loss — which probably should have been expected — but rather the feeling that the U.S. was a spectator, until it stole the spotlight for all the wrong reasons, losing its cool and getting two players sent off (with a pair of should-have-been-cards that were missed by officials).
Even with what should have been expected disappointment, it feels like a moment that's hard to swallow. Days after the country's soccer fans were ready to bury their USMNT jerseys, we were reminded yet again that things are not as they were promised.
The U23s should have never been in this position, playing in a playoff against a better side. It should have beaten Honduras in the CONCACAF semifinal to clinch a spot in Rio.
And it shouldn't have done it after Jurgen Klinsmann, acting in his technical director role, spoke often about the importance of qualifying for these Olympics and backed that up by steering U.S. Soccer to pour more resources than ever into the U23s during the last four years since the last qualification failure.
There are many systemic issues that hold back youth development in the United States, but there's no excuse for falling behind smaller CONCACAF countries with lesser resources. More frustratingly, there's no reason to do it during an era in which U.S. Soccer has paid lip service to doing the exact opposite.
Call it a miscalculation by Klinsmann to make promises he couldn't deliver, but throw Tuesday night's U23 failure onto the pile. The Confederation's Cup was deemed important — it fell by the wayside. Proactive play was called the next step in the nation's soccer development — it's still elusive, at all levels. The Olympics were considered a priority — and U.S. Soccer won't be a part of them (at least not on the men's side).
These kids won't be derailed by this missed opportunity. Trapp will return to Crew SC and continue to be a critical piece. Maybe he'll even end up in Russia in two years time. Maybe some of his U23 teammates will be there as well. But that will be in spite of U.S. Soccer treading water, or worse.
There's still plenty of promising — if not transcendent — talent in the pool, including Trapp. But why isn't it coming together as a sum of the parts? Why aren't the parts progressing more quickly? Why are they being outdone by a nation like Honduras? What else can be done?
Even as the senior team all but locked up a spot in the hexagonal (and likely the World Cup) in front of Columbus' soccer faithful, Tuesday was a reminder that there are still far more questions than answers.