As U.S. goes out with a whimper, Mexico roars

So what did we learn from last week’s Olympic qualifying?

Well, for starters we learned that the U.S., which will miss the Olympics for the second time in three tries, isn’t nearly as good nor coming on nearly as fast as believed. And secondly we learned that Mexico is scary good — so good, in fact, it could be on the verge of a major breakthrough at the senior level.

For the U.S., which was eliminated in group play of the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying after losing to Canada and tying El Salvador, the failure to make it to London comes on the heels of last year’s surprising loss in qualifying for the U-20 World Cup, which ended a streak of seven consecutive appearances in that tournament.

That has observers pleading for everything from patience — “Is the sky falling? Absolutely not,” said former national team defender Alexi Lalas — to near panic — “We need to have new leadership” said Galaxy Coach Bruce Arena, the winningest coach in national team history.

“There’s some examination that needs to be there. There needs to be a closer inspection,” Arena continued. “Where we are, where we want to go and who’s going to get us there. So maybe there’s a little bit of tweaking necessary.”

Last week’s embarrassing results also reflect poorly on Major League Soccer, which sent 14 players to a team that managed to beat only Cuba. And it places added pressure on Coach Juergen Klinsmann and the senior national team, which cannot afford a stumble in qualifying for the 2014 World Cup. It was Klinsmann, after all, who demanded control of the entire U.S. program — including the junior teams — when he was hired last summer.

Whether the CONCACAF results are simply a momentary setback or a sign of deeper problems remains to be seen. The continued expansion of MLS is creating more opportunities for Americans, a record number of whom are playing in Europe, while the recently relaunched MLS reserve league and the newly expanded USSF academy system have given young players a place to hone their skills. All this is positive.

Lalas, then, could be right — perhaps the sky isn’t falling. It might have darkened a bit, but it’s worth noting that Germany, Argentina, the Netherlands and Italy won’t play in the Olympics either and their senior national teams are all ranked among the top nine in the world..

Even Arena softened his call for “new leadership and new concepts” by conceding that the outlook isn’t as bleak as it may seem.

“Without a question, we’re so far ahead now from where we were 20, 30 years ago,” he said. “I think we’re on the right path.”

But if storm clouds have unexpectedly gathered over the U.S. team, it’s bright and sunny for the Mexicans, who cruised into the Olympic qualifying semifinals with a dominant performance in group play at the Home Depot Center. Combine that with a victory in last year’s U-17 World Cup — the country’s second junior World Cup title in six years — and a third-place finish in the 2011 U-20 World Cup and Mexico would seem to have a deep pool of young talent to draw from.

Even the Europeans are noticing.

At least two standouts from the Olympic team — Tigres striker Alan Pulido and Chivas midfielder Marco Fabian — have drawn interest from English Premier League clubs, which are increasingly seeking younger players. Should the 21-year-old Pulido and the 22-year-old Fabian make the jump, they would join a recent rush of young Mexican stars to Europe, following Javier Hernandez (Manchester United), Jonathan dos Santos (Barcelona), Giovani dos Santos (Tottenham), Andres Guardado (La Coruna) and Guillermo Ochoa (Ajaccio), among others.

It wasn’t that long ago that most of Mexico’s top players preferred the comfort — and comfortable pay — of the Mexican League to the challenge of playing in Europe. In the past decade that has changed drastically and Mexico’s national program is reaping the benefits even as the country’s domestic league has declined in quality as a result.

“Every kid growing up aspires to the level of European soccer,” Ochoa said. “I’ve always had the dream of playing in Europe.”

We’ve been down this road before, of course. Mexico’s last World Cup team was highly regarded but underperformed, winning only once before bowing out in the round of 16 — for the fifth time in as many tries.

This Mexican team could be different, though. For starters the aggressive, attacking style Mexico displayed in Olympic qualifying —one that produced 52 shots and 10 goals in its three group games against admittedly uneven competition — better suits the team’s personality than the cautious counterattacking philosophy favored in the past.

Plus more than half the 70 players called up by the senior team in the last year will be no older than 26 when World Cup qualifying resumes this summer. And many of those players have grown up with a history of winning at the international level.

The challenge now is making that promise pay off — which, as the U.S. just showed, isn’t always easy to do.