The news of the 2020 Olympics being postponed until next year because of the global coronavirus pandemic leaves plenty of unanswered questions — including some for the U.S. under-23 men’s national team that was supposed to be in Mexico this week trying to qualify for the Summer Games in Tokyo.
The biggest question: Will players currently in their final year of eligibility for the U-23s be allowed to compete should the Americans eventually punch their ticket to Japan?
USMNT Olympic eligibility question
As of now, there is no definitive answer. The good news is that established U.S. senior teamers like Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie and Josh Sargent are all so young that they would still be age-eligible for the Olympics if their clubs agree to release them in 2021.
Alas, the same can’t be said for much of the current U-23 squad.
No less than nine members of the 20-man roster U-23 coach Jason Kreis selected for CONCACAF’s qualifying event in Guadalajara will turn 24 next year. Normally, only players who are 23 or under on January 1 of an Olympic year can compete in the men’s Olympic football tournament (the women’s tourney has no age restriction), although teams can bolster their rosters with up to three overage players. Brian McBride was 36 when he captained the U.S. at Beijing 2008, the last time the American men reached an Olympics.
As it stands, though, Hassani Dotson, Jeremy Ebobisse, Justen Glad, Aaron Herrera, Jonathan Lewis, JT Marcinkowski, Erik Palmer-Brown, Sebastian Saucedo and Jackson Yueill could be in jeopardy of missing out on what might be their only opportunity to represent their country on the Olympic stage.
One would hope that common sense would prevail, that FIFA and the International Olympic Committee would try to ensure that those deprived of the chance to go the Games this summer, through no fault of their own, wouldn’t have that opportunity ripped away from them.
Best solution to Olympic men’s soccer age dilemma
Neither FIFA nor the IOC have the best track record when it comes to logical or fair decision-making, though — Tokyo 2020 was only pushed back under colossal pressure, and after several countries said they wouldn’t send their athletes — but let’s assume they actually attempt to do the right thing. What would that even look like?
A possible compromise could be to allow teams to add additional overage players, to go from three total to, say, six. That would help. But it would still guarantee that dozens of players who would’ve been eligible to compete in the 16-team men’s event this summer wouldn’t be in 2021. The better choice, strange as it may sound, would be to nothing at all.
It has been pointed out to Yahoo Sports that the way the rules are currently written, only players who were born on or after January 1, 1997, were age-eligible for this summer’s Olympics. If the status quo simply remains — and remember that the Games will retain the Tokyo 2020 branding even though the event will take place in 2021 — and that language stays as-is, then the players who were age-eligible this summer would be next year as well. Men’s soccer would organically become a one-off, U-24 event.
Other Olympic men’s soccer challenges
Other challenges remain, however. This year’s European Championship and Copa America have also been pushed to next year, in part to allow for the possibility of the top European domestic leagues to complete their seasons this summer.
That wouldn’t matter as much if the Americans’ particular situation wasn’t complicated further by the Gold Cup, which takes place in odd years and could now directly interfere with a summer 2021 Olympics.
Then there’s the all-important final four matches of the 2022 World Cup qualifying cycle to consider. While those two international windows (two matches in March 2021, then the last two of the Hexagonal that September) probably wouldn’t directly conflict with the Olympics, the schedule congestion would make it even less likely that Pulisic and the others would be made available.
MLS teams, which had already become less willing to release players, could be even less inclined to do so if the 2020 season ends up being cut short — something that seems likelier with each passing day.
There are far more vexing and important challenges presented by the COVID-19 crisis, of course. This isn’t even among the biggest unknowns when it comes to the Olympics themselves. Yet like everything else, there’s no easy solution here, either.
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