Veterans of US U-20 flameout look for Olympic redemption
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – A little less than a year ago, Perry Kitchen, Zarek Valentin, Amobi Okugo and Joe Gyau (above) walked off the field at Guatemala City's Estadio Mateo Flores in despair. Each man played 90 minutes in the American Under-20 squad's shocking quarterfinal loss to the home side, a defeat that kept them out of the U-20 World Cup.
Their chance to get a bit of redemption starts on Thursday. The foursome, along with 16 other young Americans, are here for the group stage of the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying. The winners of the two semifinal matches earn a trip to the 2012 Summer Games in London.
In other words, it's another winner-take-all scenario, just like the U-20 tournament.
Last year's loss is not a focal point for any of the four who suffered through it, but they still remember the setback and are motivated to improve upon the outcome.
"We haven't talked about it, but we've realized that we don't want to feel that feeling again," Kitchen said before training on Tuesday. "It's a terrible feeling to not only let down your team, but your whole country. At the same time, it's not like we're feeling tons of pressure."
Valentin agrees with his once and future US teammate, but knows the talented U-20s missed a big opportunity. He would like to rectify the situation on LP Field and in Kansas City for the semifinal.
"There's a little bit of a chip on our shoulder within the group," he said. "I know that if we sit down together, we can all look back and have good memories from that team but also know that there was a big portion of it that was left as a question mark."
Kitchen and Valentin were barely into their MLS careers at this point last season, but they are familiar with the pro game now. They say the pace of coach Caleb Porter's practices is similar to what they expect with their club teams. The entire 20-man roster consists of professionals, and the Montreal Impact fullback offers the Americans would "do pretty well" in a league if they were all together. (If the U-23s' 3-0 defeat of the Atlanta Silverbacks on Sunday is any indication, Valentin is probably right.)
Porter named Kitchen – an obvious choice for captain of last year's U-20 team due to his fiery competitiveness and impressive leadership – vice captain of the U-23 squad. Despite his role, the young defender looks around the American locker room and sees a group of players who are not lacking in the leadership department.
"Everyone leads in their own way," he said. "You have verbal guys. You have guys that lead by example.
"You have guys like Freddy, who this is like his seventh qualifying," he joked with a smile. "We have a wide range, and everybody is going to step up."
If the Americans finish in the top two of Group A, they will meet Mexico, Panama, Honduras, or Trinidad and Tobago in the must-win semifinal. Noticeably absent from that list is Guatemala. Los Chapines didn't reach the final round of qualifying, failing to make it out of Central America.
Did Valentin and the guys want a rematch?
"We were hoping for it, but we have to take care of our business," he said. "I know it's so cliché, but for us four, the guys who were with the U-20s, we definitely don't look past any of the games because we know what can happen."
They won't let the rest of the team do so, either. In some ways, that crushing loss 50 weeks ago is this squad's gain.