And so, the journey to London begins.
On Thursday, the CONCACAF men’s Olympic qualifying tournament kicks off with the opening of group play, and MLSsoccer.com will be covering all the action.
The first match in Group A is El Salvador-Canada, an interesting test for the optimistic Canadians. That is followed by USA-Cuba, a David and Goliath clash that will set the tone for the US side. Both matches will take place at LP Field in Nashville, Tenn.
Group B will begin play on Friday at The Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. Honduras will take on Panama, and Mexico will square off with Trinidad and Tobago.
The two finalists of this tournament will receive the two allotted CONCACAF berths at the 2012 Olympics. The winner of the final will also win the U-23 CONCACAF Championship.
MLS Elite on US Olympic Team
Each qualifying nation sends a U-23 team to the CONCACAF tournament. Per FIFA rules, players must be born on or after Jan. 1, 1989.
The same rules apply for the actual Olympic Games; however, each team may include three players over the FIFA-mandated age-limit when the London games roll around.
The United States, Mexico and Canada all qualified automatically to the final CONCACAF round. The other five nations — Honduras, Panama, Trinidad and Tobago, El Salvador and Cuba — qualified for the tournament through a group-play elimination process that began in August 2011.
As is usually the case, the USA and Mexico are favorites to qualify.
The US roster chosen by coach Caleb Porter boasts 14 players from MLS, including Philadelphia’s Freddy Adu, Dallas’ Brek Shea and Sporting KC’s Teal Bunbury. There are also six players from abroad, including Gent’s Mikkel Diskerud and Tijuana’s Joe Corona. Having decided to play the same attacking 4-3-3 formation used by Jurgen Klinsmann at the senior level, the U-23s come into the tourney on a high note, after beating the NASL's Atlanta Silverbacks in a scrimmage on Sunday and topping Mexico, 2-0, in a friendly in Dallas late last month.
Mexico, coached by Luis Fernando Tena, won the gold medal at the 2011 Pan American Games and are loaded with their usual assortment of talented players. Many of the Mexican players have been capped for El Tri already, including Chivas de Guadalajara striking sensation Marco Fabián, his teammate American-born midfielder Miguel Ángel Ponce, Toluca left winger Néstor Calderón, and Cruz Azul defender Néstor Araujo.
However, a third favorite must be Canada, coached by Tony Fonseca. The Canucks have improved in recent years, as MLS has stocked the side with such talents as Toronto defender Matt Stinson and Seattle rookie striker Babayele Sodade.
The Cinderella Story
Although the senior Panamanian side have never come close to a World Cup, the Canaleros advanced to the U-17 and U-20 FIFA World Cups last year and the Olympics would represent the next step in the nation's rise among CONCACAF nations.
The improvement has been marked in the years since Julio Dely Valdés took over the national team program. They breezed through the 2014 World Cup preliminaries last fall, and the Olympic team, which includes FC Dallas defender Carlos Rodríguez and Tigres UANL midfielder Manuel Asprilla, could pull off an upset or two.
Keep an Eye on
Juan Agudelo, USA — A physical force up top, the New York Red Bulls striker is already a regular with the full national team, and will carry much of the scoring responsibility for the U-23s.
Bryce Alderson, Canada — The 18-year-old Whitecaps midfielder was named Canadian U-17 Player of the Year the last two years, and captained the U-17 side to the World Cup.
Joe Gyau, USA — Fast and powerful, the Hoffenheim striker is still developing his game, but he’s starting to make inroads into the Bundesliga club’s first team.
Anthony Lozano, Honduras — Currently on loan with Spanish second-division side Alcoyano, Lozano is an 18-year-old goal machine who tallied 11 times in 8 matches for the U-17 side.
Andy Najar, Honduras — The D.C. United midfielder, who was named the 2010 MLS Rookie of the Year, flirted with playing for the US internationally before choosing to represent his birth nation.
Erick Torres, Mexico — Still only 19, el Cubo (the Cube) has become a mainstay for Chivas de Guadalajara, scoring 11 goals in 24 league appearances for the Mexican giants.
|Trinidad & Tobago||2||0||1||1||2||8||-6||1|
Thursday, March 22 – LP Field, Nashville, Tenn.
Friday, March 23 – The Home Depot Center, Carson, Calif.
Saturday, March 24 – LP Field, Nashville, Tenn.
El Salvador 4, Cuba 0
Canada 2, USA 0 | RECAP
Sunday, March 25 – The Home Depot Center, Carson, Calif.
Monday, March 26 – LP Field, Nashville, Tenn.
Tuesday, March 27 – The Home Depot Center, Carson, Calif.
Honduras vs. T&T, 6:30 pm ET - Universal Sports Network/Telemundo
Mexico vs. Panama, 9 pm ET - Universal Sports Network/Telemundo
Saturday, March 31 – Livestrong Sporting Park, Kansas City, Kan.
Semifinal #1 – B1 vs. A2, 6 pm ET - Universal Sports Network/Telemundo
Semifinal #2 – A1 vs. B2, 9 pm ET - NBC Sports Network
Monday, April 2 – Livestrong Sporting Park, Kansas City, Kan.
Final, 8 pm ET - Universal Sports Network/Telemundo