(Thursday, March 6, 2008) -- United States under-23 men's coach Peter Nowak has some tough decisions to make. With 24 players in a camp in Bradenton Fla., since Saturday, and another couple expected to arrive later, Nowak must decide by Sunday on 20 players who will represent the U.S. in the Summer Olympics qualifying tournament.
"If the tournament were today and I could take 24 (players), I would take them all," Nowak said. "I feel very comfortable with then all."
The U.S. will compete in CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Tournament Group A at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla. Nowak is expected to announce his squad before his team arrives in Tampa on Sunday.
On Tuesday, the U.S. faces Cuba at 8 p.m. (ET), then plays Panama Thursday at 8 p.m. and closes group action Saturday against Honduras at 7 p.m.
"We have material from our opponents and we are preparing ourselves for that," Nowak said. "Of course, we want to make sure that we're playing soccer our way and also adjust to the opponent in a way that will be an advantage for us. Of course, we are aware of their rosters, players, strengths, weakness, so we are well prepared for that. As I said, we can throw everything on the board, but the important factor is the execution and that's what we've been working on the last couple of days."
Group B features Canada, Guatemala, Haiti and Mexico facing off on March 12, 14 and 16 at The Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif.
The top two teams from each group advance to the semifinals. With CONCACAF, the region of North America, Central America and the Caribbean, having two berths in the 16-nation Olympic field, both CONCACAF semifinal winners will earn entrance to the Beijing Olympics.
Fox Soccer Channel will show seven qualifying matches, including all three of the U.S.'s first-round round matches, both semifinals, plus the third-place and championship games. Since the Americans play the second game of a doubleheader in each group outing, there is a possibility kickoffs might be delayed.
Although CONCACAF would be loath to admit it, the tournament setup is favorable to its two perceived strongest teams -- the U.S. and Mexico -- advancing to China. The top team in each group faces the second-place finisher from the other group, so for the U.S. and Mexico to both qualify for Beijing, they must each finish first (or each finish second) so they don't play each other in the semifinals.
These key semifinals will be competed at LP Field in Nashville on Thursday March 20. The championship game, played for pride and a trophy, will be in Nashville on March 23.
In 2004 qualifying, the U.S. failed to make it through despite cruising through its group by defeating Panama, Canada and Honduras. Mexico, however, stumbled in group play, placing second, but then earned its Olympic berth by trounced the Americans 4-0 in the semifinals.
World governing body FIFA, which does not want the men's Olympics to become another World Cup, so the tournament is limited to under-23 men. In the Olympic tournament itself, each entrant is allowed to add three "overage" players. (The women's tournament has no age limit and much resembles the Women's World Cup which is always played in the year prior to the Olympics.)
Missing from the current U.S. training camp are two players who figure to be added to the final 20-player roster, even if they are only released by their European teams for a crucial semifinal, should the U.S. make it there. Midfielder Michael Bradley has remained with his Dutch team Heerenveen, while defender Jonathan Spector has stayed with West Ham United in the English Premier League.
The U.S. Soccer Federation has been in long negotiations with both clubs for the players' release for a possible semifinal appearance.
"I'm very pleased with the work ethic in how we've trained," Nowak said. "We're ready to roll. We know the competition is going to be very difficult, very difficult group games, so we must be prepared. We need to be able to present ourselves in the best possible way."
Ten of the 24 players in camp have made appearances with the U.S. senior men's team, including Jozy Altidore who scored his first international goal in a 2-2 draw February 6 with Mexico at Reliant Stadium in Houston.
"Every time you suit up for the national team, you have to bring your best," said Altidore, who was part of the U.S. quarterfinal run in the 2007 Under-20 Men's World Championships in Canada. "Whether it is the full team, the 20s or the 23s, your best have to be there. As for this Olympics, I think there is a lot of talent on this team. It's just a matter of now putting it all together at the right time and playing for our country, getting out there and playing as a team."
Midfielder Benny Feilhaber leads the camp invitees with 15 appearances with the full national team, while midfielders Eddie Gaven and Sacha Kljestan have donned the senior national-team jersey five times.
Somewhat surprisingly, Benfica of Portugal agreed to release attacker Freddy Adu for the entire tournament. Adu, who has played four times for the senior team, has been getting first-team minutes with Benfica, mostly as a late second-half sub, so his club thought the Olympic qualifying tournament might be beneficial to his development.
The most surprising camp member is 5-foot-11 central defender Michael Orozco, who plays for San Luis in Mexico's Primera Division. The Orange, Calif., native has not previously played for the U.S.
Nowak, who led D.C. United to Major League Soccer's championship in 2004, is also an assistant to Bob Bradley, coach of the full national team. Nowak is being assisted for Olympic qualifying by former MLS "Defender of the Year" Lubos Kubik and men's national-team assistant Mike Sorber with Tim Mulqueen serving as goalkeeper coach.
Mexico coach Hugo Sánchez has some of the same problems as Nowak. He has young goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, who has emerged as the senior-team starter, as well as Cruz Azul's young playmaker Cesar Villaluz, in his training camp and eligible for all qualifying matches. Meanwhile, young budding superstars -- winger Carlos Vela (Osasuna) and forward Giovani Dos Santos (Barcelona), have remained with their Spanish clubs.
Training camp roster for U.S. under-23 men:
Goalkeepers (3): Dominic Cervi (no team), Tally Hall (Esbjerg fB, Denmark), Chris Seitz (Real Salt Lake, Major League Soccer).
Defenders (8): Maurice Edu (Toronto FC, MLS), Hunter Freeman (New York Red Bulls. MLS), Kamani Hill (Vfl Wolfsburg, Germany), Patrick Ianni (Houston Dynamo. MLS), Michael Orozco (San Luis, Mexico), Mike Randolph (Los Angeles Galaxy, MLS), Nathan Sturgis (Real Salt Lake, MLS), Marvell Wynne (Toronto FC, MLS).
Midfielders (8): Arturo Alvarez (FC Dallas. MLS), Benny Feilhaber (Derby County. England), Eddie Gaven (Columbus Crew, MLS), Stuart Holden (Houston Dynamo, MLS), Sacha Kljestan (Chivas USA, MLS), Dax McCarty (FC Dallas, MLS), Robbie Rogers (Columbus Crew, MLS), Sal Zizzo (Hannover 96, Germany).
Forwards (5): Freddy Adu (SL Benfica, Portugal), Jozy Altidore (New York Red Bulls, MLS), Chad Barrett (Chicago Fire, MSL), Charlie Davies (Hammarby IF, Sweden), Robbie Findley (Real Salt Lake, MLS).
Robert Wagman is SoccerTimes senior correspondent.
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