We've been hearing about it for months, but the CONCACAF Olympic Qualification Tournament is here. The eight team tournament begins Thursday, as Group A gets underway in group play, with Group B getting underway Friday. The finalists in this U23 tournament will represent the region this summer in the London Olympics, so the semifinal matches will actually be more significant than the final itself.
The obvious favorites for qualification are the United States and Mexico, but the last time both countries qualified for an Olympic tournament was 1996, when the Olympics were of course in North America (specifically, Atlanta was the host city). So while going chalk seems to make the most sense and both countries' national systems are both as strong as they have been in a very long time, there are no guarantees they will qualify with minimal effort. Most notably, if either country finishes third or fourth in their respective groups, they will of course not qualify. If one country finishes first in its group and the other finishes second, they will meet in the semifinals, and the winner will qualify. Needless to say, expectations among American and Mexican fans will be that these teams should meet in the final, with qualification already assured.
Below is a quick preview of the various countries at the tournament. In an effort to add some scouting info on the other six countries, I don't want to overwhelm this preview with USMNT and El Tri info. Bear in mind as well, however, that most previews have been focusing on the two favorites, so I'll use the info I have at hand.
Canada: I think there's a growing opinion that Canada has a decent shot of making it to the hexagonal in CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying this year, and the country's prospects seem to be looking up. That said, the prospects for the U23s heading into the Olympic Qualifying tournament do not seem to be nearly as good. Unlike the U.S., which held a series of training camps since last fall among players in the U23 pool, Canada only began training as a squad about a week before the tournament, so their chemistry may not be at the same level as their opponents. Furthermore, coach Tony Fonseca couldn't get all the players he wanted, as clubs are not obligated to release players since the tournament doesn't fall on a FIFA international window, so the options are somewhat limited.
The Canadian squad will be headlined by several MLS players, including Toronto FC's Doneil Henry and Matt Stinson, Vancouver Whitecaps' Russell Teibert and Bryce Alderson, and the Montreal Impact's Evan James. Several players who do not feature in MLS are also a part of this squad, including FC Edmonton's Shaun Saiko and Marcus Haber, who plays for St. Johnstone in the Scottish Premier League. There is talent on this team, no doubt, but there is a real question if there is enough to go around for this tournament. Their goal will likely be to qualify second, but El Salvador and the United States will be favored to advance from the group.
Cuba: Like other totalitarian regimes with limited media access, little is known about Cuba heading into this tournament. There is a chance they could shock everybody and qualify, but it looks unlikely. One piece of evidence to support the relative lack of talent comes from last year's Gold Cup, where the senior squad fared poorly. Also, most of the squad for this tournament is domestically-based, and the handful of players who play abroad most often play in the lower leagues in Europe. Perhaps the most interesting players heading into the tournament are a couple of dual nationals: Swedish-Cuban forward Samuel Armentaros, who plays for Heracles in the Eredivisie, and Bulgarian-Cuban defender Genadi Lugo. Otherwise, the storyline surrounding Cuba at a tournament in the U.S. will be the cliched-yet-still-true interest in the number of players who will defect. On the field, Cuba will likely be the betting favorite to finish fourth in the group.
El Salvador: Here's a team that could make waves in the tournament. While the U.S. is still likely much stronger, the Salvadoreños have a few key players on the U23 squad, and their familiarity playing together in the domestic league may benefit them in Nashville. They will be expected to be a class above the Canadians and Cubans, and failure to get to the semifinals will be a major problem for the Central American side.
The player pulling the strings in the midfield will be Jaime Alas, who has extensive experience with the senior team and will be expected to play a major role. Alas previously spent time in the River Plate system in Argentina, but he failed to crack the first team and came back to El Salvador. If he has a good tournament, he may get some looks from MLS or Mexican Primera teams, as he seems likely to break out to a larger league in the next couple of years.
Another very exciting player for El Salvador is forward Lester Blanco. He recently showed his form with a great game for Isidro Metapan against Pumas UNAM in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals, where he sliced Pumas' defense open with a brace in Metapan. Like Alas, Blanco is a senior international, and is poised to make a jump to a larger league soon. He is the kind of player who can break a game open, and could prove ultimately tricky for the USMNT's suspect backline. On the bright side, El Salvador will face the U.S. last in the group stage, so both teams could conceivably have advancement to the semifinals assured by the time they meet.
United States: Yeah, if they can't qualify with the strongest squad in a generation while playing on home soil, it will be a big problem. Featuring a combination of young MLS talent (including, of course, Chivas USA's own Jorge Villafaña), Club Tijuana's Joe Corona, and several players based in Europe, expectations are high heading into the tournament. What's more, their recent 2-0 friendly win over the Mexico U23s demonstrates a quality that Caleb Porter has apparently ushered in since being hired last year.
If you follow MLS, you probably are aware of the domestically-based players, with FC Dallas' Brek Shea and the Philadelphia Union's Freddy Adu leading the way. Although his focus with the Union appears to continually waver, Adu has been named captain of the squad, likely because he's been playing in the USMNT youth ranks for approximately 25 years. Actually, Adu has always played well at all levels of the USMNT, so this is potentially a very savvy move by Porter.
Three German-based players are also on the squad, and there are expectations that these guys can make the leap to the senior-team pool soon. Jared Jeffrey, a midfielder who plays for Mainz's second team, was a late addition to the squad, while Terrence Boyd (Borussia Dortmund) and Joe Gyau (Hoffenheim) will be expected to play a significant role in the tournament.
Finally, Corona has a lot of eyes on him in Southern California, but it is unclear how he will feature in the squad. He is a mercurial player who has proven to be inconsistent at times for club and country at central midfielder. That said, he was named the rookie of the year in the Mexican Primera a few months back, and he has considerable talent. He could be a backup all tournament, he could start the entire tournament, or his role could change depending on the opponent and how the U.S. is playing. Regardless, this is a team that will be expected to score early and often, prevent opponents from scoring at will, and ultimately qualify for London. Anything else will certainly give Jurgen Klinsmann pause in promoting these players to the senior squad in the coming years.
Honduras: Being placed in a tougher group will make it an uphill climb for Honduras, but they have a solid shot of making it to the semifinals. The word on the street is that the country probably will not be able to keep up the momentum they picked up after the senior squad qualified for the 2010 World Cup, but don't count them out. Much like El Salvador, the squad is mostly domestically-based, and they may be a step below the U.S. and Mexico, but they still have considerable class.
Headlining the squad for MLS followers is of course D.C. United's Andy Najar, who I thought was disrespected last year by many American soccer fans after deciding to represent Honduras internationally. It was the country of his birth, after all, and he didn't even have U.S. citizenship, but whatever, in the minds of many, he was a traitor and such. That said, there are considerable questions as to how well he'll mesh with his teammates, who are likely much more familiar with each other than with him. But after slumping through all of 2011 with DCU, he has looked sharp so far this season, and he could be a wild card in the tournament.
Another notable player that may be familiar to Chivas fans is Mario Martinez. The Real España midfielder was linked to the Goats last summer, and several MLS clubs have reportedly expressed interest in him. Another player with MLS rumors tied to him is another midfielder, Alfredo Mejia of Motagua. If either player has a strong tournament, it could bode well for getting transfers abroad.
Mexico: The co-favorites in this tournament have big shoes to fill. In the past year, El Tri's senior team won the Gold Cup, the U17 squad won the World Cup, they won the Pan-American Games soccer tournament, and the U20 squad made the semifinals of the World Cup. The excitement surrounding the national team at all levels is very high, and there are considerable expectations. But this may be the generation that brings more success than ever before at the senior level, and many of the players in this tournament could be in the senior team's future fixtures.
One interesting note is that Mexico's U23 squad is entirely domestically-based. If they indeed qualify, look for some European-based players to make the squad for London. But first they have to qualify. Twelve clubs are represented, with Chivas de Guadalajara leading the way with four players. It could be a big tournament for Chivas duo Marco Fabian and Erick "Cubo" Torres, who have both shown considerable talent but who have dealt with long-term funks in the past year. Monterrey defenders Darvin Chavez and Hiram Mier bring extensive experience with a winning pedigree to the squad, and a couple of Javiers, Aquino of Cruz Azul and Cortes of Pumas, are exciting players with bright futures. No doubt about it, this is a team that can really dominate. The question is if they will gel as a unit during the tournament, and if Luis Fernando Tena can get the most out of his squad. With the expectations chasing this team, it could lead them to greater heights, or they could get crushed under the weight. Still, they are a solid bet to make it to London.
Panama: The senior team seems to be enjoying an upswing, but will that translate to the U23s? It's an open question at this point. Most of the squad is based in Panama, but there are several players plying their trade throughout the Americas. They could be a team to surprise, but they are definitely flying under the radar heading into the tournament.
The sole MLS player on the squad is FC Dallas defender Carlos Rodriguez, although he recently joined the team. Four players are based in Uruguay: goalkeeper Luis Mejia, defender Harold Cummings, midfielder Erick Davis, and forward Cecilio Waterman. Otherwise, not a great deal is known about this group outside of Panama, and they will be a real question mark. That said, they are in a tougher group and will have to battle to finish in the top two in the group.
Trinidad and Tobago: The Caribbean island state is another question mark heading into the tournament, and will likely be the whipping boys of Group B. That said, there are several players who will be familiar to MLS fans in a mostly domestic-based squad. Defender Daneil Cyrus was with Sporting Kansas City last year, although he didn't see extensive action with the first team. Midfielder Kevan George is a recent SuperDraft pick from the Columbus Crew. And forward Cordell Cato recently signed with the Seattle Sounders.
T&T could certainly surprise opponents that may not know much about them, but their chances of making it to London look pretty slim. But they have had success on the international stage, when they made the 2006 World Cup, so it is certainly possible. And maybe another player or two will get a chance to shine and make the leap to a larger league.
Here's the schedule for the group stage:
Group A (Nashville, Tennessee):
Thursday, March 22: El Salvador vs. Canada (6:30 pm ET), U.S. vs. Cuba (9 pm ET)
Saturday, March 24: Cuba vs. El Salvador (4:30 pm ET), U.S. vs. Canada (7 pm ET)
Monday, March 26: Canada vs. Cuba (6:30 pm ET), U.S. vs. El Salvador (9 pm ET)
Group B (Carson, California):
Friday, March 23: Honduras vs. Panama (9 pm ET), Trinidad and Tobago vs. Mexico (11:30 pm ET)
Sunday, March 25: Panama vs. Trinidad and Tobago (4:30 pm ET), Mexico vs. Honduras (7 pm ET)
Tuesday, March 27: Honduras vs. Trinidad and Tobago (9 pm ET), Mexico vs. Panama (11:30 pm ET)
What do you think? Leave a comment below!