The USA tend to fly under the radar with juggernauts like Brazil and Argentina getting set for Beijing, but the stars and stripes could well be potential spoilers at the upcoming finals.
The team is comprised of two cycles of former U-20 players who participated at the last two FIFA U-20 World Cups (Canada 2007 and Netherlands 2005). Leading an impressive list are such headline-grabbing youngsters as recent Villarreal arrival and all-time US record signing Jozy Altidore, evergreen Benfica teenager Freddy Adu, Benny Feilhaber of Derby County, Michael Bradley and Danny Szetela.
"After an extensive process of evaluation, we are very excited about the group of players that we have chosen," said head coach Peter Nowak. "It's been very competitive."
The US Soccer Association also announced an impressive trio of overage players on Thursday. Veteran striker Brian McBride, 36, returns from international retirement and New England Revolution centre-back Michael Parkhurst and Aston Villa-bound goalkeeper Brad Guzan will line up alongside perhaps the most talented crop of youngsters in USA history as they stare down a difficult Group B in Tianjin and Beijing. Nigeria, gold medallists from 1996, Japan and European champions the Netherlands stand between the Americans and a possible quarter-final meeting with Côte d'Ivoire or Argentina.
One advantage team USA will have is their intensive training and preparation. Unlike a good number of the world's U-23 teams, the Americans, coached by no-nonsense former Poland captain and MLS legend Nowak, have played more friendlies than most and have come together in numerous training camps over the past few years.
Young Altidore is shaping up as a potential star of these Olympic finals. With a huge frame, searing pace and a polished poachers' sense that belies his 18 years, the former Red Bull New York striker is wise enough to be wary of the USA's group opponents. "It's a really tough group, maybe one of the hardest there is," Altidore said. "We're really going to have to be at the top of our game in order to get past the first round. At the same time it's exciting. It's not going to be an easy road."
Gold on the brain
Scottish-born Stuart Holden of MLS champions Houston Dynamo, an option for Nowak in midfield, is anything but overawed by the opposition. "We have a good team," he said. "Everyone seems to be playing well and is in good form, and I really think that's going to help us as a team. I think we can compete with anyone. We're going into this tournament with the gold medal on our minds."
Altidore will be reunited with his strike partner from the U-20 finals in Canada, Freddy Adu. Still just 19, Adu has played in four FIFA youth finals (one U-17 and three U-20s) and is already a full member of the senior national team. He is likely to dictate the pattern of the American attacks in Beijing, as Altidore and McBride look to reap the benefits.
Michael Bradley, top scorer last year at Dutch club Heerenveen and another member of the USA U-20 side that reached the quarter-finals of Canada 2007, is excited by the pressure on the USA team. "I think there will be a certain amount of pressure that we put on ourselves to make sure that we go there and play well," he said. "The better we do, the more coverage we'll get here at home and the more people will start to take notice."
Something to prove
The team looks impressive on paper, but they will be keen to put aside a disappointing qualifying campaign. Having assured their place in Beijing before the regional final, the Americans lost out to Honduras and now head to Beijing without the psychological edge of being champions of North, Central America and the Caribbean.
Despite missing out on the last Olympic finals four years ago in Athens, the Americans qualified for five straight tournaments between 1984 and 2000. Taking part in 13 previous Olympic finals, their best finish came in 2000 in Sydney when the side, led by Landon Donovan and Brad Friedel, only just missed out on a spot on the podium.
Goalkeepers: Brad Guzan (Chivas USA), Chris Seitz (Real Salt Lake)
Defenders: Patrick Ianni (Houston Dynamo), Michael Orozco (San Luis), Michael Parkhurst (New England Revolution), Nathan Sturgis (Real Salt Lake), Marvell Wynne (Toronto FC).
Midfielders: Freddy Adu (Benfica), Michael Bradley (Heerenveen), Maurice Edu (Toronto FC), Benny Feilhaber (Derby County), Stuart Holden (Houston Dynamo), Sacha Kljestan (Chivas USA), Danny Szetela (Brescia Calcio)
Forwards: Jozy Altidore (Villarreal), Charlie Davies (Hammarby IF), Brian McBride (out of contract), Robbie Rogers (Columbus Crew).