The eight-team CONCACAF Men’s Olympic qualifying tournament kicks off at the LP Field in Nashville, Tennessee today when El Salvador take on Canada, who along with Cuba, Mexico, Honduras, Panama, Trinidad and Tobago and hosts USA, harbour hopes of reaching London 2012.
The path to progression to the Olympic Games lies in reaching the final and while USA and Mexico may be favourites, the last time both qualified was in 1996 when Atlanta was the Host City. With the challengers, in particular El Salvador and Panama, growing in stature over the past decade, it will be a difficult task for the region’s big guns.
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Group A: Adu named skipper, doubts over Lester
With two U-23 titles under their belt, the last one from 12 years ago, and after losing the final of the competition in 2008 to Honduras, USA arrive at the competition with something to prove. However, despite their record in this competition, they are still overwhelming favourites to win the event and book a place at London 2012 in the process. Their squad, led by coach Caleb Porter, boasts six senior international players and a core of MLS regulars. Indeed, they are captained by Freddy Adu, the only survivor from four years ago.
“He’s crucial to the team,” said Porter. “He’s been through this process – not only been through it, but really done well. He’s been a key player at this level and scored goals in qualifying. This is nothing new to him and his experience is invaluable to the rest of the squad. I know that they’ve already been picking his brains and asking him what it’s like. His leadership and experience is really going to help our group.
“I want to play a style of football which is exciting for the fans and which the players enjoy too. But it’s a winning philosophy first and foremost. We have to win. That’s the key. At the end of the day, we’re going to qualify, but we want to do this in a way which will further grow the sport.”
Meeting USA in their opening match are Cuba, who are well-known for their counter-attacking style. The Cubans are attempting to return to the Olympic Football Tournament for the first time since 1980. They arrive at the CONCACAF U-23 finals in good form, having topped the Caribbean Zone in qualification with one win and two draws against Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago and St. Kitts and Nevis respectively.
El Salvador are in good shape after defeating Guatemala and Panama 2-1 in the Central American qualifiers, but there are injury doubts concerning star striker Lester Blanco who is troubled by a persistent ankle injury.
Canada, whose last appearance at an Olympic Games was in 1984, complete Group A. Tony Fonseca’s squad includes four players with international experience, including Nana Attakora and Marcus Haber.
“It’s exciting,” said Haber. “Over the past week, we’ve come together really quickly as a team and everyone’s confident. The opportunity to play at an Olympics is amazing for anyone, so we’re excited. We’re playing three games in six days, so it’s going to be tough for everyone. Every game will be a challenge.”
Group B: Araujo focused, Panama’s pride
In the past year, Mexico have won the CONCACAF Gold Cup, the FIFA U-17 World Cup, the Pan-American Games and reached the semi-finals of the FIFA U-20 World Cup. Perhaps understandably, there is tremendous expectation on this U-23 team to hit similar heights.
Luis Fernando Tena’s side has selected an entirely domestic-based squad for the qualifiers, with Chivas forward Marco Fabian tipped to shine. “We're not thinking about anything else but to win the qualifying and earn that ticket,” said Cruz Azul defender Nestor Araujo. “That’s our objective and it’s an important responsibility.”
Mexico meet Trinidad and Tobago in their first game on Friday, with three players in Daneil Cyrus, Kevan George and Cordell Cato all possessing MLS experience. Angus Eve’s squad have spend 12 days preparing for the competition in Florida and midfielder Kevin Molina believes that they are in the best possible shape.
“We’ve come a long way and prepared for this tournament,” he said. I think we will be in with a good chance here. Once we can hold our own like we did in the Pan-Am Games then we could certainly get some good results here and progress in the tournament.”
After reaching the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, Honduran football is riding the crest of a wave and with players such as Andy Najar, Mario Martinez and Alfredo Meija at their disposal, they have a decent chance of reaching the semi-finals.
Although Panama are outsiders to reach London 2012, Julio Dely Valdes’s squad has an unshakeable belief that they are destined to go far, possibly all the way to the Olympic finals.
“We feel like we have a very good chance to win this tournament and to play really, really well,” said defender Carlos Rodriguez. “Regardless of what happens, we’re going to show the world that we’re growing as a country in soccer. We feel like we have made a lot of progress as a country and as a team.
The 21-year-old is one of eight foreign-based players brought in by Valdes, as well as goalkeeper Luis Mejia, defender Harold Cummings, midfielders Erick Davis, Anibal Godoy, and Manuel Asprilla and strikers Ceciclo Waterman and Victor Barrera.
Mejia, Cummings, Davis and Godoy also helped Panama to the CONCACAF Gold Cup quarter-finals last year. The team also boasts six players from the side that took fourth spot at the CONCACAF U-20 Championship in Guatemala in 2010.
Fixtures (all kick-offs are local time)
Group A, LP Field, Nashville, Tennessee
Thursday 22 March
El Salvador - Canada (18.30)
USA – Cuba (21.00)
Saturday 24 March
Cuba – El Salvador (16.30)
USA – Canada (19.00)
Monday 26 March
Canada - Cuba (18.30)
USA – El Salvador (21.00)
Group B, The Home Depot Center, Carson, California
Friday 23 March
Honduras – Panama (18.00)
Trinidad and Tobago - Mexico (20.30)
Sunday 25 March
Panama – Trinidad and Tobago (13.30)
Mexico - Honduras (16.00)
Tuesday 27 March
Honduras – Trinidad and Tobago (18.00)
Mexico - Panama (20.30)
Semi-finals, Livestrong Sporting Park, Kansas City, Kansas
Saturday 31 March
B1 – A2 (18.00)
A1 – B2 (21.00)
Final*, Livestrong Sporting Park
Tuesday 2 April
*Both finalists qualify for Men’s Olympic Football Tournament London 2012