Beijing berths on offer in US

The hottest young talents in the CONCACAF zone are preparing to go head-to-head with a tantalising prize at stake: two places at the Men's Olympic Football Tournament Beijing 2008. This year's qualifying competition will be held in the United States, whose national team will be joined by seven of the region's finest U-23 squads.

The favourites
Regional heavyweights Mexico and the USA start as overwhelming favourites to secure the two available tickets for China. Should that be the case, a fierce contest will surely ensue between these two bitter rivals in the championship decider.

The Stars and Stripes intend to make home advantage count and have the luxury of a full-strength squad. Powerful forward Jozy Altidore and defender Michael Orozco will both be involved, while Lisbon giants Benfica have agreed to release livewire attacker Freddy Adu for the duration of the competition.

Neighbours Mexico, meanwhile, have been hamstrung by their own success. With the likes of Carlos Vela, Giovanni dos Santos, Hector Moreno and Andres Guardado all firmly established abroad, El Tricolor find themselves shorn of several key members of their golden generation.

Such is their depth of talent at youth level, however, that the Mexicans should still field a highly competitive team. Enjoying an impressive 21-match unbeaten run in Olympic qualifying, and boasting one of the continent's finest young shotstoppers in Guillermo Ochoa, Hugo Sanchez's charges will be aiming to defend the title they secured at this event in 2003.

The hopefuls
Curiously enough, neither Mexico nor the United States have managed to qualify for both of the last two Olympic Football Tournaments. One team that did are Honduras, and the Catrachos are determined to make it three in a row.

Led from the front by the explosive strike pairing of Jefferson Bernardez and Ramon Nunez, Honduras emerged in front of group rivals Panama and El Salvador when making it through to this final qualifying round. The dynamic duo should bear the brunt of their team's hopes once more, with the able support of keeper Kevin Hernandez and key defender Quiarol Arzu.

Guatemala must not be discounted either, the Chapines storming through a preliminary group containing no less a Central American force than Costa Rica. The outrageously talented Cristian Noriega will now be hoping to inspire Guatemala to their first Olympic Football Tournament since Seoul 1988.

Canada, for their part, have not appeared on the Olympic football stage since Los Angeles 1984. Fighting in the Canucks' corner will be European-based defenders David Edgar of Newcastle United and Hertha Berlin's Kennedy Owusu-Ansah.

Surprise packages
Of the three remaining participants, Panama's recent warm-up win over Argentina's U-20s, the reigning world champions, marks them out as dangerous opponents. Cuba and Haiti will add a Caribbean flavour to proceedings, having edged aside Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago respectively. And it is Cuba who have the greater pedigree of the trio, reaching the Olympic Football Tournament at both Montreal 1976 and Moscow 1980.

As Tuesday's big kick-off draws ever nearer, the answers to a number of pertinent questions should soon be answered. Will Mexico and the United States live up to their favourites' billing? Can Honduras spring another surprise and will a Caribbean nation make a return to the Olympic football fold? All will be revealed between 11 and 23 March.