by Jerrad Peters (@peterssoccer)
The tournament: The 2012 CONCACAF Men’s Olympic Qualifying Tournament begins Thursday and will run until April 2 in Kansas City, Los Angeles and Nashville.
The teams: Canada, Mexico and the United States were seeded into the competition, and Cuba, El Salvador, Honduras, Panama and Trinidad and Tobago booked their spots through a qualification phase that began last July and concluded in November. The eight sides have been grouped into two brackets of four, each of which will graduate two teams into the semifinal round.
The stakes: Up for grabs are two spots in the 2012 Olympic Games in London. Belarus, Brazil, Egypt, Gabon, Great Britain, Japan, Morocco, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay have already booked their places, and Oceania will determine their representative on Saturday. A playoff between Senegal and one of Oman, Syria and Uzbekistan will decide the 16th and final participant.
Group A: Canada, Cuba, El Savador, United States
For all the talk of an inevitable United States-Mexico final—and thus the pair of Olympic berths at stake—the two North American heavyweights have only twice progressed to the Olympics in tandem (1972 and 1992) since CONCACAF qualification began in 1964. They represented the continent together on a third occasion in 1996, but as the United States were hosts of the Games they qualified automatically.
All that said, there is every reason to anticipate a United States-Mexico showdown on April 2 at Livestrong Sporting Park, home to Major League Soccer’s Sporting Kansas City. The proof is on the paper, or more specifically, on the roster sheets.
Available to United States manager Caleb Porter, who is also head coach at the University of Akron, is an impressive collection of young players gathered from MLS, Mexico and Europe. New York Red Bulls striker Juan Agudelo, given the number nine shirt for the tournament, will lead an impressive attack augmented by FC Dallas winger Brek Shea, Sporting Kansas City forward Teal Bunbury and the seemingly ageless Freddy Adu of Philadelphia Union.
Joe Corona, the lone representative from the Mexican league where he plays for Tijuana, will handle creative duties in the midfield and Ike Opara (San Jose Earthquakes) and Perry Kitchen (DC United) will anchor the defense. Bill Hamid, who played 28 MLS games for DC United in 2011, will provide a calm, confident presence between the sticks.
Porter’s will be a mostly different side than the U-20 unit coached by Thomas Rongen that crashed out at the quarterfinal stage of last year’s CONCACAF U-20 Championship. After a convincing group stage campaign that included a 2-0 win over Panama the United States were bounced from the last eight by tournament hosts Guatemala.
One notable holdover from that squad is 19-year-old forward Joseph Gyau, who is on the books at Bundesliga side Hoffenheim.
The pack: Group A is easily the weaker of the two brackets and Canada, who last participated in an Olympics in 1984, should be tipped to come second.
Eight of manager Tony Fonseca’s 20-man squad are currently tied to Canadian clubs and two players—St. Johnstone striker Marcus Haber and Eintracht Braunschweig forward Randy Edwini-Bonsu—ply their trades in Europe. Both will be vital to the Canadian attack. Russell Teibert and Matt Stinson, of Vancouver Whitecaps and Toronto FC, respectively, will provide MLS-level experience in the midfield.
Rounding out the group are El Salvador and Cuba, who have three Olympic participations between them. Jaime Alas—El Salvador’s number 10—has already been capped 16 times for the senior national side (scoring three times) while Cuban striker Samuel Armenteros, who plays for Dutch side Hercales, was born in Sweden and has turned out seven times for the Swedish U-21 side.
Group B: Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Trinidad and Tobago
Mexico, for all their talent and reputation, have partaken in just one of the last three Olympic Games. They didn’t even get out of their group in 2008 qualifying, losing to Guatemala and drawing Canada, and were thoroughly embarrassed in a tournament they were hosting for the first time.
Since then, however, Mexico have won just about everything in sight. They regained the CONCACAF Gold Cup in 2009 after throttling the United States 5-0 at Giants Stadium and retained the title last June when they beat the Americans 4-2. Two months previously their U-20 side had won the regional championship; a month later their U-17s would win the World Cup.
Then came the Copa America. Once again the Mexican Football Federation opted to send an underage side (U-22) to the South American senior championship, and despite a tough draw that slotted El Tri into Group C alongside Chile, Peru and Uruguay, Mexico’s youngsters proved more than competitive and went out of the tournament with their heads held high, having lost each match by only a goal.
Nine of those players—battle-tested against the likes of Alexis Sanchez, Edinson Cavani and Diego Forlan—are representing Mexico’s U-23 side this spring, and they’re led by the same manager who guided them so respectfully through the Copa America: Luis Fernando Tena.
Up front, Tena will be relying on Alan Pulido and Erik Torres to bang in the goals. Pulido, who plays for Mexican giants Tigres, scored three times at last year’s CONCACAF U-20 Championship while Torres, the Chivas Guadalajara striker, has been favourably compared to Manchester United’s Javier Hernandez, who also represented Chivas.
But it’s in defense where Mexico should really shine. Five of Tena’s defenders were included in his Copa America squad and one, Nestor Araujo, scored a goal against Chile in San Juan that had Mexico leading at the break. Monterrey’s Hiram Mier will anchor the backline, and left-back Miguel Angel Ponce, also of Chivas, will cause plenty of problems when he chooses to join the attack.
The pack: Honduras won this competition in both 2000 and 2008 and are looking to qualify for their third Olympic Games. They progressed easily from the Central American pre-tournament, drawing Costa Rica 2-2 and thumping Nicaragua 5-0, and got three goals from Olimpia striker Roger Rojas, who has scored twice for the senior Honduras side in five appearances.
Second-place in the bracket, and the all-important progression to the semifinals, will likely be determined when Honduras face Panama in the first Group B game on March 23 in Carson, California. Panama beat Honduras last April in a CONCACAF U-20 Championship quarterfinal, courtesy of goals from Diego Alvarez and Cecilio Waterman, the latter of whom is participating in this tournament.
Rounding out the group are Trinidad and Tobago, who lost just one of six games in the Caribbean pre-tournament. Midfielder Kevin Molino, who plays for Orlando City of the USL Professional Division, scored five goals in a match against Suriname last November.
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