By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Mar 15, 2021) US Soccer Players – The Concacaf Olympic Qualifying Tournament that kicks off Thursday has been on the minds of many for the past year. Part of that was timing. Originally scheduled for last March, it and the Olympics ended up delayed due to the pandemic. Open to Under-23 players, it determines which two teams from the region travel to Japan.
Soccer at the Olympics has always been a fraught affair ever since the 1930s when FIFA began organizing the World Cup. Over the years, the World Cup overshadowed the quest for a gold medal. It wasn’t until the 1992 Barcelona Games where FIFA and the International Olympic Committee settled on requiring teams to field U-23 players. Four years later in Athens, teams were allowed to call up three overage players.
The U-23 format (U-24 this year because of COVID-19) is important for several reasons. Primarily, it gives players who could very well take part in the World Cup as early as 2022 a chance to compete in games that feature a competitive group stage. That sort of pressure provides a blueprint for how players should manage such matches.
Secondly, both the qualifying tournament and the Olympics will provide National Team managers a chance at scouting players and expanding their player pools just as World Cup Qualifying starts to heat up. For the United States, the Olympic squad could mean second looks for a number of players who have already made their senior team debuts.
Here’s a preview of the upcoming tournament and what to watch for as the road to the 2021 Tokyo Games gets off to an official start.
What it means for the USA
Many nations undervalue the men’s Olympic soccer tournament. For the US, it can serve as a training ground for future senior National Team talent. The Americans last qualified for the Olympics in 2008.
The team finished fourth at the 2000 Sydney Games. Two years later, the USMNT put together a fabulous quarterfinal run at the Korea/Japan World Cup. In 2008, the team started strong with a win against Japan. A late defeat to the Netherlands and loss to Nigeria put the US out of the tournament early. Two years later, the Americans reached the round of 16 at the World Cup in South Africa after winning their opening-round group.
Of course, there is no direct correlation between qualifying for the Olympics and future World Cup success. Brazil, for example, had never won a gold medal at the Olympics until the 2016 Rio Games. Neymar as an over-age player and being at home certainly helped.
Favorites to qualify
The Concacaf Qualifying Tournament features eight teams divided into two groups. Group A is the most competitive with Mexico, the United States, Costa Rica, and the Dominican Republic. Group B has Honduras, Canada, El Salvador, and Haiti.
Both groups advance two teams to the semifinals. That could mean interesting math for the United States. They’ll need to grab points against Mexico and Costa Rica. Mexico, the US’s biggest rival in the region, will be playing at home. That’s a built-in advantage for a team that doesn’t need one.
For the US, group play opens against Costa Rica. A win at the Estadio Jalisco in Guadalajara would go a long way towards advancing. They play the Dominican Republic on March 21, closing out the group three days later against Mexico. The second matchday has Mexico playing Costa Rica, a game that could also determine who advances.
Players to watch for
Despite any calculations coach Jason Kreis needs to ponder heading into the tournament, the only thing he has real control of is the roster and his starting lineup.
“We know that qualifying will be a challenge, but it’s a challenge that we’re ready for. We’ll need all 20 players on this roster to contribute for us to achieve our ultimate goal of qualifying for the Olympics,” Kreis said. “We’ve had a productive training camp in Guadalajara and our players are hungry for the opportunity to compete. After starting this journey nearly two years ago, we’re excited to get started with the tournament.”
The final roster features 11 players with senior level appearances and 10 who’ve been part of a final roster at a FIFA Youth World Cup. Those to keep an eye on include Colorado Rapids defender Sam Vines, midfielder Ulysses Llanez currently with Dutch club Heerenveen, and FC Dallas striker Jesus Ferreira.
Goalkeeper JT Marcinkowski has appeared in all nine U-23 training camps during this current cycle, including their 2019 joint camp with the senior side. The San Jose Earthquakes goalie is joined by Matt Freese of the Philadelphia Union and David Ochoa of Real Salt Lake.
The 16-team Olympic tournament has already seen the qualification of 14 nations. Two more will join them. The US very much hopes to be in Tokyo this summer. It won’t just be a quest for a medal, but it could very well set the tone for the next World Cup and beyond.
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of A History of the World Cup: 1930-2018.
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Logo courtesy of the IOC