In its quest to qualify for this summer’s Olympics in Beijing, the US U23 team is preparing to play three matches in six days in Tampa. The top two finishers from two groups of four advance to the all-important semifinals which will take place next week in Nashville. The semifinal winners earn bids to the Olympics and play an academic final on Easter Sunday. This past Sunday evening U23 coach Piotr Nowak named the roster that will compete in the regional tournament; the news and reactions were more about who was not on the roster–recent full team standouts Benny Feilhaber and Michael Bradley–than who was. Bradley was not included because he is an integral member of his Dutch team, Heerenveen, which is pushing for a top spot in the league. Conversely, Feilhaber often does not make the game day roster for Derby County, statistically the worst team in the history of the Premiership and no details have emerged regarding the decision to leave him off the roster. The lack of details only fuel the speculation that Feilhaber is suffering from a meteoric drop in form since a summer that included a tournament-winning peach of a goal against Mexico and a big payday move to the Premiership. Fortunately for the US it is deep at the central, holding midfield position that both Feilhaber and Bradley play.
Maurice Edu, Sacha Kljesta, Dax McCarty all had excellent years in MLS in 2007 and will be capable playing deep in the midfield. Also fortunate for the US, its group opponents are Cuba, Panama and Honduras. The worst-case scenario, which happened in 2004, is facing Mexico in the semifinals with an Olympic berth on the line. That did not end well in Mexico, amidst chants of “Osama, Osama”, where a promising team led by Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley and Eddie Johnson lost 4-0 and missed the Athens games. Eddie Gaven is the only holdover from the team that failed to qualify and was a surprise inclusion in this roster over the likes of Feilhaber and Arturo Alvarez.
As with most tournaments, we’ll know much more about the direction of the team after seeing the first eleven Nowak runs out and the approach they take in the tone-setting first match. Nowak named Edu captain, which seems a solid move. Freddy Adu was captain of the U20 team that qualified for the quarterfinals of the U20 World Cup in 2007; McCarty, Chris Seitz, Sal Zizzo, Nathan Sturgis and Jozy Altidore were also members of the U20 team who were named to the qualifying roster. If things go well, Adu and Altidore will be two of the more influential players. Where Nowak decides to deploy Adu is something I am most anxious about. The two had a contentious relationship in Adu’s rookie season with DC United. Adu flourished as a second forward with the U20 team. He may also be used as a #10 or, to Adu’s dismay, on the wing. Other things to look for are the progress of physically gifted Kamani Hill, who recently converted from forward to fullback; it will be interesting to see if he has progressed well enough to earn time on the field. MLS players Hunter Freeman and Marvelle Wynne are his competition. As a fan I hope to see the US play creative, continental football. I don’t want Nowak’s defensive sensibilities to hamstring the creative tendencies of players like Adu, Altidore, and Kljestan.
All the US matches will be broadcast live on Fox Soccer Channel, ESPN Deportes and ESPN360. I’ll be posting my thoughts after each of the matches.