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Jury still out on US Olympic squad

US Olympic coach Caleb Porter: We have a lot of depth, balance within this team.
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Ives Galarcep

Ives Galarcep is a 14-year veteran of the American soccer beat. He created and operates the popular American soccer blog, Soccer By Ives, which was voted Best American Soccer Blog by US Soccer in 2008, 2009, and 2010. Ives was also voted Best Football Writer by SoccerLens in 2010. 
 

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Olympic glory. It is a dream chased by athletes all over the world, and soccer players are no different. As much as the World Cup is the pinnacle of the sport, the Olympic Soccer tournament ranks near the top of the list of accomplishments young players dream of achieving.

A talented group of Americans is hoping to join that prestigious list of Olympians, and it is a group that has American soccer fans buzzing. The US Olympic Qualifying Team is an exciting and talented squad with aspirations of contending for a medal when the Olympic tournament kicks off in England this summer. Before the squad can even look that far ahead, it must first navigate a tricky qualifying tournament that has proved to be anything but a cakewalk in years past.

The CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Tournament begins on Thursday and the United States enters as prohibitive favorites to not only secure one of the two Olympic berths on the line, but also win the tournament outright. Having dominated fellow tournament favorite Mexico in a friendly just two weeks ago, the Americans are expected to cruise, but past tournament slip-ups by American teams will serve as vital cautionary tales.

You only need to go back one year, to the CONCACAF Under-20 World Cup qualifying tournament, to find a highly-regarded American team that failed to qualify for a major tournament. And you only need to go back two Olympic cycles, to the 2004 Olympic Qualifying Tournament, to find a stacked American team that failed to qualify for the Olympic Games.

All indications are that this current US Olympic Qualifying team is as strong as any American youth team in recent memory: a team capable of not only producing results, but also playing an attractive brand of soccer. The optimism surrounding the team has not only led to high expectations for Olympic qualifying, and the Olympics, but also led to growing optimism about the future of the senior national team.

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US head coach Caleb Porter has managed to build an impressive roster for the tournament despite not having access to all the best players eligible to play for the team (Players born in 1989 or later are eligible). Club teams are not obligated to release players for the Olympic qualifying tournament, so top players currently playing key roles for their club teams were not released (such as US senior team regulars Jozy Altidore and Timmy Chandler, as well as promising newcomers Alfredo Morales and Danny Williams).

Despite those absences, Porter has put together a deep collection of talented midfielders and dangerous forwards to help run his high-pressing 4-3-3 formation. The team is perfectly-suited to run Porter’s system, which is predicated on possession and constant defensive pressure.

The group features creative midfield standouts such as Olympic veteran Freddy Adu, Mikkel Diskerud and Joey Corona, as well as dangerous wingers and forwards such as senior national team regular Brek Shea, Joe Gyau, Juan Agudelo and Teal Bunbury. Throw in standout goalkeeper Bill Hamid and an imposing defensive tandem in Ike Opara and Perry Kitchen, and you have a US team with weapons to tear apart the tournament field.

"I like the group we have from a personnel standpoint," said Porter. "I think we have a lot of diversity in how we can change the dimensions that we throw in the game from a personnel standpoint.

"You're going to see a very clear style from this team, with some subtle adjustments personnel wise and game-plan wise, in order to get results."

The current US Olympic qualifying team is a strong one, but it will have to navigate a tournament format that will test the team’s depth and resilience. Consisting of a three-games-in-five-days group stage, followed by a semifinal round that will ultimately determine which two teams qualify for the Olympics, the tournament will be a tough test for all eight teams in the field.

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“Five games in twelve days, and three games in the first five days. I’m confident this group can do it, and we selected this group in order to manage that,” said Porter. “We have a lot of depth. We have a lot of balance within this team and we’ll have a very clear plan on how we’re going to approach the group stages.”

The Americans will take on Cuba, Canada and El Salvador in group play in Nashville. Of the three, Canada boasts the best roster and should be the United States’ toughest challenge. The US team should have no problem advancing out of group play, and into the semifinals, but winning the group would provide an easier opponent in the all-important semifinal on March 31 in Kansas City, Kansas.

Mexico is favored to win the other group in the tournament, but Honduras and Panama are both tough teams that could present the United States with a good challenge in the semifinals.

Before they face that vital semifinal match, and before they can make the trip to England this summer, the United States’ first step toward Olympic soccer glory will take place on Thursday in Nashville against Cuba. It will be our first chance to see just how good this team is, and it will be the US team’s first opportunity to show that it is capable of achieving Olympic glory.

Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FOXSoccer.com covering Major League Soccer and the US National Team.

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