U.S. under-23 men
With Olympics berth at stake, Americans must get by Canada.
By Robert Wagman
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (Wednesday, March 19, 2008) -- The United States under-23 men will be at full strength Thursday night when they face Canada with a berth in the Summer Olympics at stake. The 9 p.m. (ET) CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying semifinal at LP Field will be televised by Fox Soccer Channel and ESPN Deportes.
With no injuries or suspensions from accumulated cards, all 20 players on the U.S. roster will be available. That includes defender Jonathan Spector, who was put on the roster specially for this one match. Since CONCACAF, the region of North America, Central America and the Caribbean, gets two berths in the 16-nation Olympics field in Beijing, both semifinal winners go. In the first semifinal, Guatemala takes on Honduras with Fox Soccer Channel and ESPN Deportes also airing the game.
Spector was not with the U.S. for its three Group A matches in which the Americans finished first with a 2-0-1 record and seven points after defeating Honduras (1-1-1, 4 points) Saturday on Eddie Gaven's penalty kick in the final seconds of stoppage time. Spector joined the team Sunday after playing for 90 minutes Saturday for West Ham United in a 2-1 victory over Blackburn Rovers in the English Premier League.
The U.S. is probably happy not to be facing Mexico in the semifinals. As the two major CONCACAF powers, many assumed the U.S. and Mexico would win their respective groups, meet the runnerup from the other group and both advance to the Olympics. The Americans vividly remember that the Mexicans stumbled in Group play four years ago, just as they did in the past week. The only difference was that in 2004, Mexico finished second, setting up a semifinal in which it routed the U.S. 4-0, gaining a berth in the Olympics while the Americans stayed home.
Canada is in Thursday's semifinals and Mexico is out as the result of a bizarre set of Group B matches at The Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., Sunday. Entering the group finale, both teams were tied for third at 0-1-1 with one point and a minus-1 goal differential, trailing Haiti (1-1-0, 3 points, 0 goal differential). Guatemala had clinched a berth in the semifinals at 2-0-0 with six points.
Canada defeated Guatemala 5-0 in the opener of Sunday's doubleheader, aided by Guatemala coach Rodrigo Kenton's decision to rest seven starters. Canada led 1-0 at halftime on a goal just before intermission, then doubled its lead in the first minute of the second half. With Guatemala having nothing to play for, Canada added three more tallies, including late substitute Kyle Hall's strike deep in stoppage time.
Mexico knew it needed to win by six goals to guarantee advancement to the Olympics, but could only manage a 5-1 decision, despite Haiti being reduced to 10 when Judelin Aveska was sent off with a red card in the 28th minute and then nine when reserve Paulin Jean was ejected with his second yellow card in the 84th minute.
With the two-man advantage, Mexico hit shot after shot at Haiti goalkeeper Johnny Placide, who made four heroic saves, including denying Cesar Villaluz on a penalty kick in the 76th minute. Leonel Saint-Preux scored for Haiti from a sharp angle in the 62nd minute and when Mexico hit a post late in stoppage time its Olympic hopes were extinguished.
More was expected from Mexico, given that players from its 2005 Under-17 World Cup champion, the "Golden Generation" had filtered onto the under-23 side. Rather than earning its first Olympic medal, Mexico is left to deal with the recriminations.
Hugo Sanchez, coach of the under-23 and senior teams, could find himself dismissed from both jobs before World Cup qualifying begins in August. The Mexican Soccer Federation has announced it will meet to discuss his future.
"Undoubtedly, this is a failure," Hugo Sanchez told the Los Angeles Times. "Not being in the Olympic Games, for Mexico, is hard to take. "We were looking to make history because we've never won a medal."
Canada striker Will Johnson leads the tournament with three goals, including two in the crucial triumph over Guatemala and one in the opening 1-1 draw with Mexico. Canada has scored seven goals through its three group games and will match up Thursday against a U.S. defense which has allowed only one goal in three outings. The Americans scored once in each group outing.
The Americans have faced Canada six times in Olympic qualifying, holding a 3-2-1 record. The last meeting came in group play of the 2004 tournament in Guadalajara, Mexico, with the U.S. getting two goals from Bobby Convey en route to a 2-0 victory.
The U.S. arrived in Nashville Sunday and has practiced at LP Field, home of the National Football League's Tennessee Titans.
Thursday's semifinal might be considered the most important soccer game to be played in Tennessee. The U.S. men lost 1-0 Morocco May 3, 2006 in a friendly in the midst of World Cup qualifying before 26,000 at LP Field, then known as the Coliseum. The U.S. women defeated Canada 1-0 there in 2004 on a goal by defender Heather Mitts.
The U.S. has competed in the men's Olympic Games 12 times, including five straight appearances between 1984 and 2000. The Americans also qualified for the 1980 Games in Moscow, but the U.S. boycotted those Olympics.
Canada last qualified for the Olympics in 1984, when the games were held in Los Angeles. It also participated as host of the 1976 Olympics in Montreal and captured gold in St. Louis in 1904.
U.S. and Canada under-23 men's rosters for Olympic qualifying:
Goalkeepers (2): Dominic Cervi (no team), Chris Seitz (Real Salt Lake, Major League Soccer).
Defenders (7): Hunter Freeman (New York Red Bulls, MLS), Kamani Hill (Vfl Wolfsburg, Germany), Patrick Ianni (Houston Dynamo, MLS), Michael Orozco (San Luis, Mexico), Jonathan Spector (West Ham United, England), Nathan Sturgis (Real Salt Lake, MLS), Marvell Wynne (Toronto FC, MLS).
Midfielders (7): Freddy Adu (SL Benfica, Portugal), Maurice Edu (Toronto FC, MLS), Eddie Gaven (Columbus Crew, MLS), Stuart Holden (Houston Dynamo, MLS), Sacha Kljestan (Chivas USA, MLS), Dax McCarty (FC Dallas, MLS), Sal Zizzo (Hannover 96, Germany).
Forwards (4): Jozy Altidore (New York Red Bulls, MLS), Chad Barrett (Chicago Fire, MLS), Charlie Davies (Hammarby IF, Sweden), Robbie Findley (Real Salt Lake, MLS).
Goalkeepers (3): Asmir Begovic (Portsmouth FC, England), Joshua Wagenaar (no team), David Monslave (no team).
Defenders (7): Graham Ramalho (FC Groningen, Netherlands), Andrew Hainault (Sparta Prague, Czech Republic), Nikolas Ledgerwood (1860 Munich, Germany), Andrazes Ornoch (Esbjerg FB, Denmark), Ryan Gyaki (Hansa Rostock, Germany), Diaz Kambere (Vancouver Whitecaps, United Soccer Leagues First Division), Tyler Hemming (Toronto FC, MLS).
Midfielders (5): Jacob Lensky (Feyenoord), Jehan Jakovic (University of Alabama at Birmingham), Tyler Roselund (no team), Keegan Ayre (Berwick Rangers, England), Isidro Sanchez (no team).
Forwards (5): Andrea Lombardo (Toronto FC, MLS), Will Johnson (De Graafschap, Netherlands), Tosaint Ricketts (University of Wisconsin-Green Bay), Kyle Hall (Syracuse University), Marcus Haber (FC Groningen, Netherlands).
Robert Wagman is SoccerTimes senior correspondent.
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