(Saturday, June 14, 2008) -- As the United States men start to get ready for World Cup qualifying, the American Olympic coach Peter Nowak is less than two months away from taking his team to China for the 2008 Summer Games. Far from being set, the U.S. Olympic roster is still in flux and Novak faces far more problems then simply picking the 23 players he wants to take.
Given that clubs are not required to release players for the Olympics and the Americans have a World Cup qualifier scheduled during the Olympics tournament, Nowak faces a complicated task.
First some facts. The Olympic tournament runs from August 6-24 and Nowak will want all his players in camp and then available for the long trip at least two weeks ahead of that. Assuming it defeats Barbados in its CONCACAF opening-round two-match series starting tomorrow against Barbados, the U.S. will play its first semifinal- round 2010 qualifier on the road August. 20 with the likely opponent being Guatemala. The European leagues begin on the third weekend in August and most teams will begin training as early as July 15. Fulham of the English Premier League, for instance, has an Asian tour starting July 23.
The men's Olympics soccer tournament is highly unusual in that it is age limited to under-23 players through qualifying, while three "overage" players are allowed to be added for the Olympics tournament itself. The reason for this is world governing body FIFA does not want the Olympics to compete of a par with the World Cup. (The women's tournament is open to full national teams).
The International Olympic Committee petitioned FIFA for full national teams but, facing a FIFA ultimatum of no soccer in the Olympics, agreed to the under-23 format. The IOC needs soccer, consistently one of the biggest money makers at the Games.
But, let's get back to Nowak's dilemmas.
Given the U-23 roster the U.S. used to qualify for the Olympics, Nowak would likely want for his overage players an experienced goalkeeper, a central defender and either an attacking midfielder or a forward.
Goalkeeper Tim Howard, defender Oguchi Onyewu and midfielder-striker Clint Dempsey would fot nicely, though having star attacker Landon Donovan would be a nice luxury.
However, those players are all expected to be called in to the August 20 World Cup qualifier, a far more important match than any in the Olympics.
There are three under-23 players who conceivably could be called in to the August 20 World Cup qualifier. Even if they're not, their release from their clubs is not assured with the European season commencing and Major League Soccer heading down the homestretch of its season.
Michael Bradley, who was not released by Heereeveen of the Netherlands' Eredivisie for the Olympics qualifying tournament, has been put on the auction block by his Dutch team which is asking about $6 for a transfer fee. It is likely Heerenveen will find takers at that price, so Nowak has no idea which club he will be dealing with in asking for Bradley's release. Whatever club Bradley ends up with might not want to lose him for a month just when it is trying to work him into its system.
The same goes for Jozy Altidore, the striker who was just transferred by the New York Red Bulls to Villareal of Spain for a reported $10 million transfer fee, the largest ever for an MLS player. Villareal will have to judge how important it is to have the 18-year-old with the club for preseason training and early matches.
Then there is Freddy Adu. His Portuguese club Benfica would probably not stand in his way of going to Beijing, but he has a new agent who is reportedly trying to move him somewhere else where he will be a starter and have a higher profile. That could affect his availability.
Unfortunately, things will not be as easy for Nowak as they were for Bruce Arena, the 1996 Olympics coach, who was easily able to negotiate the availability of national-team regulars in goalkeeper Kasey Keller, defender Alexi Lalas and midfielder Claudio Reyna. Things were equally easy for Clive Charles in 2000 when he took keeper Brad Friedel, Agoos and defender Frankie Hejduk. (The U.S. did not qualify for the Olympics in 2004.)
So what is Nowak to do? One option would simply be not to take any over-23 players or any players likely to be needed in Guatemala. Another might be to pick carefully from among a few European-based players who might be available, perhaps keeper Marcus Hahnemann, whose Reading club was recently demoted to England's second-tier League Championship, or two or three from MLS who do not appear to be in the World Cup qualifying picture.
It's clear that many players want to go to China for the Olympics. "Absolutely, I'd love to go," Landon Donovan told SoccerTimes.
U.S. national-team starting goalkeeper Tim Howard was just as enthusiastic, but also expressed caution. "It would be a great honor to go, but the decision isn't really mine," he said. "There is an awful lot that has to go in that decision, so I'll just wait and see."
Is it possible the U.S. might use players expected to be play in the August 20 Cup qualifier on the Olympics roster -- to travel to China and then return for the match which will probably be played in Guatemala.
"It's something we have talked about a lot," U.S. national-team coach Bob Bradley said. "We'd like to find a way. But when you send a team to any competition, you have to believe they will go deep into that competition. If the U.S. was to be eliminated (from the Olympics) early, sure we could get players back in time for the qualifier. But we have to assume we'll go deep into the (Olympics) tournament and we absolutely don't want to have to pull players away from the Olympic team while they are still in the competition. Clearly, the qualifier is what is the most important, so I don't know if there will be a way (for a player to go to China and be in the plans for the August 20 qualilfier.
So, to some extent, Nowak will choose his team not from those he wants, but from those who are available.
Robert Wagman is SoccerTimes senior correspondent.
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