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USA's Olympic wild-card dilemma
by Mike Woitalla, March 26th, 2008 6:30AM
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The Olympic men's soccer tournament is one of the most peculiar competitions in sports: an under-23 tournament that allows each team to field three overage players, although these so-called wild-cards don't take part in the qualifying play. It means U.S. coach Peter Nowak can make significant changes to the team that qualified for the 2008 Games in China with a second-place finish in Concacaf. So what are his options?

The reason for the wild-card factor stems from FIFA's refusal to allow full national teams to take part in the Olympic Games, because it doesn't want the Olympic soccer tournament to compete with the World Cup.

Once professionals were allowed to take part in the Olympic Games, FIFA opted to use the Games as a youth world championship and in 1992 the Olympic tournament was a purely U-23 event.

The International Olympic Committee demanded FIFA field full national teams, but because the Olympics need soccer more than FIFA needs the Olympics -- soccer is consistently one of the biggest spectator draws at the Olympics -- FIFA refused to meet the IOC's demands but compromised by allowing teams to include three overage players.

In 1996, Coach Bruce Arena used the wild-card spots on keeper Kasey Keller, defender Alexi Lalas and midfielder Claudio Reyna. Reyna met the age requirement but Arena had to use a wild-card spot because FIFA then had a rule that a player could not compete in the same age-group world championship twice. Reyna had played in the 1992 Olympics.

In 2000, Coach Clive Charles also picked a keeper, Brad Friedel. Left back Jeff Agoos and outside back Frankie Hejduk were the two other overage players. The USA did not qualify for the 2004 Olympic Games.

For sure, after his team scored just six goals in five qualifying games and hardly sparkled, Nowak may welcome additions outside the U-23 pool. (Roster size for the Olympic teams is 18, plus four alternates.)

Picking a goalkeeper again wouldn't seem wise, as there are plenty of other holes to fill and Chris Seitz is capable enough. Besides, why not give a young keeper such as Seitz the big-tournament experience?

Among obvious candidates to strengthen the U-23s would be Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, to add offensive bite and versatility; either can play up front or in midfield. Central defenders Oguchi Onyewu or Carlos Bocanegra would provide central defensive leadership.

But the timing of the tournament in August presents challenges and such players will probably not be an option. They already face full national team duty, and should the USA advance to the semifinal stage of 2010 World Cup qualifying as expected, the Olympic tournament, which runs Aug. 6-24, will conflict with the opening qualifier on Aug. 20.

For Donovan, it also means more time away from the Los Angeles Galaxy in the thick of the playoff race as it tries to halt a two-year postseason absence. Dempsey and Bocanegra (currently with England's Fulham) and Onyewu (Standard Liege of Belgium) won't please their employers were they to bolt for China.

Indeed, any European-based American who leaves for the Olympics while his club is in preseason, or as his season kicks off, would jeopardize losing (or gaining) a starting role. DaMarcus Beasley, for instance, will be trying to win back a starting spot with Glasgow Rangers after missing the second half of the 2007-08 season with a knee injury.

So it's likely that many European-based U.S. players would turn down a Nowak invitation.

MLS clubs, many of which are already losing U-23 players, won't happily let a star player leave for the Olympics. But MLS stars would be more likely to accept an invitation than foreign-based Americans because they'll be less concerned about losing their starting roles upon returning to their MLS clubs, which have smaller rosters and for which the American stars generally play crucial roles.

So does Nowak invite players such as Colorado's defensive midfielder Pablo Mastroeni and New England forward Taylor Twellman?

Or should U.S. Soccer pass on the wild-cards? That would prevent further conflicts with the full national team, whose pool includes some of the U-23s, and avoid club vs. country conflicts.

Most importantly, it would give three more youngsters big-tournament experience. Although the Olympics carry a good amount of prestige in American circles, its men's soccer tournament is a youth competition that U.S. Soccer might as well use to prime youngsters for the full national team.

 



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