U.S. Olympic hopefuls include 14 MLS rising stars

[OLYMPICS COUNTDOWN] U.S. under-23 national team coach Caleb Porter confirmed his official roster of 20 players who will play in the Concacaf Men's Olympic Qualifying tournament that kicks off for the Americans Thursday against Cuba at LP Field in Nashville, Tenn. (TV: Universal Sports Network, mun2 and streamed live on Concacaf.com, 9 pm ET). Philadelphia Union defender Sheanon Williams replaced Josh Gatt, who was recalled by Norwegian champion Molde for the start of its league season.

In many ways, MLS teams can be victimized by their success, and such is the case for D.C. United and Philadelphia.

They’ve contributed a combined total of five players to the U.S. U-23 roster that starts Concacaf qualifying play Thursday against Cuba (9 p.m. ET, Universal Sports Network, mun2).  The strong emphasis on player development has borne fruit – Perry Kitchen and Bill Hamid of D.C. and Freddy Adu and Williams of the Union are regulars  – but the drawback will be replacing those players for the next two weeks during the qualifiers, and then again during the Games that kick off in late July.

"This is a tremendous opportunity for these young players to get valuable experience in international competition and ultimately qualify for the 2012 Olympics," said national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann last week when the original roster was named. He won a bronze medal playing for West Germany at the 1988 Olympic Games.

"Playing the Olympic Games is a once in a lifetime chance, and we are fully supporting their efforts to qualify. Some of these players will continue their international careers on the senior team in the future, and these situations allow them the chance to grow individually and experience the ups and downs national teams go through, which is so important for their development."

The naming of Williams to replace Gatt, who was recalled by his Norwegian club Molde to patch up a squad dinged by injuries, brings to 14 the number of MLS players chosen by Porter, who since being hired seven months ago has instilled a basic 4-3-3 formation along with philosophies honed by years of success at the University of Akron. Among his wrinkles is utilizing lanky FC Dallas midfielder Brek Shea up front.

“We’ve got technical players, we’ve got some dangerous attacking pieces, we’ve got athleticism, which is important to be able to do things in certain positions – go box to box,” said Porter to ussoccer.com. “And we’ve got a group that’s honest and willing to defend immediately. I think it’s really resonated with this group and they’re bought into it, and I know they’re looking forward to executing it in qualifying.

The USA is based at LP Field in Nashville, where it has been training for the past week. After opening against Cuba in Group A, the U-23s play Canada on Saturday and Guatemala Monday, with the top two finishers advancing to the do-or-die semifinals March 31 at Livestrong Sporting Park in Kansas City. The two semifinal winners qualify for London, the losers are out.

Mexico, Honduras, Trinidad & Tobago, and Panama are in Group B. None figure to be an easy out in a showdown encounter, and the nightmare scenario is that the USA somehow lands in a semifinal against Mexico, though the Americans beat Mexico, 2-0, in a friendly in Dallas three weeks ago. Porter has declined to discuss which over-age players he might consider for the Olympics should the Americans qualify, and he’s not contemplating the semifinal scenarios, either.

“We’re focused on Cuba,” says Porter of a team that won three and tied two of its five qualifying games, including a 1-1 result with Trinidad & Tobago. “We’re going to be continuing to evaluate all the teams but right now we’re locked in on Cuba. We’ve seen them live. They’re a very organized team. They have some attacking guys that are dangerous. We expect it to be a tight game.

“They’re going to be organized and disciplined and I don’t think they’re going to open up and run with us. I think they’re a team that’s probably going to sit and counter and in soccer, that makes things difficult but we’re prepared for that.”

Porter has named Adu as captain, and his tinkering of Shea as a forward indicates he’ll want a mix of ruggedness and guile up front to break down tightly packed defenses. The centerback pairing of Ike Opara and Perry Kitchen and playmaking abilities of Mix Diskerud should provide a solid core, and the addition of Williams replaces some, but not all, of Gatt’s incredible pace.

Porter has myriad talents up front with Juan Agudelo, Terence Boyd, Teal Bunbury, Joseph Gyau and Tony Taylor along with Shea, so getting chances shouldn’t be a problem. Boyd got his first senior cap as a sub three weeks ago in a 1-0 defeat of Italy in Genoa on the same day Agudelo and Diskerud scored against Mexico.

“He’s a guy that fits in that No. 9 spot,” says Porter of Boyd, who has yet to play a first-team game for Borussia Dortmund but impressed the coaching staff sufficiently to get that cap.  “He’s a big, strong, athletic kid, very determined and lethal around the goal. He’s been great with his club, Borussia Dortmund 2, the reserve team. He’s really been doing well and scoring goals. For me, he can hold the ball, he can stretch and he’s great around the box and he can score goals. So I think those things are very attractive in that role.”

U.S. Roster:
GOALKEEPERS: Bill Hamid (D.C. United), Sean Johnson (Chicago Fire)
DEFENDERS: Perry Kitchen (D.C. United), Ike Opara (San Jose Earthquakes), Kofi Sarkodie (Houston Dynamo), Zarek Valentin (Montreal Impact), Jorge Villafana (Chivas USA), Sheanon Williams (Philadelphia Union).
MIDFIELDERS: Freddy Adu (Philadelphia Union), Joe Corona (Tijuana/MEX), Mix Diskerud (Gent/BEL), Jared Jeffrey (Mainz II/GER), Amobi Okugo (Philadelphia Union), Michael Stephens (LA Galaxy)
FORWARDS: Juan Agudelo (New York Red Bulls), Terrence Boyd (Borussia Dortmund II/GER), Teal Bunbury (Sporting Kansas City), Joe Gyau (Hoffenheim II/GER), Brek Shea (FC Dallas), Tony Taylor (Estoril/POR)

4 comments about "U.S. Olympic hopefuls include 14 MLS rising stars".
  1. Steve Jones, March 21, 2012 at 8:52 a.m.

    This should be an interesting tournament. The teams in Group A are the U.S., Cuba, Canada, and El Salvador (not Guatemala). I saw El Salvador play Maryland in a scrimmage on March 11, and they are very good. I would not be surprised to see them in the semifinals.

  2. David Sirias, March 21, 2012 at 10:54 a.m.

    This will not be easy. A place in the Olympics would be fantastic for growth of the sport here
    A great test for Porter and the youngsters The young forwards MUST finish and be smart off the ball if we want to advance

  3. Daniel Mannix, March 21, 2012 at 12:55 p.m.

    Why isn't Luis Gil from Real Salt Lake on this team?

  4. Barry Thomas, March 21, 2012 at 4:07 p.m.

    Too bad that Josh Gatt got recalled by Molde. The videos I've seen of him on YouTube are impressive.

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