U.S. Squad: Some Assembly Required
Tuesday, March 11, 2008
When the process to assemble a U.S. roster for the Olympic men's qualifying tournament began, the U.S. Soccer Federation did not have much difficulty securing the services for most of its desired players.
The eight-nation regional event will take place over the next 13 days, a stretch when MLS teams, who supply a majority of the players, are in preseason. But to acquire key personnel based in foreign leagues, the procedure was not as straightforward and it illustrated the delicate balance between the needs of national programs and pro teams.
Each year FIFA, soccer's international governing body, sets aside several dates on which clubs are mandated to release players for major competition. Olympic qualifying -- which is restricted to players age 23 and under and does not stir emotions like World Cup qualifiers -- did not make the cut.
Still, despite being in a critical stretch of their league schedule, several European clubs granted the USSF's player request because, they deduced, the absence of their young Americans for a few weeks would not be disruptive and would be beneficial to their development.
For two players, though, the situation unfolded much differently.
Midfielder Michael Bradley had become such an important part of Dutch club Heerenveen's success, the USSF did not bother to seriously pursue him. And through a unique compromise with English Premier League club West Ham, defender Jonathan Spector will be available for a portion of the qualifying tournament.
In exchange for a USSF promise not to request Spector for a national team friendly against Mexico last month -- which fell on an official FIFA date -- West Ham will allow Spector to join the U.S. squad before the semifinals (assuming the Americans advance to that stage). The semifinal winners are guaranteed the region's two Olympic berths.
"We have established really good communication with the European clubs and their managers," said Peter Nowak, the former D.C. United coach who now oversees the U.S. under-23 program. "On one side, we have to respect their needs, and on the other side, we have to know what is best for us. It has been very good."
Nowak's roster has 13 MLS players, including former Maryland Terrapins Maurice Edu (Toronto) and Chris Seitz (Real Salt Lake) and ex-Virginia defender Hunter Freeman (New York). The foreign legion includes Spector, Freddy Adu (Portugal), Charlie Davies (Sweden), Sal Zizzo (Germany), Kamani Hill (Germany) and Michael Orozco (Mexico).
Adu, the former United midfielder from Rockville, has enjoyed a successful first season in Europe, but before he signed last summer, his representatives raised the Olympic issue with his club, Benfica, and received assurances that Adu would probably be made available.
The issue of availability will arise again if the U.S. team qualifies. Clubs will be under no obligation to release players, but because of the aura surrounding the Olympics and the fact that the event conflicts with only the start of European seasons, the USSF does not foresee problems. However, MLS will be in high gear and the U.S. national team is likely to have a World Cup qualifier in Guatemala.
Roster decisions will become complicated as well because each country that qualifies will be allowed to add three players over age 23. First, though, the Americans have to earn their way to China.
"We're now establishing ourselves as one of the stronger teams, and it definitely seems like we're being considered favorites" to qualify, forward Jozy Altidore said. "But any team can beat anybody right now in this region and maybe there aren't favorites anymore, so definitely the pressure is there."