By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 20, 2008
The championship game in the Olympic men's soccer qualifying tournament is not until Sunday, but as far as the United States is concerned, tonight's semifinal against Canada in Nashville is all that matters.
Though the Americans would love to win the trophy for the best under-23 team in the region comprising North and Central America and the Caribbean, the grand prize is at stake this evening: a ticket to the Summer Games. The first semifinal -- Honduras vs. Guatemala -- will determine the other China-bound team.
"Games like this bring out the best in a player," U.S. forward Jozy Altidore said. "In one game, you can be in the next round or your hopes of going to the Olympics can be gone."
Despite a roster of European-based professionals and promising MLS players, the U.S. team labored to finish atop its first-round group. After a 1-1 tie with the weakest opponent, Cuba, the Americans needed a pair of penalty kicks to defeat Panama and Honduras by 1-0 scores.
Nonetheless, "Our first goal was to get to the semifinals, and here we are," said Coach Peter Nowak, who guided D.C. United for three years before becoming the under-23 coach and a national team assistant.
Nowak has welcomed both rest and reinforcement since Saturday's group finale in Tampa, the third match in five days. Defender Jonathan Spector, unavailable for the first round because of commitments to English Premier League club West Ham, has rejoined the team and almost certainly will start against Canada.
Nowak will also have a refreshed Freddy Adu, the team's best player, who did not play in the Honduras game because the Americans had already ensured their semifinal place. The rest of the squad should be at full strength as well, as no one started every group match and only five players appeared in each game.
The Americans thought they might have to prepare for arch-rival Mexico in what would've been a rematch of the 2004 qualifying semifinals, won by the host Mexicans, 4-0. But on Sunday, after Canada earned a 5-0 victory over group winner Guatemala, Mexico's 5-1 win over Haiti was not enough to claim the goal-differential tiebreaker.
Canada, which has not qualified for the Olympics since 1984, lacks the U.S. team's marquee names but does have 10 players competing overseas, including forward Will Johnson, a former MLS prospect now in the Netherlands, who has scored a tournament-best three goals.
"They are a very organized, very physical team, and they showed they can score goals," Nowak said. "It's going to be a tough measure to win, but at this stage, we don't expect any easy games."
Olympics Notes: The six-team women's regional qualifying tournament, which has no age restrictions, begins April 2 in Ciudad Ju¿rez, Mexico. The heavily favored Americans will face Jamaica and Mexico in group play. Canada, Costa Rica, and Trinidad and Tobago make up the other group. The semifinals, which will determine the two Olympic berths, are April 9.