In the soccersphere, strip away all the pomp and circumstance, and the Olympics are just another age-specific men’s tournament that pales in comparisons to the majesty of the World Cup. Heck, FIFA doesn’t even mandate clubs to release players.
But here in America, when you affix the word “Olympics” to any competition, everyone perks up. Nationalism kicks in, NBC gets all up close and personal, and with the Olympic theme “Bugler’s Dream” on a continuous loop in our heads, decathlon scoring consumes our thoughts.
And this is why it’s so very important for Caleb Porter’s U-23 squad to qualify for the Olympics: It’s an opportunity to perform this summer in front of a mainstream audience (assuming live coverage isn’t relegated to Channel 836) that only pays close attention to our sport during the World Cup.
The Americans begin their quest at the CONCACAF qualifying tournament Thursday night in Nashville with a group opener against Cuba. (You can watch at 9 p.m. ET on Universal Sports, Spanish channel mun2, universalsports.com and concacaf.com.)
Porter’s crew shouldn’t face major resistance in securing a semifinal berth, but the margin of error to earn one of the region’s two tickets to London is narrow and unforgiving. A slip-up in the group stage would probably result in a semifinal meeting with Mexico. And even if things go as planned in group play, the opponent in the deciding semi on March 31 at Livestrong Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kan., is likely to feature Honduras (which finished first in this event four years ago).
The only time in recent history the United States didn’t participate in the Olympic tournament was in 2004. At the qualifying tournament in Mexico, the Americans did their part by winning their group. But in the other quartet, the Mexicans finished second to Costa Rica on goal difference, setting up a premature meeting with the United States in Guadalajara. The result: 4-0 Mexico.
Four years later, there were no such issues as Mexico stumbled in group play and the Americans routed Canada in the semifinals, 3-0, to earn a ticket to the Beijing Summer Games.
This year, the United States offers its most experienced and, on paper, its best U-23 team yet.
Consider this: In the summer of 1996, in the middle of the inaugural MLS season, Bruce Arena’s U.S. team faced Argentina in the first match of the Olympic tournament. Argentina featured players aligned with clubs scattered around the globe. The U.S. squad? Not including overage players, seven starters and two of the three substitutes were in their first pro season in MLS. It was essentially a college all-star team, one that, despite the lack of high-level experience, narrowly missed out on a quarterfinal berth after settling for a 1-1 draw with Portugal in front of the largest soccer crowd in RFK Stadium history (58,000-plus).
The only players with overseas experience on that team: Jovan Kirovski, in his fourth year in the Manchester United youth program; Claudio Reyna, in his second year with Bayer Leverkusen; and reserve Nelson Vargas, who toiled in Europe for a few years before signing with MLS.
The 2012 squad? Freddy Adu is in his ninth professional season. Of the 20 players on the qualifying roster, only midfielder Michael Stephens (UCLA) played four years of college. Nine didn’t attend college at all. Terrence Boyd came through the Hertha Berlin youth academy before landing at Borussia Dortmund. Joe Corona spent one year in college before joining Tijuana. Joe Gyau has risen through the Hoffenheim ranks. Jorge Villafana is in his sixth season with Chivas USA. Juan Agudelo and Bill Hamid are MLS academy products.
The point is, U.S. players at this age level are more experienced, sophisticated and seasoned than ever before. And this roster doesn’t even include players such as Jozy Altidore, who is too vital to his Dutch club to disappear for three weeks.
With proper build-up -- a winter camp, a friendly victory over Mexico, the early release of players for 10 days of training in Nashville -- Porter has had the opportunity to prepare this team to the fullest extent possible.
Now the competitive portion of the mission begins. It might only be an under-23 tournament, but in the broader context, it’s an invitation to the Olympics. And in America, the Olympics are pure gold.