After playing in United’s season-opening loss to Sporting Kansas City last weekend, goalkeeper Bill Hamid and midfielder Perry Kitchen reported to the U.S. under-23 national team to begin preparing for the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament. A third starter, midfielder Andy Najar, will depart after Sunday’s match against the Los Angeles Galaxy, the reigning MLS champion, to join the Honduran squad.
Hamid and Kitchen are certain to miss two MLS matches and Najar at least one. With the United States and Honduras favored to reach the region semifinals, D.C. Coach Ben Olsen is planning to be without all three for a third game.
“We knew it was coming,” Olsen said. “We built our depth this winter so we could be prepared for these things.”
The qualifying tournament doesn’t begin until Thursday, but through a deal brokered by MLS and the U.S. Soccer Federation, players were released after last weekend to begin practicing in Nashville, the site of the Americans’ Group A matches. Hamid and Kitchen are probable starters on a 20-man preliminary roster that includes 11 other MLS-based players.
The U.S. team will play Canada, El Salvador and Cuba in the group stage, with two teams advancing to the semifinals. Mexico, Honduras, Panama and Trinidad and Tobago are in Group B, which is based in Carson.
There’s a strong possibility Hamid and Kitchen will face Najar in the semifinals March 31 at Livestrong Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kan. The finalists will earn Olympic berths. Four years ago, Honduras and the United States qualified for the Beijing Games.
To differentiate from the World Cup, Olympic men’s soccer is an under-23 event. However, teams that qualify are allowed to add three overage players.
Without Hamid, United will turn to Joe Willis, a second-year pro who fared well in three league appearances last season. Willis was the primary starter in training camp while Hamid was on U.S. duty.
Andrew Dykstra, a Woodbridge native from Virginia Commonwealth who signed in the preseason, is Willis’s backup.
“Ever since [Hamid] started getting called in last year [by the senior national team] and knowing the Olympics were coming up, I knew there was a big possibility of him missing time this year,” said the 6-foot-5 Willis, a third-round draft pick from the University of Denver. “I knew it would be an opportunity for me.”
United put Willis through an intensive fitness program over the winter, resulting in improved strength and quickness.
“He’s just gotten sharper in everything he’s doing,” goalkeepers coach Pat Onstad said. “He’s not worried. He knows he can do it, he knows what to expect. He did very well for us last year and we’re excited to get him in and help us in this stretch.”
Marcelo Saragosa, an eight-year MLS veteran in his first season with United, is likely to fill the void left by Kitchen in defensive midfield. Saragosa, a former Galaxy player, wasn’t in uniform for the opener because of a groin strain.
Another newcomer, Danny Cruz, is the top choice to start on the right flank when Najar joins Honduras.
MLS clubs were under no obligation to release players so early for the U.S. under-23 camp or, for that matter, the Olympic qualifying tournament, which doesn’t fall on official FIFA match dates. But as Olsen, a 2000 Olympian at the Sydney Games, explained, “It’s great opportunities for these kids to create memories that are a little bit different than your average Saturday game. And I don’t want to stand in the way of that.”