Evaluating the wellness of Olympic soccer teams can be slippery stuff. These sides really don't exist in any cohesive sense beyond a few months every four years. Since FIFA likes to ensure the World Cup's preeminent place as king of the global soccer hill, the Olympic tournament is mostly reduced to a quadrennial rotation of younger (under-23) talent.
The United States squad is no different, something of a secret Santa present from an unknown office colleague; you have no idea what's in there until you unwrap the sucker and get a closer look. Even Caleb Porter, the highly successful University of Akron coach who has gladly taken on extra duty of U.S. Olympic guidance, is only now getting a firm handle on his personnel as the reach for next summer's London Olympics begins to gain speed.
Porter just finished his first training camp in charge, as 30 players began stating cases during a nine-day camp in Lakewood Ranch, Florida. Porter's full pool of possible talent is closer to 50 players, so the possible combinations really are all over the map.
The team, or some loose version of it, did previously gather for a fall camp in Germany under direction of Claudio Reyna and Tab Ramos. Porter's initial practices wrapped up two days before Christmas, and many of the same names will reassemble next month in California as prep continues for CONCACAF qualifying in March.
"Here, I wanted to set the culture, to begin developing a clear understanding of our style of play, to introduce formations and talk about demands and expectations," Porter said late last week, just as the camp broke. As for that style, look for a 4-3-3 arrangement and the same kind of possession-oriented game Jurgen Klinsmann wants to see from the senior national team.
From here, they'll dig into a short stack of friendlies as Porter culls and sharpens his roster. That schedule includes at least one contest in Central America and closed door sessions against Klinsmann's national team (a "B" squad to be more precise) in January when both units find themselves training side-by-side in California. There will probably be matches here and there in February against MLS teams as they gather in Florida for pre-season practices.
But that's about it. All in all, it's still not much time to identify leaders, pinpoint the very best use of available talent, rehearse situational work, etc. Things are slightly less murky than two weeks ago, prior to Porter's arrival at the camp outside Sarasota, but there's still plenty of mystery over it all. In fact, Porter still hasn't seen some of his potential game-changers in camp. Blame timing and politics.
Winger Brek Shea and strikers Juan Agudelo and Jozy Altidore may be the most important pieces of the whole attacking puzzle. And yet none were in Porter's camp; Shea and Agudelo were getting a rest after a stocking-stuffed calendar year, while Altidore keeps doing his thing at AZ Alkmaar in the Dutch Eredivisie. Figure on Shea and Agudelo being part of the qualifying effort, probably a massive part. Since they are attached to MLS teams, getting them into future camps and into the qualifying fray shouldn't be problematic. Altidore's situation is more complicated.
European teams are under no obligation to release players for Olympic qualifying dates. Since clubs don't always hold Olympic proceedings in highest regard, there's a chance Alkmaar or others could balk dismissively at it all. Similarly, there's no guarantee that promising center back Gale Agbossoumonde (Germany's Eintracht Frankfurt), potential playmaker Mikkel Diskerud (Norway's Stabaek) or big striker Conor Doyle (England's Derby County) will necessarily be released in March. Those are among the 18 who just finished up in Florida, who will soon return to clubs in Europe and Mexico.
Another layer of politics applies to Danny Williams and Tim Chandler, two promising German-born newcomers to the full U.S. national team. They are young enough to be Olympic-eligible and talented enough to be potential starters for Porter, since both have been capped by Klinsmann's full national team. Still, whether they'll be part of the under-23 side is anybody's guess. If Klinsmann decides the pair can play an important role in upcoming World Cup qualifying, and if the clubs begin getting antsy about losing too much control over their young employees' comings and goings, twisting the screws for release during Olympic qualifying may be deemed imprudent in the long run.
Putting politics aside, Porter's team would almost certainly be stronger with them. "But we're also being realistic, and we're preparing in case we can't get them," the coach said. "It's something that will get clearer as we get a little closer."
Either way, odds are strong that Porter's U.S. side will land in London, although it's no slam dunk. Just ask some of members of the 2004 Olympic side, which failed to reach Athens after an unfortunate turn of events arranged a do-or-die contest Mexico. It didn't turn out well.
This time around, eight nations will compete for two places during CONCACAF men's qualifying. The United States will face Cuba, Canada and El Salvador on March 22, 24 and 26 during pool play in Group A, all at LP Field in Nashville. The top two finishers move onto the semifinals, which is the money round in this case. That's because both semifinal winners advance to London.
Here's the important thing to remember in Group A play: Porter's side simply cannot stumble one bit, because a first-place finish is infinitely preferable to a second-place showing. Finish first among the foursome and a winnable match awaits in the semifinal round (which will be played inside Kansas City's new Livestrong Sporting Park). But a clash with mighty Mexico, far and away the Group B favorite, probably lies ahead for the second-place finisher in Group A.
That's where this Olympic soccer business gets dicey. It's a nice enough tournament, but it doesn't come close to matching the World Cup in terms of prestige, interest and general curb appeal, so the rewards aren't nearly so grand.
On the other hand, if Porter and his side somehow make a mess of it fail to qualify, then things turn suddenly thorny. Questions will be asked, individual leadership ability might be questioned, talent will get closer scrutiny and the whole thing suddenly becomes a bigger deal, perhaps taking on symbolic meaning attached (real or imagined) to deeper developmental issues. See how this Olympic thing can be tricky business?
Either way, the effort is now underway and Porter admits that finally getting his feet planted into the effort has him feeling better about things.
"We definitely have a clearer picture, but we definitely still have a lot left to figure out and a lot left to decide," Porter said two days before Christmas, as he and the players scattered for the holiday. "I do have a much clearer picture of where we are at, especially in terms of who can play where for us."