Months of buildup, hype and speculation surrounding perhaps the strongest and most professionally advanced group of U.S. youth talent come to a head Thursday night.
The CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament gets under way at LP Field in Nashville, Tenn., when the progress made in monthly camps since November will be put to the test. After conducting an arduous process to narrow a deep pool of contenders, United States U-23 national team coach Caleb Porter called on 20 players charged with punching one of the region's two tickets to London.
This isn't entirely Porter's first-choice roster. Between European clubs not being obligated to release players, a poorly timed injury ruining Columbus Crew midfielder Dilly Duka's chances of making the squad and right winger/right back combo standout Josh Gatt getting recalled by his Norwegian club, Porter had to adjust on the fly.
"We always knew that this would possibly be a situation, and we've prepared and planned for their alternates," Porter said on a media conference call. "At this point, I'm very confident in the group that we have and we're, again, realistic about the situation. There are players that have not gotten released, so there comes a point where we need to move on and we need to focus on the guys that we can get for camp."
Porter was able to secure Portugal-based striker Tony Taylor and added Philadelphia Union right back Sheanon Williams to fill his group, one that has plenty of firepower and embraced his tactics and style in scrimmages.
FC Dallas winger Brek Shea, Hoffenheim speedster Joe Gyau, rising Borussia Dortmund striker Terrence Boyd, New York Red Bulls forward Juan Agudelo and Philadelphia Union attacker and U-23 team captain Freddy Adu provide explosive ability going forward; Mexican-American Joe Corona and Norwegian-American Mix Diskerud anchor a midfield hellbent on out-possessing the opposition and pressing when the ball is lost; and a resurgent and healthy Ike Opara and vice-captain Perry Kitchen form a composed central pairing as the last line of defense in front of likely starting goalkeeper Bill Hamid.
The talent, experience, camaraderie and cohesion is there, but with three group games in five days, having as many fit, capable and versatile options as possible to operate Porter's 4-3-3 formation is vital to getting through to the knockout phase.
"I like the group that we have from a personnel standpoint," Porter said. "I think we have a lot of different diversity in how we can change a bit of the dimensions that we throw in the game from a personnel standpoint. But yet, you're going to see a very clear style from this team with some subtle adjustments, personnel-wise, game-plan-wise, in order to get a result."
The U.S. U-23s had about as favorable a group draw as possible, in Group A with Cuba, Canada and El Salvador. The trade-off is the all-important semifinal match -- where qualification is on the line -- is almost guaranteed to be against a strong opponent, likely Mexico or Honduras. Panama and Trinidad and Tobago round out Group B.
Playing on home soil against their group competitors, the U.S. should be able to get through to the semifinals at Livestrong Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kan., with little resistance.
"We'll have a great read on all these teams going into each game," Porter said. "I think the interesting thing with our group is that you have three teams that are different in the way they play, the way they align their system, the way they play, style-wise, and we need to make sure that we're focusing on what we do well. We need to come up with a plan, though, that makes sense for that game and ultimately getting three points."
Despite the favorable draw, the U.S. men are hardly accepting a place in the semifinals as a given, nor is a second-place finish a safe fallback. If Mexico wins its group, and the United States takes second, then a pressure-packed semifinal showdown against the other regional power would be on the docket.
Four U-23 players -- Kitchen, Gyau, Amobi Okugo and Zarek Valentin -- know what it's like to be the favorites in a qualifying tournament and fail to get the job done after representing the heralded U-20 side that did not qualify for last summer's World Cup. Even after dominating a mostly first-choice Mexico U-23 side in a friendly last month, neither Porter nor his players are taking anything in qualification for granted.
"(The Mexico win) gives us good momentum, good motivation," Kitchen said. "But there's still work to be done, and it's going to be tougher in qualifying."
If the United States qualifies, it will be part of the 16-team Olympic field in London, where it will be contending for a medal with favorites Brazil and Spain and host Great Britain. The group draw is slated for April 24.
Ahead of the Olympics, the roster will be reduced to 18 (with additional injury alternates named as well), and it could be a vastly different group than the one charged with qualifying. Considering senior national team players like Jozy Altidore, Timmy Chandler and Danny Williams are all age-eligible, and each team is allotted three overage players, Porter will have even more decisions to make after narrowing down his initial, deep U-23 player pool to 20.
Porter could go any number of ways with his potential overage picks. Senior team stalwarts Landon Donovan, Carlos Bocanegra and Clint Dempsey have all expressed interest in joining the Olympic team in various interviews. If Porter wants to go for the wow factor, he'd be hard-pressed to find another trio that can accomplish that. An alternative, though, would be to add options that make the most sense in terms of strengthening his squad, which could use filling out at the fullback positions. Players like Eric Lichaj and Fabian Johnson certainly fit that bill and are versatile enough to take on multiple positions. But first things first: Make it to London.
"We're not thinking about that right now," Porter said. "We're thinking about qualifying. After qualifying, we'll evaluate our group, we'll evaluate those things. And once we have a better understanding of where we feel like we need to enhance our group then we'll make those decisions. Right now we're focused on qualifying, and that's it. We can't use the overage players in qualifying, so really those decisions are irrelevant at this point."