U.S. sending its strongest lineup yet to the Olympics
The U.S. reached the medal round of Olympic soccer at the 2000 Games in Sydney, though the squad finished fourth. That left hunger for more, but the next team failed to qualify for the Olympics in Greece, falling to archrival Mexico.
Now the U.S. is back at the games and hoping again to compete for a medal. But as other countries take Olympic success more seriously, the caliber of competition rises. It's possible that the U.S. could field its strongest squad ever for the Olympics yet not advance out of group play.
Coach Peter Nowak announced the final roster for the American team and declared that he felt good about the decisions that went into choosing the final 18. To a certain extent, there may have been too many cooks in the selection kitchen. Nowak acknowledged that he worked with players, clubs, agents and, of course, senior team coach Bob Bradley to make the right choices. Nowak wouldn't detail if he'd been deterred by any element when pursuing certain players.
However, a source revealed that when Nowak sought to add Landon Donovan to the squad as an overage player, the Los Angeles Galaxy rebuffed him.
Though he didn't admit to turning down a request for Donovan, Galaxy coach Ruud Gullit pointed out that it wouldn't be in the Galaxy's interest to let him participate in the Olympics, despite the player's stated wish to do so.
"It's not mandatory to give him up," said Gullit, noting that the Olympics are not covered as FIFA international dates. "In August, we get all kinds of international games. It wouldn't be a wise decision to let him go [to both]."
Gullit was referring to another conflict unique to CONCACAF, which plays World Cup qualifiers as the Olympics take place. It's possible that Nowak was pushed to make certain changes because of that difficulty, but he refused to speculate on whether his list of players would be different.
Even with the addition of 36-year-old Brian McBride, this squad will have the youngest average age the U.S. has had for the Olympics since overage players were allowed.
Goalkeeper Brad Guzan missed the cutoff to be an age-eligible Olympic option by only a few months. At 23, the young netminder still brings solid experience, having started for Chivas USA since 2005. Guzan, recently transferred to Aston Villa (pending work permit), is strong, vocal and capable of making game-changing stops. Though he seems to be established as the second-choice national team keeper behind Tim Howard, Guzan still lacks top-level experience, especially when faced with poised players who display guile in front of the net instead of merely blasting the ball.
Chris Seitz is a talented backup who still lacks regular game experience, as he does not start for his MLS club, Real Salt Lake.
The defenders that Nowak will rely on are an interesting mix. Patrick Ianni would likely not be on the squad if Jonathan Spector were healthy. The Houston Dynamo player is prone to poor choices if an attacking player is swifter. Marvell Wynne, however, has speed to burn and can use it to recover from defensive mistakes. Michael Orozco, the only squad member playing in Mexico, is probably the most adept at defensive positioning. Then again, the overage pick on the back line, Michael Parkhurst, has the ability to shut down opponents by being in the right position to dispossess players and squelch attacks. The New England Revolution defender is only a year older than many on the team, but he also has been a regular starter in MLS since his rookie season in 2005. Nathan Sturgis, however, has had limited playing time with Real Salt Lake because of various injury issues. When healthy, though, Sturgis has always been a key contributor to the Olympic squad.
One of Nowak's biggest concerns was trying to blend the squad into a cohesive whole, since the European and MLS seasons do not match.
"Some are in preseason, and some have been playing regularly and are match-fit," Nowak said.
It's in the midfield that the European-based players have the biggest impact. Freddy Adu hasn't gotten regular playing time with Benfica, but the creative attacker has orchestrated U.S. youth team offenses for years, working especially well with Danny Szetela and Michael Bradley. Both players provide more muscle on the ball than Adu but are still capable of making key passes to trigger chances. The toughest player in the middle, Maurice Edu, is the most capable of killing opponents' opportunities. Stuart Holden, with his knack for timely runs and controlled passes, could be a solid contributor.
Sacha Kljestan is blessed with the skill to do many things on the field well -- his curse may be that those many talents on the ball lack a specific superlative aspect. He is a good -- not great -- passer, finisher, set-play taker, dribbler and defender. His greatest asset may be his calm leadership and intelligent play. In contrast, Benny Feilhaber is a player who often rises to the occasion with a flair for the dramatic. Since he has only recently recovered from an injury, Feilhaber's inclusion may be Nowak's biggest gamble.
It's the forward corps that provides an interesting contrast -- the youngest and oldest members of the squad working together. McBride doubles Jozy Altidore in age, though the youngster outdoes the veteran striker in size, boasting an inch more in height. Since both are over six feet and capable in the air, they could provide the offense with twin targets on crosses, giving the U.S. the option to employ a direct attack.
Yet if passes are low and behind the defense, probably no one is more capable of running the ball down than Charlie Davies, the swift attacker who plays in Sweden.
No other player on the squad forced his way onto the list more than Robbie Rogers. Dropped from the team during qualifying, Rogers channeled his drive into his MLS campaign with the Columbus Crew, performing so well that he earned accolades around the league and became the youngest player elected to the All-Star game this year. Of course, he won't participate in that game because his efforts succeeded in restoring him to the Olympic squad instead.
As capable as Nowak's chosen players are, they don't compare to the rosters of squads like Brazil and Argentina, who sent some of their best to the tournament. The U.S. has a unique chance to capture public attention on the Olympic stage, something Michael Bradley recognizes.
"The better we do, the more coverage we'll get here at home and the more people will start to take notice," Bradley said. "If we can go there and are able to put some good games together, I think people in America will really take notice of that."
That's why it seems like a missed opportunity that some top players were left off the roster.
It's possible that the U.S. team can coalesce into a stronger whole than the sum of its parts. Nowak carefully picked a number of players who are versatile and can play multiple positions and formations. Even their youth may be a unifying factor as the team fights to prove itself.
"The chemistry is very important," said Nowak.
It remains to be seen whether Nowak has mixed together players who will explode onto the international level -- or fizzle out.
Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She also writes for soccer365.com and contributes to a blog, Sideline Views. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.