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Monday, March 10, 2008
Nowak's U-23 roster choices a surprise

Jeff Carlisle, ESPNsoccernet

U.S. Olympic team head coach Peter Nowak has never been one to care much about reputations. This is a man who in 2004 resisted the siren call of throwing Freddy Adu immediately into the deep end of MLS. And with the release of the Olympic team's roster Sunday, that point was driven home once again.

Players like the Columbus Crew's Robbie Rogers and FC Dallas' Arturo Alvarez were hoping that successful MLS campaigns in 2007 would help them secure spots on Nowak's 20-man roster. Instead they achieved the dubious distinction of being among the final cuts.

But the biggest surprise was the exclusion of Derby County midfielder Benny Feilhaber. The UCLA product's lack of playing time in England has superglued rust to his 5-foot-9 frame, but such inactivity didn't prevent him from being called in to the full national team for the friendly versus Mexico. In that match, Feilhaber showed his value in coming off the bench, giving the U.S. better possession at a time when they desperately needed it.

Apparently this wasn't enough to convince Nowak that Feilhaber deserved a spot. Given the wealth of attacking talent still at his disposal, I'm guessing that the U.S. manager felt taking a player who wasn't match-fit would send the wrong message to the other performers who have reached a higher level of sharpness with their club sides.

Defensively, the inclusion of West Ham United defender Jonathan Spector should shore up a back line comprised of several converted midfielders and forwards, including Toronto FC's Maurice Edu and Wolfsburg's Kamani Hill. That said, it's believed that Spector won't join the team until the group phase is completed, leaving Nowak free to continue with his experiment of playing Edu in the center of defense. That means the performance of the back line will come under the most scrutiny during the group phase.

In addition to his interesting roster choices, Nowak also flouted convention with his approach to warmup games. While teams like Mexico have prepared by playing other U-23 sides, the Americans have preferred to beat up on teams from younger age groups, along with a match or two against MLS sides clearly in preseason form. During last week's conference call with reporters, Nowak insisted there was a method to this apparent madness, especially given the limited time he's had with his charges.

U.S. U-23 schedule
U.S. vs. Cuba
March 11
Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla.
8 p.m. ET, ESPN Deportes, ESPN360

U.S. vs. Panama
March 13
Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla.
8 p.m. ET, ESPN Deportes, ESPN360

U.S. vs. Honduras
March 15
Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla.
7 p.m. ET, ESPN Deportes, ESPN360

U.S. vs. TBD
March 20
LP Field, Nashville, Tenn.

"We need to focus on some things without having too many disruptions, and just prepare ourselves because I think the most important thing in a very short period of time is just to bond as a team, to gel as a team and every piece has to be in the right place," said Nowak.

Nowak also added that he was reluctant to tip his hand ahead of the tournament, and given the frequency with which Mexico has been playing, he may have a point. El Tri's warm-up matches have revealed their solid possession game as well as their woeful finishing, leading some to question the decision of head coach Hugo Sanchez to leave attackers like Andres Guardado and Gio Dos Santos with their European clubs.

Of course, it's debatable how much Nowak's choice of players and warmup matches will matter. Playing at home with an experienced side should make the U.S. a lock to progress. But the tournament's format, in which the semifinals are a de facto one-game playoff to reach the Olympics, has resulted in some surprising outcomes in the past.

In 2000, Mexico met Honduras in the semifinals, and a barren day in front of goal saw El Tri succumb on penalty kicks. Four years later, the emphasis on the semifinals bit the U.S. in bizarre fashion. The Americans held up their end, winning all three of their group matches. But in the other group, Mexico finished second to Costa Rica on goal difference, meaning that rather than meeting in the final, the two rivals met in the semis with a trip to Athens on the line. Playing before a boisterous home crowd, replete with Osama bin Laden chants, Mexico shut out the Americans 4-0.

Four years later, and despite its recent struggles in front of goal, Mexico should have enough firepower to dispose of Canada, Haiti and Guatemala in its group, although each of those teams will be calling on some experienced players. The Canadian side is bolstered by Sparta Prague defender Andre Hainault as well as Toronto FC players Tyler Hemming and forward Andrea Lombardo.

Haiti could also dip into its well of foreign-based talent, but the name most recognizable to American fans will be former Colorado Rapids midfielder Fabrice Noel, whose goal against Jamaica earlier in qualifying clinched Haiti's passage to the final round.

Guatemala could provide the stiffest competition for Mexico, as well as a possible semifinal opponent for the U.S. They are led by Gold Cup veterans Marvin Avila and Jose Contreras.

The U.S. will open the tournament Tuesday against Cuba, followed by games with Panama and Honduras. Cuban attackers Roberto Linares Yalmacida and Leonel Duarte scored the majority of Cuba's goals during the earlier rounds of qualifying, making for an interesting test in the Americans' opening match. The second game for the Yanks will be against Panama, whose coach, Alexandre Guimaraes, made a habit of tormenting U.S. sides when he was in charge of Costa Rica.

But the Americans' biggest challenge of the opening round will come in their final match against Honduras. The Catrachos won the tournament in 2000, the last time the U.S. played the role of host. On this occasion, former FC Dallas midfielder Ramon Nunez will be manning the midfield controls, with Emilio Izaguirre, another full Honduran international, also helping out.

That said, the U.S. should prevail comfortably, especially given the fact that the three group matches will take place over just five days. This should allow the Americans' depth at midfield and forward to make its mark.

But all it takes is one stumble in either group, and the Americans could find themselves facing Mexico in the semifinals once again. The fact that a rematch would take place on home soil gives the U.S. a better chance of prevailing, although it's a game the Americans would prefer to avoid. It all puts a premium on taking care of business in the group phase, and coping with the mental burden that entails.

"Pressure is pressure," Nowak added. "But we have to play soccer and accept pressure as part of the whole tournament."

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.


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