Stung by failures, US starts Olympic men’s soccer qualifying

Stung by failures to qualify for the 2012 and 2016 Olympics and the 2018 World Cup, the U.S. men start the delayed path toward this summer’s Tokyo Games soccer tournament when they play Costa Rica on Thursday night at Guadalajara, Mexico.

While most Olympic events are for a sport’s top athletes, men’s soccer qualifying usually is restricted by FIFA to players 23 years old and under. As a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic, this year’s qualifying tournament is for players born after Jan. 1, 1997.

And because clubs are not required to release players, the U.S. will be without regulars from European teams and without some blocked by Major League Soccer.

A generation of Americans missed Olympic soccer in London and Rio de Janeiro, contributing to the national team’s failure to reach the World Cup.

“There’s been some failures, but I think that’s what led to such a great group and such a great group coming up with the first team and the youth team,” U.S. under-24 coach Jason Kreis said Wednesday. ”“So we’re excited for this challenge. And I think the message within the team has just been to focus on the moment. We’re not too worried about the past, not too worry about the future. We’re focused on the next game.”

Norwich forward Sebastian Soto and midfielders Johnny Cardoso of Internacional, Ulysses Llanez of Heerenveen and Sebastian Saucedo of Pumas head a 20-man U.S. roster that includes 16 players from MLS. Most of the U.S. players have not played a competitive match since last year.

“It’s definitely something that could have helped us a little bit more, being a little bit more game sharp and game fit,” Kreis said, “but I think the group did really well of maintaining a hunger during the break and and working on themselves and improving themselves, and I think the team looks good and ready to go.”

Twelve of the players were on the roster that was to have competed in the qualifying tournament in March 2020 before the delay caused by the pandemic.

Showing soccer’s tendency to get in its own way, CONCACAF held Kreis’ news conference Wednesday overlapping the U.S. Soccer Federation’s news conference with national team coach Gregg Berhalter to announce his roster for exhibitions against Jamaica and Northern Ireland.

The U.S. plays the Dominican Republic on Sunday and Mexico on March 24. The top two teams advance to the semifinals along with the top two from Group B, which includes Canada, El Salvador, Haiti and Honduras. The semifinal winners on March 28 qualify for the Olympics, where each team can add three wild card players over the age limit.

The Americans were eliminated in the group stage of qualifying for the 2012 Olympics when goalkeeper Sean Johnson, who entered for an injured Bill Hamid, allowed a 25-yard shot by Jaime Alas to bounce in off his hands in second-half stoppage time for a 3-3 draw against El Salvador in Nashville, Tennessee.

After losing 2-0 to Honduras in a CONCACAF qualifying game for the 2016 Olympics, the U.S. was beaten 3-2 in a two-game playoff against, losing the second leg 2-1 in Frisco, Texas.

Eleven American players on this year’s U.S. roster have played for the senior national team, led by midfielder Jackson Yueill with nine appearances and forward Jonathan Lewis with seven.

“I don’t think we’ve been together as much as we liked to in the past year because of COVID, but I think from the coaching staff being able to implement and get everyone on the same page, that’s been one of the best things about this camp and about the January camp,” Yueill said. “A key factor to us in doing well in this tournament I think (is) that unity and the dynamic between all those guys.”

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