Olympic men’s soccer offers underdogs hope of medals in Paris. US team back after 16-year absence

Sure, it was fun to dream about a Paris Olympics in which Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé renew their rivalries after that epic World Cup final.

But men’s Olympic soccer is more about emerging players than established stars. It’s good for a few surprises, too. Past winners include Mexico, Nigeria and Cameroon.

So while Argentina, France and Spain will be the favorites to take gold at the Paris Games, there is hope for the United States — featuring for the first time since 2008 — and others in the field of 16 teams that also includes World Cup semifinalist Morocco.

The tournament has an age restriction of under 23, plus three overage players — which is why there had been hope that Messi and Mbappé would compete. Spoiler alert: They’re not.

Unlike other major international soccer tournaments like the World Cup, European Championship and Copa America, the Olympic men’s soccer event is not featured on world governing body FIFA’s International Match Calendar, meaning clubs are not required to release players to compete at the Games.

The U.S. plays France in its opening game in Marseille when the tournament begins on July 24 — two days before the opening ceremony of the Olympics. The final is on Aug. 9 at Parc des Princes in Paris.

As well as Paris and Marseille, the tournament will be played in venues across France including Bordeaux, Lyon, Nantes, Nice and Saint-Etienne.

Stars & Stripes

U.S. head coach Marko Mitrovic will showcase some of America’s next generation of talent at the Paris Games.

He has turned to developing talents like Kevin Paredes and Paxten Aaronson, who are on the fringes of the senior team.

The 21-year-old Paredes, who plays his club soccer with German team Wolfsburg, was the USA’s young player of the year in 2023 and his potential was spotted by Jay-Z’s Roc Nation sports agency, which signed him up to its roster of clients that includes superstars like Vinicius Junior and Kevin De Bruyne.

Unlike its women’s team, the U.S. has never won gold in the men’s soccer tournament at the Olympics. Its best performance was in 1904 — yes, 120 years ago — when club teams competed and it took silver and bronze at the St. Louis Games.

It last featured in Beijing in 2008 and failed to advance beyond the group stage. The roster included future U.S. captain Michael Bradley, the once-promising Freddy Adu and veteran Brian McBride.

The U.S. qualified after winning the CONCACAF Under-20 Championship in 2022 and was then drawn in the same group as host France.

With world champion Argentina competing along with France and Spain at these Games, the U.S. has its work cut out to medal in Paris.


The men’s event has produced its share of surprise winners like Nigeria won at Atlanta in 1996 and Cameroon four years later in Sydney.

To put that into context — no African nation has ever won a World Cup.

At the London Games, Mexico stunned Brazil 2-1 in the final at Wembley Stadium. The Mexican team made up mostly of domestic-league players upset a Brazilian squad that included Neymar, Marcelo and Thiago Silva.

Surprises this time could come from any of the four groups.

Guinea and New Zealand are in Group A with France and the United States.

Iraq and Ukraine join Argentina and Morocco in Group B.

Group C features the Dominican Republic, Egypt and Uzbekistan along with Spain.

Paraguay, Israel, Japan and Mali comprise Group D.

Israel has qualified for the first time since 1976 and has faced calls from protestors for its participation to be limited because of the war in Gaza.

Ukraine is competing while the nation continues to defend itself against Russia’s invasion.

No Mbappé

France coach Thierry Henry had wanted to include his country’s biggest soccer star, Mbappé, in his squad for its home tournament. But the World Cup winning striker, who was also keen to play, suggested his new club Real Madrid did not want him to take part.

And that was before Mbappé sustained a broken nose at the European Championship.

France’s squad is still packed with talent like Paris Saint-Germain’s Warren Zaire-Emery and Bradley Barcola.

Argentina is without Messi, but has Claudio Echeverri, who is joining Premier League champion Manchester City, and World Cup winner Thiago Almada, who plays for Atlanta United in MLS.

Argentina will be aiming to add Olympic gold to the World Cup title it won in 2022.

South American teams have dominated the event over the past 20 years. Since Cameroon’s success in 2000, Argentina and Brazil have taken two golds each.

Brazil was back-to-back champion in 2016 and 2020, but did not qualify for Paris. It means Argentina (2004, 2008) can win a record-equalling third gold to move level with Hungary and Britain.

France and Spain have won one gold each.

The U.S. is looking to make up for lost time after such a long absence.


James Robson is at https://twitter.com/jamesalanrobson


AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer

Copyright © 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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