by Bart Keeler
Almost all plans remain the same for the Concacaf Men’s Olympic Qualifiers but the dates have been set for March 18-30, 2021, Concacaf announced Thursday. The United States U-23 men’s national team was last year drawn into a group with Mexico, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic.
Matches will be played at Estadio Akron in Zapopan and Estadio Jalisco in Guadalajara, Jalisco, the homes of Chivas de Guadalajara and Atlas of Liga MX, respectively. Exact match days have not been assigned.Concacaf, Federacion Mexicana de Futbol and local officials promised health and safety protocols for all participants.
Honduras, Canada, El Salvador and Haiti comprise Group B. Group winners and second-place finishers qualify for the knockout rounds.
Though the three favorites—Mexico, USA and Costa Rica—are in the same group, this format could benefit these teams. To qualify for the Tokyo Summer Olympic Games, a team must win a semifinal. Because the winner and runner-up of the group will be on opposite sides of the knockout bracket, they would not have to face each other in the crucial match. That said, Honduras has performed better than anyone other than Mexico in the previous two tournaments.
Jason Kreis will lead the U-23 squad in the tournament. His mission will be to qualify for the Olympic tournament for the first time since 2008. Though a chicken-and-egg question, it’s no secret that the age groups that failed to qualify for the 2012 and 2016 Olympics are also those that contributed least to the USMNT in the 2018 World Cup Qualification cycle.
Currently, a squad of 27 Olympic-eligible players is training alongside senior national team players in Bradenton, Florida, under the guidance of USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter. The squads will combine into one 23-man match day roster for a friendly against Serbia on January 31, in Orlando. A possible friendly or scrimmage against Canada may materialize next weekend.
The USMNT has more talent than ever before in this age group. In fact, the senior rosters for November and December friendlies featured 17 players eligible for the tournament. Even if the top talent in the pool is unavailable due to club duties (the group stage of the tournament is not in a FIFA window and clubs do not have to release players), there is plenty of depth at most positions to build a 20-man squad that can win the tournament. Kreis, and Berhalter, will be under significant pressure to qualify this time around.
(photo credit: @EstadioAkron)