United States midfielder Brek Shea, left, is one of several MLS standouts… (Ross D. Franklin / Associated…)
There might be more at stake than simply a summer trip to London when the U.S. team opens play in the CONCACAF men's Olympic qualifying tournament Thursday in Nashville. Because with 14 of the 20 players on the American soccer squad coming from Major League Soccer teams, the eight-nation tournament can rightly be seen as a referendum on the progress of MLS as well.
"It's a strong statement about our league and the development of young players that the Olympic tournament — a reflection of the strongest young players in each country — includes so many that are on our clubs," MLS spokesman Will Kuhn said. "It draws a lot of attention … to the natural progression of our league. The level of play keeps advancing each year. The Olympics gives an opportunity for lots more people to see that progress."
For the U.S. team to progress to the Olympics, it must first survive qualifying, which it opens against Cuba. The U.S. will also play Canada and El Salvador in group play, while Group B, which consists of Mexico, Panama, Honduras and Trinidad and Tobago, begins play Friday at the Home Depot Center in Carson. The top two teams from each group advance to next week's semifinals in Kansas City, Mo., with the winners of those matches moving on to both the tournament final and the London Games, which will take two CONCACAF teams
Since MLS' founding in 1996, the U.S. has qualified for three Olympic soccer tournaments and all 54 players who have worn the American jersey in those Games played in the league at some point in their career. But MLS has improved dramatically over that time, making this year's U.S. team potentially the strongest yet with a roster that includes MLS All-Star Brek Shea of FC Dallas as well as national senior team veterans Freddy Adu (Philadelphia Union), Juan Agudelo (New York Red Bulls) and Teal Bunbury (Sporting Kansas City).
Great expectations don't always lead to great performances though. Last year's highly regarded team U-20 failed to advance to its World Cup qualifying tournament and in 2004 a stacked U.S. team didn't even make it to the Athens Games. So Galaxy midfielder Michael Stephens said he's making no plans for London just yet.
"You just kind of take it one step at a time," he said.
Besides the U.S., the most dangerous team in the tournament is probably Mexico, which is deep in forwards, beginning with Chivas Guadalajara striker Marco Fabian. Plus, after missing two of the last three Olympics, Mexico is motivated.
"It's a responsibility," Cruz Azul defender Nestor Araujo told the Mexican press. "We're not thinking about anything else but to win the qualifying and earn that ticket.
"It will be very important."