DAVID SMITH - Thursday, August 20, 2015
Groups were drawn for the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament on Tuesday, setting the stage for the US U23 squad as they try to avoid missing the final for a third time in four tries.
Tuesday's draw saw Andreas Herzog's charges paired with northern neighbors Canada, upcoming Panama and regional whipping boys Cuba for October's qualifying tournament.
While the team should, on paper, be favorites to achieve at least a top-two finish in the group, recent history should give Herzog and his team a strong warning that they are likely in for an unexpectedly tough run.
Putting aside the senior team's recent Gold Cup disaster, which saw Panama drop the US to a presumable fourth best in the region, this Olympic qualifying group has two of the members of the 2012 collection saw the team fail to even reach the knock-out rounds.
The team will open play on October 1 at Sporting Park in Kansas City against Canada, who dealt the team a humiliating 2-0 defeat in qualifying four years ago. Two days later they face Cuba on the same field in what will likely be the only sure result of the tournament.
Finally on October 6, they close group play with what they can only hope will be a battle for first place against Panama.
Should Herzog guide the team to a top-two finish in the group, they will face one of the top two finishers on the other side of the bracket. This collection includes Mexico, Honduras, Haiti and one of Guatemala or Costa Rica, who are on the cusp of a two-legged playoff to reach October's final stage of qualification.
The winners of the two knockout games will automatically progress to the 2016 Olympic tournament in Rio, Brazil, while the losers face off for the right to play against a South American team for a ticket to next summer's final tournament.