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BRENT LATHAM - Tuesday, March 25, 2008
Mike Hewitt/Getty
Adu carried the US
So the United States Under-23s can call themselves the US Olympic team, having, let's say, navigated, their way through a tricky qualifying tournament to claim one of the two CONCACAF berths to China later this year.

Let's face it: that's good news.

Getting through the Russian Roulette that is CONCACAF qualifying is no small feat. The US is back in the Olympics after the previous version of this squad was unceremoniously drubbed by Mexico south of the border four years ago. If you think that a favorite crashing out then was an isolated event, then you missed this year's Group B, in which the favored Mexicans suffered a similar setback.

As entertaining as it was to watch the Mexican novela in California, it was impossible not to feel a sense of empathy for a decent team that ran into bad luck. Mexico fell short in the group stage, failing to beat Haiti by a wide enough margin in the final match to overcome two poor performances against Canada and Guatemala.

The US tasted the same failure in 2004, when Donovan, Beasley, Johnson and crew probably had a decent shot at improving on the Stars and Stripes' fourth place finish in the Sydney games, but failed to make it that far.

This version of El Tri, bolstered by the addition of La Liga starlets Andres Guardado, Giovanni Dos Santos and Carlos Vela, would have had the same legitimate shot at a medal as Donovan and crew might have four years ago. But, like their northern counterparts, the Mexicans won't be there, supplanted by a lesser, if hungrier CONCACAF side in Honduras.

And that, like the US absence four years ago, is bad news for all of CONCACAF, with the exception of the jubilant Catrachos.

While not as serious a business as the World Cup, the Olympics is to some extent a measuring stick by which the world judges soccer. With good performances in the Olympics, African teams have slowly gained international respect, leading to more scouting of African prospects, more Africans playing overseas, and in the end better African teams.

The same will happen in CONCACAF when the strongest teams are representing the federation in international tournaments.

Had it not been for the cruel twist of fate in Mexico's final group game, it might have been the US on the outside looking in again.

While the Mexicans really do have no one to blame but themselves, having crashed out in the group stage (exactly which Mexican is most to blame is best left to the Mexican press - the consensus seems to be Hugo Sanchez), a better result against Haiti could have meant that once again the region's top two teams were to face off in a single elimination playoff with a berth in the second most important FIFA event at stake.

How long will CONCACAF stick to a formula that each time around provides for the elimination of one of the federation's best at the hands of teams bent on battening down in defense and hoping for a fortunate counter attack? Turning the final group phase into a round robin would add only one game to the tournament, but would be many times fairer in deciding to which team the precious spots in the Olympics go.

South America used such a double group format up until this year, when it was scrapped in favor of the Under-20 regional results. The region heads figured that the brightest Under-23 stars all play in Europe, and most missed the tournament, putting the nations with the best footballing talent at somewhat of a disadvantage in qualifying. The same seems to be happening here to the US and Mexico, the countries with by far the most representation in Europe.

If you don't think the players from abroad make a difference, take the final for example.

Scrappy Honduras was outclassed for 120 minutes by the US, but took the win from one timely finish, and the lack of class in the US front line. That class, in the person of Freddy Adu, had hopped a plane for Portugal a few days before. The same could be said for Mexico; with Gio Dos Santos up front, the score against Haiti would have been 10-1.

That aside, the Hondurans deserve a great deal of credit for working with the resources they have and scrapping out a championship, their second in three tries. The Honduran victory proves, as much as anything, that the difference between the best teams in this region and the rest, at this level, is simply the genius of a few game changing players. Without Adu, the US was unable to put the ball in the net the entire tournament. And without doing that, it is difficult to win games.

The panorama changes for the Olympic games.

The US will have the chance to add players to fill holes, and Peter Nowak would be well advised to find someone who will score goals from the run of play. The US will have work to do if it hopes to match up with the best teams headed to China, which boast scores of stars already making their mark in Europe. At this point, it's hard to argue that US can contend for a medal against the quality that the Argentines, Brazilians, Nigerians, or Italians, to name a few, can put on the field at this level.

Only time will tell if the right additions will help this group of U23s, which seems to have been overhyped since training camp. At this point, it is hard to argue that the team amounts to much more than a collection of promising players from last year's U20s and a few MLS role players.

In reality, with the additions overage players, guys like Michael Bradley and Benny Feilhaber who were absent from qualification, and the reincorporation of Adu, it's possible that all but two or three of those who started on Sunday won't be doing the same when the US kicks off in Beijing.

That's good news for US fans, who are hoping that the US can gain some sort of form and improve on the fourth place finish in Sydney. It's an opportunity that US Soccer would be wise to take advantage of. After all, who knows what could happen in qualifying four years from now.
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