Even at only 20 years old, Matt Miazga can appreciate the advantage of a “home field.”
After helping Team USA qualify for the 2015 FIFA Under-20 World Cup at a tournament in Jamaica, the defender is grateful that the Olympic soccer qualifying championship for the North, Central American and Caribbean (CONCACAF) region is in the United States.
“Definitely the venues that we’ll be playing at there’s going to be a lot of support, even some sellout crowds,” the 6-foot-3, boyish looking New York Red Bulls starting center back said. “So playing in the U.S. is going to help.
“Obviously it’s tough, when the U-20 qualifiers were in Jamaica, you don’t have all the amenities, Wi-Fi, good food and stuff like that. So it’s definitely going to be much better.”
The eight-team tournament begins Thursday with Team USA facing Canada, and Panama playing Cuba in Group A at Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kansas. Group B begins the following day in the StubHub Center in the Los Angeles suburb of Carson with Honduras against Haiti and Mexico taking on Costa Rica.
Both groups remain in their respective cities for a second round-robin series of games and then move to Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in the Denver suburb of Commerce City before finishing up with the semifinals and finals at Rio Tinto Stadium just outside of Salt Lake City in Sandy.
Only the semifinal winners will automatically qualify for the 16-team Olympic competition next year in Rio de Janeiro. The third-place team will go into a playoff with Colombia for another spot.
The advantages to the eight players from Major League Soccer teams will be particularly apparent, with all four venues being the home stadiums of MLS teams: Sporting KC, the Colorado Rapids, LA Galaxy and Real Salt Lake.
But CONCACAF Olympic qualifying was played in the United States four years ago, and Team USA didn’t even make it to the semifinals. It allowed a goal in the fourth-minute of injury time and tied 3-3 to El Salvador, but the draw was not enough for Team USA to advance.
“It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever taken in my life, not qualifying,” said Orlando City SC midfielder Brek Shea, a member of the 2012 team who made his senior national team debut in 2010. “We had, I think, one of the best teams put together in a long time. We just didn’t perform as we should have.
“I think we thought we were just going to make it in a sense.”
It’s the nature of CONCACAF, according to Brian Dunseth, the captain of the 2000 team that finished fourth in Sydney, the U.S. men’s best performance at an Olympic Games.
Olympic qualifying is limited to players under 23. And unlike top American players, many of whom enjoy careers in MLS or in Europe, many players from Central America or the Caribbean view the Olympic Games as more than a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play in a major international tournament.
“This is an opportunity to make a professional career,” said Dunseth, who played nine seasons in MLS and now is an analyst with FOX Sports. “If you don’t have a lot, that thirst, that desire is enough to take a lot of teams over the edge.”
It helps explain why Team USA, arguably the best soccer nation in CONCACAF, has not qualified for two of the last three Olympic Games.
“Playing a lot of the CONCACAF teams is more of a fight than a game,” Shea said. “It’s just individual battles and team battles. It’s not always going to be pretty. It’s hard playing teams like that, that scrap so hard to get a result.”
Team USA will start as a major favorite, with a 20-man roster that includes 19 professionals: eight players from MLS, four from teams in England, two in Germany and one each from Mexico, Norway, Switzerland and Scotland, and one college player, Jordan Morris. (One player, Will Packwood, is a professional but not signed with a team).
Morris, a forward, is in his junior year at Stanford and already has a goal in six games with the senior national team.
Because the tournament begins outside of an “international fixture” window, when club teams are obligated to release players for national team duty, Team USA coach Andreas Herzog was unable to pick all of the players he wanted.
But besides Morris, he has three other players who have appeared for the full U.S. national team: Wil Trapp of the Columbus Crew, Luis Gil of Real Salt Lake and Emerson Hyndman of English club Fulham.
“For us it was important that we find the right balance between attacking players and defensive-minded players,” Herzog said. “I’m very confident we will qualify. Last time we didn’t qualify, so it’s really important we qualify this time.”
The pressure to qualify will be intense, Dunseth said, particularly with all the emphasis placed on youth development by both U.S. Soccer and MLS in recent years and U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s insistence that American players need exposure to high-level international competition.
“This group has to qualify, has to qualify,” Dunseth said. “Or it’s a major failure for the players and the U.S. infrastructure.”
Brian Trusdell has covered four FIFA World Cups and six Olympic Games during his more than 30 years as a sportswriter, mostly with the Associated Press and Bloomberg News. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.