LONDON (AP) – As the soccer balls whizzed around an expansive collection of desolate soccer fields near the Florida Gulf Coast, Caleb Porter kept a stoic look on his face, but every now and then he'd let go of a smile as he watched his new team connect passes and flash the type of skill he loves to see.
It was Porter's first day on the practice field with the US Under-23 national team, the squad he has been hired to coach - the team Porter has the assignment of qualifying for the 2012 Olympic games. It wasn't his first day on the job. He was involved with quite a bit of the planning and preparation for the team's recent training camp in Germany, but responsibilities with his full-time job as head coach of the University of Akron meant last Friday was his first chance to actually be with his new team.
The men's Olympic soccer tournament at London 2012 will feature the U-23 teams of 16 nations, with each squad allowed three overage players. The United States will start their road to London on March 22 in Nashville, where they will vie with Canada, Cuba and El Salvador for two spots in the next stage: the elimination round. There four teams will play for the region's two spots in the 2012 Summer Olympic games.
"It feels good to finally get out on the pitch with these guys and lay the groundwork and foundation for qualifying," Porter said. "I look at it as a two stage process. Stage one is qualifying, and stage two is the Olympics.
"Right now I'm the U-23 coach and these are U-23 players and the focus now is on preparing for the qualifying round," Porter said. "In the big picture we want to be in the Olympics playing for a medal. They have to understand the entire vision, but obviously first we have to qualify."
In 2008, the US Olympic team failed to meet expectations despite boasting a talented squad, crashing out in the group stage. Where the team did succeed was in producing some players who ultimately played a role for the US at the 2010 World Cup. Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, Benny Feilhaber and Maurice Edu were all key contributors at the last World Cup, and this new cycle of players is capable of providing even more options for senior team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
With Altidore and Freddy Adu eligible for the current Olympic squad after taking part in the 2008 Olympics, and with senior team regulars such as Brek Shea, Timmy Chandler, Juan Agudelo and Danny Willliams also available, Porter will have a plethora of top-level players to serve as the nucleus of the Olympic team. That isn't even including the three over-age player exceptions, selections which will allow Porter to bolster any areas of need.
Of course, all that is assuming the United States qualifies for the Olympics, something the USA failed to do for the 2004 Games.
US Soccer turned some heads when it hired Porter, 36, a college coach who has yet to coach a professional team. Despite his lack of pro experience (Porter turned down the D.C. United head coaching job just a year ago to stay at Akron), Porter is considered one of the best young American coaches around, with his attacking soccer philosophy setting him apart from his contemporaries.
Porter knows there are questions being asked about his lack of high-level experience, but he is supremely confident that he can handle the responsibility of leading a team that heads toward Olympic qualifying with high expectations.
"If you're a coach, you're a coach, and you can switch gears," Porter said. "I'm certainly aware that this is a different animal than coaching the college guys, but in all honestly I've been coaching pros. I've been coaching future pros, I've had 16 in the last five years.
"These guys are professionals, and I'm going to treat them like professionals," Porter said. "I'm going to treat them like men and my job is to bring the best out of them."
Porter's main tasks, along with picking the right players to help the US reach the Olympics, is implementing the attacking style he has enjoyed success with at Akron. His use of a high-pressure, possession-oriented 4-3-3 formation should maximize the skills of the current U-23 pool, a group filled with quality midfield and forward options.
The system has been a hit among the players.
"He's going to do a great job," said Montreal defender Zarek Valentin, who played for Porter at Akron. "I know that he's been successful, and he's going to be successful wherever he goes. Hopefully we can put the team together in this short amount of time, and develop that cohesion that's important in these kind of teams."
The current 30-player group isn't the full Under-23 team by any means. Between injuries and key players in the middle of their club seasons, the current group is nothing like the team he will ultimately take to the qualifying tournament in Nashville. But this camp is one of a handful of opportunities players have to impress Porter and boost their chances of making the squad.
"Stocks are going to go up and down, and overall we have to start looking at the performance of players and figure out the best mix of players," Porter said. "In order to do that you have to see them in games.
"You can think a guy is what you need in a certain role in training, until you get to the games you really don't know."
The current group in Florida has its share of talent, including US Olympic veteran Freddy Adu, German-born Borussia Dortmund forward Terrance Boyd and speedy Hoffenheim winger Joseph Gyau. Most of the group is on the fringes of the selection process, including some players who may not get another chance to impress after this week.
"There's a lot of talent on this team," said Sporting Kansas City striker Teal Bunbury, who also played for Porter at Akron. "Everyone's looking sharp. You can tell a lot of these guys are very talented and it's going to be tough decisions for the coaches as to who's going to be in the final group."
Perhaps more than any previous US Olympic qualifying squad, the competition for roster spots and playing time is going to be brutal. At the forefront of that selection process will be Porter, who has three months to install his attacking system and figure out which players are best suited to run it.
It's likely some very good players won't be selected, and there are sure to be some surprising omissions and inclusions, but Porter hardly sees that as a problem.
"What you want is a lot of options, versus no options, and I think we've got a lot of options," Porter said. "These guys are going to be making our job very difficult to pick who will actually be in there, but it's a good problem to have.