Regardless how well a Mexican National Team is playing, expectations are always ridiculously high.
Given El Tri's amazing success last summer in which it captured the CONCACAF Gold Cup, the FIFA Under-17 World Cup and finished third in the U-20 World Cup, expectations are sky high for the team in Olympic qualifying.
Of course, realizing that the Mexican Under-23 team has failed to reach the Olympic soccer tournament in two of their last three tries and three times in eight attempts since 1980, the pressure will be on the Mexicans again.
The final round of CONCACAF men's Olympic qualifying tournament begins on Thursday with eight teams trying to win a brass ring for a chance at a gold, silver or bronze medal in London this summer. Group A kicks off on Thursday in Nashville, Tenn., where the heavily favored United States will tussle with Canada, El Salvador and Cuba. Group B begins on Friday in Carson, Calif. as El Tri will meet upstart Panama, Honduras and Trinidad & Tobago.
The top two teams in each group will qualify for the semifinals in Kansas City, Kansas, on March 31. Unlike the Olympics, which awards the top three finishes with medals, only two teams from the confederation will book tickets to London -- both semifinal winners.
A quick look at the teams:
No question the pressure is on El Tri, who failed to reach the semifinals in 2008 by one goal after thrashing Haiti in their final group-stage encounter, 5-1.
The players certainly know it.
"It is a responsibility," Nestor Araujo, a defender for both Cruz Azul and the Mexico national side, told CONCACAF.com. "That's our objective. We're not thinking about anything else but to win the qualifying and earn that ticket. It will be very important."
How important is it to Mexico to make the Olympics? It used its Under-23 team at Copa America last summer. Coach Luis Fernando Tena has assembled a team that includes strikers Nestor Calderón (Toluca) Alan Pulido (Tigres) and midfielders Javier Aquino (Cruz Azul) and Miguel Ponce (Chivas).
The Mexicans certainly have the respect of their opponents.
"They play really fast. They have good players," said Panama defender Carlos Rodríguez. "We have good players who can play right with them, play fast like they do. I like their team a lot. They're a great team."
Added Honduran midfielder, Andy Najar: "Mexico is going to be one of the toughest matches. They always have the same goal of qualifying, no matter what competition they're in. So, we're going to have to be very focused playing against them."
Great words and praise. But anything less than a berth in London will be considered a failure in light of what other Mexican teams have accomplished in the past year.
The Panamanians have never played in the World Cup and the Olympics. But they are confident they not only can reach London, but win the CONCACAF competition.
"You play every tournament to win. We feel like we have a very good chance to win this tournament and to play really, really well," said Rodríguez, the Panama defender. "Regardless of what happens, we're going to play well and show the world that we're growing as a country in soccer."
Rodríguez, who joined FC Dallas in Major League Soccer in January, likes the Central Americans' chances.
"We feel a lot better than we have before," he said. "We are getting better and better. We feel like we have made a lot of progress as a country and as a team. I feel like we're going to play better. In this upcoming tournament, we're going to show that we got better."
Rodríguez, 21, is one of eight foreign-based players who was brought in by coach Julio Cesar Dely Valdes, a former Panama national team star.
The others were goalkeeper Luis Mejía (Fenix, Uruguay), defender Harold Cummings (River Plate, Uruguay), midfielders Erick Davis (Erick Davis (Fenix), Anibal Godoy (Godoy Cruz, Argentina) and Manuel Asprilla (Tigres, Mexico) and strikers Ceciclo Waterman (Fenix) and Victor Barrera (Titan de Texistepeque, El Salvador).
Mejía, Cummings, Davis and Godoy also were on the Panama CONCACAF Gold Cup team that reached the semifinals of last year's CONCACAF Gold Cup. The team also boasts six players from Panama's side that took fourth at the CONCACAF U-20 Championship in Guatemala in 2010.
The Central Americans aim to reach the Olympics for the third time in four attempts and they're not taking any chances.
"It's a very difficult group," Najar said. "We need to focus because every team comes in with the same goal that we have, which is qualifying for the Olympic games. We just have to stay focused, work hard and take advantage of any chance we get."
Los Catrachos don't have any stars, Najar said. The team should be the star.
"I would say the biggest strength that Honduras has for the tournament is not any individual player, but the sum of all the players, pushing together for the same goal, which is to qualify," he said. "Every player has the same mentality right now and everybody works toward the same goal."
Trinidad & Tobago
Who knows how T&T will fare in the post-Jack Warner era? It seems that since Warner has pulled back and pulled out of soccer after resigning as FIFA vice president and CONCACAF president due to his alleged involvement in the FIFA presidential vote-rigging scandal, Trinidad has fallen short of its goals and potential.
Tena, the Mexico coach, warned about any team taking it easy against T&T.
“They’re a very organized team, they (T&T) have a lot of speed,” he was quoted by SocaWarriors.net.
Team captain Sheldon Bateau said Trinidad was ready.
“We are focused on the task at hand. I think we’ve been together long enough and we've played some matches that required a level of concentration such as in the Pan American Games so we know what need to do,” Bateau told SocaWarriors.net. “We're down to the final squad and every player knows his role and responsibility.”
As good as Mexico is supposed to be, just remember this: the Americans not only defeated El Tri on Feb. 29, 2-0, they also dominated them in Frisco, Texas.
Believe it or not, New York Red Bulls striker Juan Agudelo, who scored against Mexico, did not think the Americans played all that well.
"That was actually one of our weaker games," he said. "I don't know if it was because it was a better opponent but the two games before that, when we played FC Dallas and I scored for the team, we really dominated. And it was so fun to play."
But another Olympic berth could be within the U.S.'s grasp. Coach Caleb Porter has assembled a team that does not include its best U-23 players. For example, striker Jozy Altidore is with his Dutch club AZ Alkmaar. Philadelphia Union midfielder Freddy Adu -- yes, the same Freddy Adu who signed to turn pro at the tender age of 14 in 2003 -- is still young enough to play in the Olympics (he turns 23 on June 2). In fact, he is the team captain.
Asked how confident he was on the U.S. chances of qualifying for yet another Olympics, FC Dallas midfielder Brek Shea replied: "I don't want to say too confident, but we definitely believe in ourselves and in each other. We have good chemistry and we have a good team of players. We'll do really well."
Yet, the U.S. has respect for its opposition.
"With the way CONCACAF is right now, every single team is good and every game is going to be tough," Agudelo said. "I've never been so excited about a team like this. We're really going to show some pretty football. Our possession is pretty incredible from what I've experienced with them this last camp."
Playing in the shadow of their immediate neighbors to the south, the Canadians find themselves with an excellent opportunity to show what they've got. Coach Tony Fonseca will deploy a team with players competing in seven countries -- Canada, United States, Uruguay, France, Germany, Scotland and Singapore.
Canada has considerable experience. Nana Attakora and Marcus Haber have benefited from more than 200 days in national youth camps over the years (both were 15 years old when they joined the program in 2004). Seven of the 20 players named to the squad have more than 100 days in national youth team experience, including youngest members Bryce Alderson and Samuel Piette.
Four of the 20 players also have experience with Canada’s full National Team. Those four players are Attakora, Haber, Samuel Piette and Randy Edwini-Bonsu.
Lester Blanco, the Metapan scoring leader, will lead Los Cuscatlecos, who will try to reach the CONCACAF Olympic finals for the first time since 1996.
Blanco has scored four goals in the Apertura and added three in helping league-leaders to the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals. He is one of four forwards on the team, helped by Jonathan Aguila and José Gutiérrez of Aguila and Dustin Corea of Danish team Blokhus FC, one of three foreign-based players on the team.
Corea is a former U.S. U-17 international who played for El Salvador during Central American qualifying for the 2010 CONCACAF U-20 Championship.
Like it or not, Cuba is better known for baseball than soccer. Yet, the Caribbean side keeps going deep in many CONCACAF qualifying competitions.
If the Cubans have an Achilles Heel, it's playing in North America. When their women's national team participated at the CONCACAF women's Olympic qualifying tournament in Vancouver in January, the Cubans lost two players to defections.
At the men's Olympic qualifying tourney in Tampa four years ago, Cuba had seven players defect. The Caribbean side barely had enough players to field a team.
Whether the Caribbean side will lose more players in Nashville is anyone’s guess.
Still, Cuba has the respect of Porter, the U.S. coach.
"We’ve seen them live. They’re a very organized team," he said. "They have some attacking guys that are dangerous. We expect it to be a tight game. They’re going to be organized and disciplined and I don’t think they’re going to open up and run with us. I think they’re a team that’s probably going to sit and counter and in soccer, that makes things difficult but we’re prepared for that.
"We’ve been in games through our preparation where we’ve had teams that have done that so we’re looking forward to the game."
Michael Lewis, who has written about soccer for four decades, is the only journalist who has covered every MLS Cup. He is in Columbus to cover Sunday’s game, and can be reached at SoccerWriter516@aol.com or via Twitter at @soccerwriter.
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