2015 has been a year with a single focus for the U-23 Men’s National Team: qualify for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. It’s a feat that could not be achieved without a great deal of preparation; and accordingly, the team has played a rising number of preparatory training camps and friendlies.
Now the team has reached year’s climax, which comes in the form of the 2015 CONCACAF Men’s Olympic Qualifying Championship that begins Oct. 1 in Kansas City and Los Angeles. A trip to the tournament final would earn the U.S. an automatic trip to the 2016 Olympic Games. A finish outside the top three and the road to Rio comes to an abrupt end.
The current U.S. team is made up of young talent, but possess an experienced core of 20 players who have grown up playing in U.S. Soccer’s Youth National Team program. They now find themselves on the verge of the biggest tournament of their budding careers.
“Playing at the Olympics would be unbelievable,” said midfielder Emerson Hyndman. “A similar feeling to the World Cup. This summer was my first time playing in the U-20 World Cup and, if I get the opportunity, next summer would be my first time playing in the Olympics. The Olympics has so much history. I’ve watched it on TV all the time. To think about myself playing in it and representing my country is a just a special opportunity.”
U.S. midfielder Emerson Hyndman made his first appearance of 2015 with the U-23 MNT when the team took on England in early September.
The stage is set for the U-23’s. Placed in Group A, the team will need to get through Canada, Panama and Cuba. Topping their group would hand them a semifinal matchup with the second place team from Group B, which includes Mexico, Costa Rica, Haiti and Honduras.
Should the U.S. advance to the tournament final, it would punch an automatic ticket to the Olympics. A second road also leads to Rio. That would require winning the tournament’s third place game and then a one-game playoff against Colombia.
“Obviously it’s a great honor for me to play for the U.S. and the goal is to do so in the Olympics,” said U-23 MNT forward Jerome Kiesewetter. “We want to achieve this really bad. All of our focus is on the qualifiers. It’s all we want to do. It’s all we play for.”
Jerome Kiesewetter (center) jumps through training drills during the U-23 MNT's September training camp in England.
The team comes in having defeated Qatar in its last game 2-0, and prior to that finished third at the renowned Toulon Tournament in France, where it defeated the Netherlands and England. Despite their accomplishments earlier in the year – that includes a 3-0 win against Mexico in April – the players only see success as qualifying for the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
“There’s a lot to accomplish still. We’ve been giving it our all in every session and putting our best foot forward to making sure we’re ready when we get to qualifying,” said Kiesewetter. “Last Olympics we didn’t make it, but that just motivates us. We have a job to do, to get our country to Rio next summer.”
While the U.S. failed to qualify for the Olympics the last time around, this time it boasts a completely new group and a new opportunity for 20 players who have been playing together for a little over a year.
“It’s awesome having been able to come through the ranks,” said midfielder Luis Gil. “This is kind of like the last group before making it with the men’s team and usually you do have four or five core guys that make it to the men’s team. You come up together and you play together and it always helps.
Luis Gil challenges teammate Emerson Hyndman during U-23 MNT training in the team's final camp before Olympic Qualifying begins Oct. 1
“This means everything. Your country, yourself, your clubs, your family, everything. This is a part of you and it’s a huge opportunity and something to be grateful for and it’s going to be fun. Qualifying for the Olympics is a big opportunity for all of us.”