Los Angeles Soccer: U.S. under-23 national team
The Catrachos claimed their berth in the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying semifinals with a 2-0 victory Tuesday night over Trinidad & Tobago at Home Depot Center, and head coach Luis Fernando Suarez said afterward he wasn't surprised his squad will match up with El Salvador, rather than the Americans -- and that he can't guarantee a victory.
What he does guarantee might be more important.
Saturday's winner-take-all showdown with the Salvadorans in Kansas City, Kan., “is the game that will qualify us for the Olympic Games, so in that sense it is the most important,” said Suarez, also Honduras' full national team coach. “But you have to value everything that the team has done before then. This is a great group with excellent players, they have good chemistry, and they have been qualifying for [youth] World Cups and other tournaments up to this point.
“For the short-term, it would be great to qualify for the Olympics. I'm not guaranteeing we will qualify, but I am guaranteeing that we are in good shape for the next two World Cup [cycles], for this one and for whoever is in charge [during qualifying for the 2018 tournament].”
Dramatic finishes first dangled and then jerked away from the U.S. a trip to the London Olympics on a devastating evening for American soccer.
The Americans' under-23 national team rallied from a second-half deficit against El Salvador in the Group A finale and stood just seconds from the victory required to advance to CONCACAF's Olympic qualifying semifinals when a long-range shot -- and another goalkeeping miscue -- forged a 3-3 draw that ended U.S. hopes.
Jaime Alas' 30-yard blast more than four minutes into stoppage bounced off prematurely diving Sean Johnson and into the net Monday night in Nashville, Tenn., giving El Salvador (1-0-2) the group title and a March 31 semifinal showdown with the No. 2 team from Group B -- Honduras is expected -- for one of the region's two berths at this summer's London Games.
Canada (1-0-2), which on Saturday beat the U.S., 2-0, claimed A's other final-four berth with a 1-1 draw against Cuba and likely will face Mexico for an Olympic berth.
Keeping tabs on the road to London:
- WHAT HAPPENED?
The U.S. (1-1-1), an overwhelming favorite to join Mexico in the 16-team London field, failed to qualify for the second time in three Olympics as a revived attack -- Philadelphia's Freddy Adu, FC Dallas' Brek Shea and German-born Terrence Boyd the instigators -- could not overcome subpar defending nor poor management by coach Caleb Porter.
The day had held so much promise. The Americans, expecting a winner-takes-all semifinal against Mexico should they win, were given a different path to London when Cuba's Maykel Reyes scored in the 91st minute to pull even with Canada. A victory would give the U.S. the top spot in Group A and prevent, almost certainly, the need to beat Mexico for an Olympic berth.
Then Boyd, a Borussia Dortmund forward, scored after 59 seconds. Things could be going no better.
CARSON -- Mexico's plan to qualify for the London Olympics is simple: beat everybody. That would certainly do it, and if El Tri's path grew more strenuous with Canada's upset of the U.S., well, no problem.
That was Luis Fernando Tena's take after Mexico overwhelmed Honduras, 3-0, Sunday afternoon at Home Depot Center, becoming the first of the region's under-23 national teams to clinch a final-four berth in CONCACAF's Olympic qualifying tournament.
“We're well aware this will mean nothing if we don't win [in the semifinals in Kansas City, Kan.] on Saturday the 31st,” said Tena, Mexico's head coach. “We haven't won anything. We have advanced, and whomever we play, we'll always try to win, of course.”
El Tri, which didn't get out of the group stage in a grand failure four years ago, can't claim Group B's top spot until Tuesday's first-stage finale against Panama, but even an unexpected tumble probably wouldn't knock them out of first place.
This is where Mexico was expected to be, but Canada's 2-0 victory Friday night in Nashville, Tenn., twisted everything: The U.S., with a win Monday over El Salvador, probably would finish second in Group A. The Americans and Mexicans were both expected to make it to London; now they'll probably face off for one of CONCACAF's two berths.
“Yeah, I know -- everybody is asking the same question,” said Guadalajara's Miguel Angel Ponce, who was born in Sacramento. “It really doesn't matter if it's USA or no. We have to keep showing what we've done, and we can beat them.”
The U.S. impressively won a Feb. 29 friendly against the Mexicans in Frisco, Texas, but they followed Thursday's 6-0 rout of Cuba with a poor performance at both ends against the Canadians and have not looked nearly as sharp nor as dangerous as has Mexico. El Tri has more top-flight experience and, with New York Red Bulls star Juan Agudelo out -- he'll undergo surgery Monday to repair a torn meniscus -- a more dynamic attack.
Beating Canada, which will win Group A with a victory Monday over the winless, goalless, hapless Cubans, is a far simpler task, but Mexico wasn't about to maneuver for the better matchup.
CARSON -- Alan Pulido picked up where Marco Fabian de la Mora left off, scoring a hat trick to lead Mexico's under-23 national team into the semifinals of CONCACAF's Olympic qualifying tournament.
A victory March 31 in Kansas City, Kan. -- likely against the United States -- sends El Tri to London.
Pulido tallied in the 13th and 40th minutes, then netted a third just 41 seconds into the second half as Mexico (2-0-0) routed Honduras, 3-0, Sunday in front of 16,184 cold, wet fans at Home Depot Center to assume command of the Group B race with one last set of doubleheaders remaining.
Panama and Trinidad & Tobago drew, 1-1, in the opener, keeping alive their diminishing hopes to advance.
Keeping tabs on the road to London:
- WHAT HAPPENED?
Pulido, from UANL Tigres, scored two superb individual goals in the first half, then first-timed a cross from Cruz Azul's Javier Aquino following Monterrey defender Hiram Mier's long ball up the right flank as Mexico, sharp and explosive, dominated its stiffest group rival.
The victory should be enough to give El Tri the B title -- their goal difference, at plus-9, is too much for Hondurans (1-1-0, with a minus-1 difference) to overcome, even with a lopsided win over Trinidad & Tobago in Tuesday's opener -- and that likely means a showdown with the U.S. (1-1-0), which after Saturday's shocking loss to Canada needs to beat El Salvador (1-0-1) in the Group A finale to ensure a final four berth.
Neither Mexico nor Honduras would relish a winner-takes-all clash with the Americans, but El Tri's form -- and the U.S.'s loss of star striker Juan Agudelo -- makes them a substantial favorite if that's the way things play out.
The bad news arrived for the U.S. under-23 national team before kickoff, and it just got worse. And now the Americans' qualification for this summer's London Olympics is in doubt.
U.S. Soccer announced before the game that star forward Juan Agudelo had suffered a torn meniscus and was returning to the New York Red Bulls for rehab. The team responded with a listless performance against Canada, marked by criminal defensive work on two set pieces that irretrievably altered CONCACAF's Olympic qualifying tournament.
The expected outcome -- that the Americans and Mexico would be the region's representatives in London -- appears almost certainly dead.
Canada tallied twice off corner kicks for a stunning 2-0 victory Saturday in Nashville, and it can win the Group A title with an expected victory Monday over last-place Cuba, a 4-0 loser to El Salvador.
The U.S. needs a victory over the Salvadorans to finish second, which likely would set up a clash with Mexico with an Olympic berth on the line. Form (and Agudelo's absence) suggests the Americans would struggle in such a matchup; one of two upsets -- Cuba over Canada or, Sunday at Home Depot Center, Honduras over Mexico -- would be necessary to avoid the showdown.
Only the semifinal winners March 31 in Kansas City, Kan., qualify for the Olympics.
Keeping tabs on the road to London:
- WHAT HAPPENED?
The Americans lacked spark, were outbattled and fell apart defensively, and that was enough for Canada to claim a deserved triumph.
Both goals came from corner kicks on which D.C. United goalkeeper Bill Hamid's shortcomings were key.
Keeping tabs on the road to London:
- WHAT HAPPENED?
Corona, who chose to play for the U.S. after attending a camp with Mexico's pre-Olympic team, scored three goals as the Americans grabbed a four-goal lead by halftime en route to a 6-0 rout of Cuba in Nashville.
Corona, who was born in Los Angeles, raised in San Diego and plays for Club Tijuana in Mexico's Primera Division, tallied in the 11th (volley after a chest trap), 40th (one-time finish inside the right post) and 88th (inside the left post after two 1-2s with Mix Diskerud) to send the U.S. atop Group A.
New York Red Bulls forward Juan Agudelo, with a can't-miss header, and Philadelphia Union midfielder Freddy Adu, with a forceful blast, also scored goals, and FC Dallas winger Brek Shea was a force on the left flank, setting up the second and third strikes for the U.S.
CARSON -- The rosters for CONCACAF's Olympic qualifying tournament are finally out, and just in time: Group A, which includes the United States, kicks off this afternoon in Nashville, Tenn.
We're concerned more with Group B in these parts. Mexico, with a dynamic side starring rising Guadalajara stars Erick Torres and Marco Fabian de la Mora, is the marquee team at Home Depot Center, where the first of three under-23 doubleheaders is slated for Friday night.
Mexico's roster is filled with Primera Division talent: 14 of the 22 players on El Tri's roster are regular starters in the country's top league, and several -- Marco Fabian, Toluca midfielder Nestor Calderon, Pumas UNAM midfielder Javier Cortes, Monterrey defender Darvin Chavez and UANL Tigres defender Israel Jimenez -- are downright veterans. A dozen have seen time with Mexico's full national team, and a half-dozen played for Mexico's U-20 team at last year's World Cup.
Calderon, who turned 23 last month, has been a first-choice player for Toluca since 2008 and has scored 22 goals in 133 Primera Division games. Marco Fabian netted 17 goals in last two tournaments and has 27 in 123 games for Guadalajara.
One Amercan-born player on the roster, too: Guadalajara's Miguel Angel Ponce, a Sacramento-born, Tijuana-raised left back who played in San Ysidro during his development.
Mexico is looking to qualify as simply as possible after its stunning failure to advance from group play in the Beijing qualifiers four years ago.
The top two teams advance to this summer's London Games, and the U.S. -- which has 14 MLS players, five from Europe and Club Tijuana's Joe Corona -- and Mexico are expected to fill the slots.
Honduras, which includes D.C. United's Andy Najar, the 2010 MLS Rookie of the Year, figures to test Mexico in Group B. The teams meet in the second game of Sunday's doubleheader. Panama, also in Group B, features four players from the Gold Cup semifinalists last summer.
El Salvador, in Group A, includes Panorama City's Richard Menjivar (Monroe HS), a senior last fall at Cal State Bakersfield. He played for the U.S. under-18 national team in 2008.
Here are the rosters for the Group B teams:
CARSON -- Michael Stephens has been around the U.S. national teams programs long enough to know he can't be thinking about London just yet. The U.S. under-23 team must qualify for the men's soccer tournament at the London Olympics, and the fight for roster spots will be stiff.
The Galaxy's third-year midfielder says it's “a big honor” just to be part of Caleb Porter's roster for the March 22-April 2 CONCACAF qualifying tournament. Anything more, of course, would be terrific.
“[London] is too far,” the former UCLA star said following the Galaxy's training session Tuesday morning at Home Depot Center. “Obviously, we first have to qualify, then, obviously, a lot will go into picking those [roster] selections after that, so just take it one step at a time.”
Stephens is a versatile midfielder with good touch and ideas, capable of playing on either flank or in the middle, qualities that have made him a valuable asset off the bench as Porter, coach of NCAA powerhouse Akron, has built toward the qualifiers with camps last year in Germany, at HDC in January and last month in Texas.
“I think that's great that [Stephens] is in the pool of players ...,” Galaxy coach Bruce Arena said. “He's a good player, brings a lot of energy to the team.”
The team began gathering Tuesday in Nashville, but Stephens won't travel until after the Galaxy's CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal second leg Wednesday night against Toronto FC at HDC. His time with the U-23s hasn't helped him with L.A.
“We missed him for a couple weeks in preseason, an important part of preseason, for these practice games that [the U-23s] played,” Arena noted. “We've missed him a little bit in preseason, and that's hurt his ability to get on the field with us.”
CARSON -- Jorge Villafaņa celebrated his call-up to the U.S. Olympic qualifying roster Monday with 90 solid minutes in a friendly against the L.A. Blues. The Goats' 1-0 defeat at Home Depot Center's Track and Field Stadium couldn't knock the smile from his face.
“I'm happy to be called up for the qualifiers,” said Villafaņa, who as Jorge Flores (he legally adopted his mother's name last fall) made Chivas' roster five years ago after winning a television competition for the chance. “Can't wait to be there with my teammates and the national team. It's going to be a great experience and a good opportunity for all the players who will be there.”
Villafaņa was among 19 players on University of Akron coach Caleb Porter's U.S. under-23 national team roster for the March 22-April 2 qualifying tournament, which will determine CONCACAF's two entrants for the men's soccer tournament at this summer's London Games. Home Depot Center will stage one of the first-round groups, but the U.S. will play in Nashville, Tenn., with the all-important semifinals and the title game in Kansas City, Kan.
Galaxy midfielder Michael Stephens, former UCLA midfielder Amoki Okugo (with Philadelphia), former Chivas defender Zarek Valentin (with Montreal) and San Diego's Joe Corona (with Club Tijuana) are part of the group set to convene Tuesday in Nashville. Porter has one player to add before the 20-man tournament roster must be finalized March 20.
Villafaņa, who in the last year has been converted from left-sided midfielder to left back, grew immensely the past two seasons and impressed the U.S. staff during a January camp with the U.S. U-23s and last month's stint in Frisco, Texas, before a Feb. 29 victory over Mexico's U-23s. He's the first-choice backup for Ante Jazic with Chivas, and Goats coach Robin Fraser likes how he's developing.
“You get picked for a national team, you're obviously doing something right,” said Fraser, who made 26 international appearances for the full U.S. national team from 1988 to 2001. “I think he's a determined player who wants to play well wherever he's put on the field. An opportunity arose for him [at left back], and he's taken in and run with it. … I just think his confidence and understanding has grown greatly.”
Rarely, if ever, has there been a day quite so golden for U.S. Soccer -- involving multiple teams -- as was Wednesday.
- The full men's national team beat Italy for the first time -- and in Italy, in Genoa -- as Clint Dempsey finished from Jozy Altidore's finish up top. Also splendid: midfielder Michael Bradley and German-born left back Fabian Johnson.
- The U.S. women's national team won its Algarve Cup opener in Portugal, dominating Denmark, 5-0, as Diamond Bar's Alex Morgan scored two more goals -- her 17th and 18th in 34 international games -- and assisted another by Hermosa Beach's Abby Wambach. UCLA products Sydney Leroux (goal) and Lauren Cheney (assist) also contributed in the scoring.
- The U.S. under-23 national team, preparing for the Olympic qualifiers in March, outclassed Mexico's U-23s, 2-0, in Frisco, Texas, on goals two minutes apart by Juan Agudelo and Freddy Adu.
One more international event to report, from Tuesday night. UCLA looked good in holding Mexico's under-20 national team to a scoreless draw at Birmingham High School in Van Nuys.
CARSON -- Things sure will be different this season for A.J. DeLaGarza, whose fortunes have been welded to those of Omar Gonzalez, his former teammate -- and roommate -- at the University of Maryland.
Now Gonzalez, the best defender in Major League Soccer last season, is out for most if not all of the upcoming campaign after shredding the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee Jan. 5 in his first training session of a loan deal to Germany's FC Nuremberg.
DeLaGarza, Gonzalez's primary partner in the middle as the Galaxy rode its defense to MLS Cup and Supporters' Shield triumphs, will need to contribute more this year than he has in his first three professional seasons.
“I've played with Omar the last six years,” said DeLaGarza, who is in camp with the U.S. national team for the second straight January, reward for an outstanding 2011 performance on L.A.'s backline. “Not to have him there is kind of ... you know ... not that depressing, but you want him out there. He's a guy who's really in his prime right now, and for him to go through the injury he's going through, I just feel bad for him.
“Not for the club, because we have guys who can step in, but just for him, who is really starting to peak in his career. It's sad for him.”
Gonzalez and DeLaGarza have been a most complementary tandem since coming to L.A. in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft. Gonzalez, a 6-foot-5 Texan, was MLS Rookie of the Year that first season, an MLS Best XI pick as a sophomore and the league's Defender of the Year last year. Marylander DeLaGarza, eight inches shorter but with good speed and technical skill, is L.A.'s most versatile defender, capable of playing well in all four slots.
Injuries have forced him into the middle, but it appeared he might get to take charge at right back, his natural position, until Gonzalez went down.
“I'm not sure about that now,” DeLaGarza said. “With Omar out, we'll see what happens. We'll see if we have anyone who can step in here, and hopefully I can play wider and help out wherever I can. ... I can play anywhere, so wherever the team needs me, I'll be there.”
He's preparing for the season with three-a-days under U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who has used him in the middle and, on Tuesday, at right back in scrimmages against the U.S. under-23 team at Home Depot Center.
The start of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup and the London Olympics dominate the calendar, but as important as results might be, more crucial is the steps forward the national team looks to take in Klinsmann's first full year in charge and the role the under-23 national team will play in developing talent for the top side.
The teams tangoed late Friday afternoon on Glenn “Mooch” Myernick Field, right outside HDC's main stadium, with the full nats -- starting the So Cal portion of their annual January camp -- scoring four times in 15 minutes late in the first half for a 4-0 victory over the U-23s.
They'll scrimmage one more time at HDC before Klinsmann's group returns to Phoenix for next weekend's friendly against Venezuela, with University of Akron coach Porter's younger group, which is preparing for the Olympic qualifiers in March, sticking around through Jan. 25.
The national team has the usual January collection of top MLS talent and secondary players from European leagues with winter breaks, with two midfielders from the 2010 World Cup side (New England's Benny Feilhaber and Eintracht Frankfurt's nearly forgotten Ricardo Clark) and two players from the preliminary World Cup squad (Chivas USA defender Heath Pearce and Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando).
They've been working the past 10 days in Phoenix, with a lot of fitness work, and will focus on technical and tactical work before the games Jan. 21 against Venezuela and Jan. 25 at Panama.
“This scrimmage gives us an idea of how they are comfortable on the field,” Klinsmann said afterward. “How they shift. How they take a couple of guidelines that we gave them and implement them. And now we can real the players a bit better. Because you never know when you get a fresh group coming in how their understand is of each other, how they read reach other. We know about their personal capabilities, but not in the context of a team, so that's why we need those games to see that.
“And then we can go ahead and modify training sessions and talks where we kind of want to guide them towards on the tactical side as an entire team together.”
There is some crossover between the national team and the U-23s. Freddy Adu, who has been called into only one full camp under Klinsmann after a stirring performance in the CONCACAF Gold Cup title-game loss last summer, is the most prominent name on the roster, but the most important players are with Klinsmann's bunch.
Juan Agudelo, the 19-year-old New York Red Bulls forward, is the most significant -- Klinsmann calls his abilities “special” -- and Sporting Kansas City forward Teal Bunbury are age-eligible for the Olympic team, and so is FC Dallas winger Brek Shea, who is drawing considerable interest from Europe. D.C. United's Bill Hamid and Chicago's Sean Johnson, both goalkeepers, also can make the U-23 roster.
He's almost universally pegged as the No. 2 selection, by the Vancouver Whitecaps, following speedy Jamaican forward Darren Mattocks of Akron, and at least one critic has proclaimed him the best candidate on the board in central defense, as a defensive midfielder -- maybe even as a winger and a forward.
“Everyone has their opinions,” said Wenger, a two-time NSCAA first-team All-American who signed a Generation adidas contract with Major League Soccer following his junior season.
The buzz is deafening for the Lilitz, Pa., product, and he admits he has heard a lot of it.
“I think it's pretty hard not to,” said Wenger, who is training until Jan. 25 at Home Depot Center with the U.S. under-23 national team -- although he jetted to Kansas City on Wednesday for the festivities. “I mean, I'll listen to it a little bit, and it's kind of interesting and funny from time to time, but at the end of the day, it's just what you can do on the field.”
Wenger, 21, can do plenty. He anchored Duke's backline as a freshman and sophomore and was pushed up front last fall, scoring 17 goals with eight assists to lead the Blue Devils to an 11-8-3 record and into the second round of the NCAA tournament. But his best position, he says, might be in midfield.
Galaxy midfielder Michael Stephens, Chivas USA defender Jorge Villafaņa and departing UCLA star Kelyn Rowe are headed to Home Depot Center for a U.S. under-23 national team camp that begins Sunday.
The U-23s, preparing for Olympic qualifying in March, will train at HDC until Jan. 25, then head to Costa Rica for two matches against club teams. While in Carson, they will scrimmage twice against the full national team, which will be training Jan. 13-20 at HDC.
Stephens, an attacking midfielder who has played primarily on the flank for the Galaxy, is one of three UCLA products on U.S. coach Caleb Porter's 22-man roster, joining Rowe and Philadelphia Union midfielder Amobi Okugo.
Villafaņa (Anaheim/Anaheim HS), formerly Jorge Flores, is a fifth-year midfielder/defender, primarily on the left wing, for Chivas.
Rowe, the Pacific 12 Conference Player of the Year in 2011, is readying for Thursday's Major League Soccer draft. He signed a Generation adidas contract following his sophomore season with the Bruins and is expected to go early in the first round. He is at the MLS Player Combine in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., but is scheduled to fly to California on Monday.
Others with local ties in camp are defender Zarek Valentin, who went from Chivas to Montreal in November's MLS expansion draft, Los Angeles-born midfielder Joe Corona from Club Tijuana and Calexico's Isaac Acuņa, a Club America midfielder on loan to second-tier Merida.
OXNARD -- Joe Corona celebrated the end of his participation in Club Tijuana's Ventura County training camp with a goal. Edgar Castillo gave his new team a solid 90 minutes.
And a nearly full stadium at Channel Islands High School got a nice glimpse of the Xolos, who have one major assignment -- stay in the top division -- when the Mexican Primera Division's Clausura campaign begins next month.
Tijuana routed a select side from the Ventura County United Soccer Leagues, 5-0, in a friendly Wednesday night, the Xolos' second game of the day as their weeklong camp in Oxnard neared its finish. That's it for Corona, who was set to fly early Thursday morning to Florida for the U.S. under-23 national team's camp.
“It's a good opportunity. It's something I'm really looking forward to,” said Corona, 21, who was born in Los Angeles, grew up in San Diego and left San Diego State following his freshman year to sign with Tijuana. “The Olympics, not a lot of people are fortunate to go. Hopefully, I can be part of that.”
This is the second camp for Corona with the U23s, who are preparing for CONCACAF's qualifiers, in March, for next year's London Olympics, and it follows a camp with Mexico's U22s, the foundation of El Tri's Olympic side. He's eligible for both countries -- and El Salvador -- and it looked like he would be playing for Mexico after U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann, right after his hiring at the end of July, rescinded an invitation from former coach Bob Bradley.
Klinsmann prefers to bring young talent along through the youth national teams, such as the U23s, and Corona's experience with the Mexican squad boosted his U.S. desires. He was part of the first U23 camp during Klinsmann's regime, last month in Germany, and is among 30 players U.S. U23 coach Caleb Porter has summoned to Lakewood Ranch, Fla.
“I first had a call-up for Mexico. Unfortunately, I didn't have as much playing time,” Corona said. “I didn't feel that they took me seriously. That's why I chose to take a shot at the U.S. national team, see how it goes.
“My last call-up, in Germany, went well, and I played in both games. I thought it was a great experience. Hopefully, it keeps going.”
Corona has great promise. He's played up front and on the flanks for Tijuana, but Antonio Mohamed, who took charge in September, midway through the fall Apertura championship, has used him as an attacking midfielder, his natural post.