It’s a little thing, but Caleb Porter’s confidence shows.
The coach of the U.S. U-23 soccer team — which begins its Olympic qualification campaign Thursday at LP Field — said all the right things about the Americans’ first opponent, lightly regarded Cuba.
“We’re not taking Cuba lightly.”
And . . .
“They’re an organized team.”
And . . .
“We know they’re going to give [us] a very tough game.”
But his eyes steeled just a little bit as he finished.
“We’re going to go into the game looking to do what we do.”
Every cycle the same thing is said: There is more talent on this team now than there was four years ago. And Porter knows it’s true again this time. A majority of his team has significant experience at the club level and competing for their country in youth championships.
While he respects his group opponents — first Cuba, followed by Canada and El Salvador — he knows that he is coaching a squad that is not only favored to make it to London this summer but also has a real chance at a medal.
With that in mind, here are five things to watch in tonight’s U.S. game against Cuba (LP Field, 8 p.m.; TV: Universal Sports network, Mun2):
1. Style of play
Close watchers of the U.S. senior men’s team have noted the defense-first style of Bob Bradley’s units in the last few years. And while they have attempted to become more possession-oriented under new coach Jurgen Klinsmann, they’re still very much a work in progress. At this level, though, the talent level relative to the rest of the region means that the U.S. U-23s will play a very open, attack-oriented game that will please a lot of fans. It pleases the players, too. To a person, they’ve all spoken about how they enjoy playing in this system. Much of coach Caleb Porter’s practices have been spent emphasizing a fluid, pressing style that he expects that to be on display.
2. Talent on top
In Juan Agudelo and Brek Shea, Porter has two regulars from the senior team. Both are players who are going to overpower others at this level. If he had arrived before Wednesday, Terrence Boyd, who is currently at Borussia Dortmund, would a possible starter. With 11 goals in 17 games with Dortmund’s reserves, the 21-year-old would be pushing for playing time with the big club if they weren’t leading the Bundesliga. Porter said Boyd would dress, but would not play until the weekend. Captain Freddy Adu, who has more than 30 goals at the youth level, will complement Shea as the other winger.
3. Solid in the back
After dealing with injuries for his first two seasons as a pro, central defender Ike Opara captained the U-23 squad in a 2-0 tune-up victory over Mexico last month. Powerful in the air and deceptively quick for a 6-foot-2 player, he’ll pair with Perry Kitchen, normally a defensive midfielder for D.C. United. Kitchen started 30 games in D.C.’s backline last season before moving back to the midfield. The pair’s mobility will allow Porter to push his midfield and attacking lines high on the pitch with little fear of being beaten.
4. Welcome to the spotlight, Joe Corona
Ask Porter who excites him, and Corona is at the top of the list. An attacking midfielder, he was called-up by both the U.S. and Mexican federations after starring in Club Tijuana’s promotion campaign to the Mexican Primera Division. He’s a “glue” player, someone who makes the players around him better. Success in the Olympics could put him in line to play in World Cup qualifiers, as he’s the kind of technical player Klinsmann likes. But for now, Porter will give him the keys to the midfield and let him drive.
5. 20 guys for 11 spots
Assuming the U.S. qualifies — and they have missed one Olympics in the last 30 years — there will be intense competition to make the roster. Not only is the actual squad smaller (18 players instead of 20), but FIFA regulations allow three over-age players to be called up for the Games. Toss in a few who aren’t here due to injury or weren’t released by their clubs (Jozy Altidore, Danny Williams, Tim Chandler, Alfredo Morales), and the pressure to shine will be high. Roughly half of this team won’t make it to London. And that level of talent shows why Porter is confident.
Possible starting lineup (4-3-3): Bill Hamid (GK); Kofi Sarkodie, Ike Opara, Perry Kitchen, Zarek Valentin; Amobi Okugu, Mix Diskerud, Joe Corona; Freddy Adu, Brek Shea, Juan Agudelo