THE NEXT 2 weeks will be big for the present and future of United States soccer.
After failing to qualify for the 2004 Olympics in Athens and an underwhelming performance at the 2006 World Cup, the United States Under-23 National Team starts qualifying competition for this summer's Beijing Olympics tonight against Cuba.
Along with Mexico, the United States is the top power in CONCACAF, and since it is the host nation for the eight-team tournament, a failure to earn one of the two Olympic berths would be a huge disappointment.
The USA doesn't have to win to qualify, but it does have to reach the championship game to earn a trip to China in August.
"I'm not a guy who looks over my shoulder at what happened in the past," USA coach Peter Nowak said. "We are moving forward at what will happen next.
"From the beginning, the ultimate goal would be to qualify for the Olympics. We know from the beginning the pressure is going to be there, especially when we play in front of our home fans. Pressure is pressure, but we have to play soccer and accept pressure as part of the whole tournament."
Yes, the Olympics are qualified because they are restricted as an under-23 competition, but they also represent an opportunity for the United States to re-establish some credibility on the world stage.
At the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, the United States advanced to the semifinals before losing to Spain, and then lost the bronze-medal game to Chile.
Two years later, with several of those Olympians playing key roles, the United States advanced to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup before losing to Germany, 1-0.
Since that surprising run, however, the United States has failed to make a dent in major global competitions.
Questions are again being asked about Team USA's ability to match up in elite competition.
Missing the 2004 Olympics might have been more of a warning than what happened at the 2006 World Cup, when the United States finished last in its group with a 0-2-1 record.
A poor showing in the biggest tournament in the world was one thing, but having a group of its young players fail in a major CONCACAF tournament was something else entirely.
That's about the future, about whether the United States has the upcoming talent to sustain its position as the top power in its region.
Many of the players from the 2004 qualifying team have disappeared from the United States' radar in terms of the senior team.
If the United States truly sees itself as a rising soccer power, it can't afford to have its future players failing in important regional tournaments.
This qualifying tournament is a huge challenge for the next wave of potential U.S. stars.
It's an opportunity for such rising players as 22-year-old defender Jonathan Spector, who already has 11 caps with the Senior team, and plays in the English Premier League for West Ham United; 19-year-old Major League Soccer sensation Jozy Altidore, of New York Red Bulls; midfielder Eddie Gavin, of the Columbus Crew; midfielder Sacha Kljestan, of Chivas USA; midfielder Maurice Edu, of Toronto FC; and midfielder Sal Zizzo, of Hannover 96 (Germany) to make statements about their future place with the senior team.
But, frankly, no player will be watched more than 18-year-old striker Freddy Adu.
Adu was hailed as America's Pele when he signed with MLS as a 14-year-old and joined D.C. United.
The soccer prodigy seemed overwhelmed physically and mentally and struggled to live up to unrealistic expectations during his 3 1/2 seasons with D.C. United and Real Salt Lake.
Although at 16, Adu became the youngest player to earn a cap for the USA National Team when he appeared as a substitute against Canada in 2006, he has yet to earn a regular spot with the team.
Adu, however, appeared to arrive last summer at the 2007 Under-20 FIFA World Championships when he had four goals, including a hat trick against Poland, and two assists.
Later that summer, Adu left Real Salt Lake and transferred to S.L. Benfica, of the Portuguese League.
Adu has scored two goals for Benfica in league play and also became the youngest American to play in a UEFA Champions League when he entered in the 61st minute of a game against Celtic FC on Oct. 24, 2007.
A lot of American soccer fans will be looking at the Olympic qualifying tournament to find out how much Adu has matured and developed.
A lot of American soccer fans will be looking at the Olympic qualifying tournament to see whether the future is in good hands.
"We bring a different attitude," Altidore said of the Olympic opportunity, "and will show the world, once again, that soccer in this country is growing." *
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