SANTA CLARA, CA - JULY 03: Ike Opara  of the San Jose Earthquakes jumps into the air near the corner flag after scoring against the D.C. United in the first half on July 3, 2010 at Buck Shaw Stadium in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)
Ika Opara

by Brian Mechanick

The 2010 World Cup is history, and regardless your opinion on its legacy, soccer fans have reached the sad realization that it is four years before the world’s greatest tournament returns. For USMNT fans there is some solace; the 2011 Gold Cup and its right for the winner to compete in the 2013 Confederations Cup. But in two years one of my favorite football tournaments returns: the Olympic Men’s Football Tournament.

Sixteen teams from around the world will compete for Olympic gold, and the rules are unique for the tournament. With squads of 18 members, the team’s roster must be aged 23 or younger (born 1989 or later for the 2012 tournament), with three overage exemptions. With teams made up mostly of 22 and 23 year olds, the atmosphere is fantastic. Many players are on the verge of stardom, knowing that a strong performance could launch them into their nation’s first team and onto a bigger club’s radar. Take a look at some of the under 23 stars who competed in 2008’s edition: Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Keisuke Honda, Marouane Fellaini, Alexandre Pato, Thiago Silva, Alexandre Song, and Riccardo Montolivo.

The US side in the 2008 tournament provided a preview of much of the future of the national team. Michael Bradley, Maurice Edu, Stuart Holden, Charlie Davies, Benny Feilhaber, Jozy Altidore, and Sacha Kljestan were all in the Beijing squad. The tournament was disappointing for the USA, as a victory over Japan and draw with Holland were wasted after losing to Nigeria 2-1, knocking the USA out of the tournament. In 2012 the USA will look to avenge this letdown by winning their first Olympic medal since taking silver at the 1904 St. Louis Olympics.

In this series we’ll take a shot at predicting an 18-man U-23 Olympic roster, as well as previewing some potential overage members of the team. Today we have the goalkeepers and defenders for London.

Goalkeepers: (2012 age in parentheses)

On the Roster: Sean Johnson (23) Chicago Fire, Bill Hamid (21) DC United

In the Picture: Brian Perk (22) Los Angles Galaxy, Samir Badr (20) FC Porto

Leading the pack for the 2012 goalkeepers is Sean Johnson, the Chicago Fire’s rookie sensation. A couple of fantastic performances has launched Johnson into the awareness of MLS fans, and with the starting job seemingly his going forward, Johnson has to be the favorite to lead this team. Going with him to London is Bill Hamid, the teenage DC academy product. Hamid is big and agile, and has been called the best American goalkeeping prospect since Tim Howard came up with the Metrostars twelve years ago. He’s shown well in a couple of appearances with DC so far, and with the team virtually eliminated from playoff contention, we can expect Hamid to get more playing time as the rebuilding project continues.

In contention is Brian Perk, who started games in both the 2007 and 2009 U-20 World Cups. While Perk is a bit on the smaller side at 5’11”, he has impressed in his appearances with the Union. His recent move to Los Angeles should help him get better as he is groomed to replace Donovan Ricketts. Samir Badr is a name to watch, as word is he’s starting to turn some heads at Porto. If he can earn first team experience in the next year and a half, expect his name to start getting a lot of support to be on this roster.

Goalkeeping is a position of depth going into these next two years, and expect the keeper out of this quartet that earns the most consistent playing time to win a spot on the Olympic team.


On the Roster: Ike Opara (23) San Jose Earthquakes, Gale Agbossoumonde (20) SC Braga, Kyle Davies (23) FC Dallas, Anthony Wallace (23) Colorado Rapids, Kofi Sarkodie (21) U. of Akron, Greg Garza (20) GD Estoril Praia

In the Picture: Zarek Valentin (20) U. of Akron, Perry Kitchen (20) U. of Akron, Parker Walsh (20) Karlsruher

By far the thinnest position in the U.S. youth system, the defense has some talents but then falls off a cliff in terms of depth. Leading the pack is San Jose starlet Ike Opara, whose play at Wake Forest made him a two-time ACC Defender of the Year and 3rd overall pick in the 2010 MLS SuperDraft. Opara is big and athletic, and his prowess on set pieces is evident in three goals in his young MLS career. Joining Opara in recreating the 2009 U-20 World Cup center back pairing is Togolese-born Gale Agbossoumonde. Eliciting many comparisons to Oguchi Onyewu, Gale has the technical skill to match his tremendous size.

Up next on the depth chart are two more veterans of the U-20s and former FC Dallas teammates, Kyle Davies and Anthony Wallace. Davies, captain of the 2009 U-20 World Cup side, reminds a bit of a young Jeff Agoos at center-half. Wallace is a left back that has played sparingly in his young Dallas career; hopefully a move to Colorado will help him get a renewed chance at playing time.

Two of the more exciting defensive players in the pool have yet to play first team professional football: Kofi Sarkodie and Greg Garza. Kofi Sarkodie is considered the best fullback in college soccer and projected to be a top 3 2011 MLS Superdraft selection (and in the eyes of Ives Galracep, a 2014 World Cup USMNT roster pick). A star at Akron at right back, Kofi has the pace and mean cross that could be very useful for the Yanks’ squad. Greg Garza is the thing American soccer has been searching for the last 20 years: a true left back prospect. Garza has a nice blend of defending prowess and confidence in attack. A star of Sporting’s U-19 team, Garza looks to be an integral part of this upcoming US U-20 cycle.

Zarek Valentin, Perry Kitchen, and Parker Walsh are among a host of others fighting for viability in the defensive pool over these next two years. Valentin impressed greatly in the Milk Cup with his pace and service; the CB/RB is one of the best defenders in college, and should be a first round pick next year. Kitchen looked strong as well at the Milk Cup, marking and tackling confidently while showing some confidence with the ball at his feet. Walsh has done well for himself at left back in Germany, and should push for a spot at the perennially weak position in the next U-20 cycle.

When looking at this group, the weakness is clear. Opara is currently the only player out of the group who is playing consistent first team soccer professionally. No position will need players to break out and emerge before the Olympics more than defense. Even still, it is almost a guarantee that the U.S. will reinforce the position with at least one overage player. If the U.S. wants to medal in London, the defense will have to be more solid than it appears to be now.

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