The group stage for CONCACAF Olympic qualifying is hours from getting underway, as the U.S. Under-23 men's national team faces Cuba in the opening match at LP Field in Nashville, Tenn.
While Cuba may not seem like a challenging opponent, keep in mind that in 2008 the United States opened its qualifying campaign against Cuba and was held to a 1-1 draw before beating Panama and Honduras en route to the semifinals.
Canada and El Salvador boast a few more known commodities on their rosters, and with the United States being the favorite to win the group, both figure to duke it out for second place behind the Americans in Group A and a coveted spot in the tournament semifinals. But there's a reason they play the games on the field and not on paper.
Here's a closer look at the Cuba, Canada and El Salvador Under-23 national teams:
Cuba brings a team of players that is entirely based domestically and is the least heralded of the eight teams in the qualifying tournament.
Central midfielder Carlos Domingo Francisco was on Cuba's Gold Cup roster this past summer and started all three of the team's games in the group stage, while goalkeeper Julio Pichardo was also part of that team and started one game.
Cuba's senior team ended that tournament 0-3 with a goal differential of -15, but the Caribbean nation's U-23 side boasts speed and an athletic squad that will try to stretch the U.S. defense.
Here is the full Cuba roster:
GOALKEEPERS: Odisnel Cooper (Camaguey), Julio Pichardo (Las Tunas).
DEFENDERS: Arturo Dizpes, Yoisel Salazar (Camaguey), Dayron Macías (Villa Clara), Yosmel de Armas (La Habana), Dayron Blanco (Las Tunas), Renay Mamblache (Holguin).
MIDFIELDERS: Osay Martínez (La Habana), Félix Guerra (Granma), Ricardo Peña (La Habana), Juan Carlos Fariñas (La Habana), Carlos Domingo Francisco (Santiago).
FORWARDS: Michael Chang (La Habana), Hevier Cordovés (La Habana), Maykel Reyes (Pinar del Rio), Arichel Hernández (Villa Clara), Danel Luis Sáez (Villa Clara).
There's a heavy MLS presence on the Canadian roster, with seven MLS players and two out-of-contract players whose rights are owned by MLS clubs.
The Vancouver Whitecaps, Toronto FC and Montreal Impact each contribute multiple players to the roster, with Vancouver midfielders Russell Teibert and Bryce Alderson (the reigning Canadian U-17 Player of the Year), Toronto defender Doneil Henry and midfielder Matt Stinson and Montreal attackers Carl Haworth and Evan James all making the cut.
Four-year MLS veteran Nana Attakora is in club purgatory after not getting a new deal with the San Jose Earthquakes, but he still represents experience and talent along the back line.
Up top, Canada is led by Marcus Haber and Randy Edwini-Bonsu, both of whom play professionally overseas and have experience with the senior national team. As for other players to watch, midfielder Samuel Piette plays in France for Ligue 2 side Metz, while defender Andres Fresenga and forward Lucas Cavallini play for clubs in Uruguay.
Here is the full Canada roster:
GOALKEEPERS: Adam Janssen (Minnesota Stars), Michal Misiewicz (FC Edmonton)
DEFENDERS: Andrés Fresenga (Racing Club de Montevideo), Nana Attakora (unattached), Doneil Henry (Toronto FC)
MIDFIELDERS: Russell Teibert (Vancouver Whitecaps), Kyle Bekker (Boston College), Bryce Alderson (Vancouver Whitecaps), Samuel Piette (FC Metz), Shaun Saiko (FC Edmonton), Philippe Davies (unattached), Sherif El-Masri (Young Lions), Drew Beckie (unattached), Matt Stinson (Toronto FC)
FORWARDS: Marcus Haber (St. Johnstone FC), Babayele Sodade (Seattle Sounders FC), Lucas Cavallini (Nacional), Carl Haworth (Montréal Impact), Randy Edwini-Bonsu (Eintracht Braunsweig), Evan James (Montréal Impact)
The U-23s will wrap up group play against El Salvador, a team that features four players who just played for Metapan in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals against Pumas UNAM, a midfielder who played collegiately in the United States, and a player linked to the San Jose Earthquakes.
Headlining the team is Metapan striker Lester Blanco, who scored twice against Pumas in their first leg matchup. Midfielders Jorge Moran, Edwin Sanchez and defender Milton Molina were also part of the Metapan squad that bowed out in the quarterfinal round. Joining them is Earthquakes target Jaime Alas, a winger who plies his trade for Firpo, is experienced with the senior national team and was on trial with San Jose this winter.
Two Salvadorans have played in the U.S. youth national team set-up, including midfielder Richard Menjivar, who played for Cal State Bakersfield and had four goals and four assists during his senior season in 2011, and Dustin Corea, who plays for Blokus FC in the Danish first division.
Here is the full El Salvador roster:
GOALKEEPERS: Diego Cuellar (Atlético Marte), Jimmy Cuellar (Alianza FC)
DEFENDERS: Alexander Vidal (Atlético Marte, Moisés Xavier García (Firpo), Alexander Mendoza (UES), Milton Molina (Metapán)
MIDFIELDERS: Jaime Alas (Firpo), Richard Menjívar (Cal State Bakersfield), Darwin Cerén (Juventud Independiente), Elman Rivas (Alianza), Marlon Martínez (Firpo), Herbert Sosa (Alianza FC), Jorge Morán (Metapán), Edwin Sánchez (Metapán), Andrés Flores (Viborg), Diego Chavarría (Once Municipal)
FORWARDS: Jonathan Ãguila (Ãguila), José Gutiérrez (Ãguila), Dustin Corea (Blokhus FC), Léster Blanco (Metapán)
What do you think about the U.S. group opposition? Feeling confident in the Americans heading into the tournament?
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