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U-23s set for qualifying test

The Road to Athens continues for the U.S. Under-23 National Team. The quest to be one of the 16 teams from around the world to play in the 2004 Summer Games in Greece starts on Feb. 3 with a match against Panama to kickoff the final-round of play in the 2004 CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Tournament. It'll be followed by matches against Canada on Feb. 5 and Honduras on Feb. 7 , which will all be played at the 10,000-seat Estadio de Marzo in Guadalajara, Mexico. The top two teams from the two four-team groups will play in the semifinals on Feb. 10, with the winners earning berths to Athens as well as a date in the final on Feb. 12 for region supremacy. After a successful two-week camp held out at the Home Depot Center earlier this month, head coach Glenn "Mooch" Myernick whittled down his roster to 22 players to make the trip, which will then be trimmed to 20 by January 31 after seven days of training. The group he has selected includes U.S. National Team regulars Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley and Bobby Convey, two recent MLS draft picks in Chad Marshall (Columbus) and Chris Wingert (Columbus), and only one non-MLS player in Zak Whitbread who plays for Liverpool in England. "It's been a two-year process in which I've learned a lot about this pool of players, and overall I think it's a very talented pool," said Myernick, who took over the team in January 2002. "Maybe we're not as experienced in some areas as others, but they're still a very capable team." Two players not making the trip are Belgium-based defender Oguchi Onyewu (R.A.A. Louviere) and German-based forward Conor Casey (F.C. Karlsruher), who were not released from their respective clubs in Europe to take part in this competition. "Both players are significant components in the pool; unfortunately, FIFA rules and their relationship to international fixture dates prevented them from being a part of this squad," said Myernick, who led the team to a 4-0-2 international record in 2003. "While I believe that they can possibly help us in the future, I have all the confidence in the world in this team to get the job done." The only other notable player who has played with the team in the past year that this could have applied to is Alexander Yi, a defender who plays for Royal Antwerp F.C. in Belgium. He was not with the U-23s for their latest training camp as he remained in Europe over the team's winter break. An interesting selection was that of MetroStars midfielder Eddie Gaven. At 17 years and 89 days, Gaven becomes the youngest player ever to appear on a U.S. Olympic Qualifying Team, passing fellow New Jersey native Claudio Reyna, who was 17 years and 336 days when he made his appearance in the tournament. Gaven will be making his fourth appearance with the U-23's since the end of the 2003 MLS season. He scored one of the team's 10 goals in its 10-0 aggregate win over St. Kitts & Nevis in the second round of CONCACAF qualifying action in November. He also appeared for the John Ellinger's U-17s last August in the U-17 World Championship.

CONCACAF Qualifying Tourney
After 25 teams in the region began qualifying for the Olympics last year, only eight remain. From those eight sides heading to Mexico for the 2004 CONCACAF Men's Olympic Qualifying Tournament, only two teams will move on to Athens in August to play in the 2004 Summer Games. Here are the following two groups that will play from Feb. 2-12 to determine the top Under-23 squads in the region:

Group A:
Canada
Honduras
Panama
United States

Group B:
Trinidad & Tobago
Jamaica
Costa Rica
Mexico

From the players Myernick originally called into camp, Los Angeles Galaxy defender Scot Thompson, San Jose Earthquakes goalkeeper Steve Cronin and Chicago Fire defender Kelly Gray were not extended invites to make the trip. The same goes for MetroStars midfielder Ricardo Clark, who would have been a part of this roster had he not been diagnosed with a sports hernia that he recently had surgery to correct. The addition of Marshall and Whitbread -- neither of whom played with the team in 2003 -- certainly made the competition between the defenders that much more difficult. Should the team qualify for the Olympics, expect players such as Justin Mapp (Chicago), Mike Magee (MetroStars), Santino Quaranta (D.C. United), Nate Jaqua (Chicago), Arsenal defender Frank Simek and, yes, even 14-year-old D.C. United striker Freddy Adu to make a run at securing a roster spot. The battle for berths is far more competitive than it was four years ago leading up the Sydney Games. Of the 18 players named to the roster in 2000, only Casey didn't play professionally at the time. (His four-and-a-half year contract with Borussia Dortmund of the German Bundesliga was signed later that year after he led the nation in scoring with the University of Portland.) Three players -- Donovan and Frankie Hejduk with Bayer Leverkusen, as well as John O'Brien with Ajax -- played for overseas clubs, while the other 14 were in Major League Soccer. Yet, unlike this year's roster, the overwhelming majority of those playing in MLS were strictly role players. This time around, the Olympic Team is filled with MLS standouts. Aside from Donovan, Beasley and Convey, there are players like Kyle Martino, Edson Buddle and Brad Davis who are major contributors for their respective clubs. Besides the recent draft picks, the only players that don't have meaningful experience under their belts are 2003 draft picks David Stokes and Brian Carroll from D.C. United, and striker David Testo, who was recently signed by Columbus after being the A-League Rookie of the Year last season as a member of the Richmond Kickers. If the team qualifies and returns to the Olympics after a successful showing in 2000 as the fourth-place squad, Myernick can add three overage players to this group. In 2000, Clive Charles used his selections wisely, adding Jeff Agoos to man the central defense, Frankie Hejduk to add experience and an element of speed at right back, and Brad Friedel to man the goal. Looking at the current roster, Myernick might be wise to add a defender such as Carlos Bocanegra or Eddie Pope to add to this relatively inexperienced group, a versatile player like John O'Brien and one of the three U.S. goalkeepers (Friedel, Kasey Keller and Tim Howard) that are currently starring in the English Premier League. That sort of speculation can wait for the upcoming months, though, as it'll be moot if the U.S. fails to make it out of group play or into the final down in Mexico. To do that, Myernick will need good showings from numerous players, not just his stars that play for Bruce Arena. "Tournaments of this nature have proved in the past that the entire roster will be tested at one point or another," said Myernick, "and I'm pleased that we'll have 10 more days of training prior to our first game to continue our preparation." Full roster: GOALKEEPERS (2): D.J. Countess, Doug Warren

DEFENDERS (8): Nat Borchers, Jose Luis Burciaga, Ricky Lewis, Chad Marshall, Logan Pause, David Stokes, Zak Whitbread, Chris Wingert

MIDFIELDERS (8): DaMarcus Beasley, Kyle Beckerman, Brian Carroll, Bobby Convey, Brad Davis, Eddie Gaven, Ed Johnson, Kyle Martino

FORWARDS (4): Edson Buddle, Landon Donovan, Alecko Eskandarian, David Testo Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: shaketiller10@yahoo.com.