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The last time the U.S. qualified for the Olympics in men’s soccer, Galaxy defender Julian Araujo was 6 years old. That was 2008 and the Americans didn’t get out of group play in China, losing their final game to Nigeria.
Araujo, now 19, is among the 20 players who will try to help the U.S. find its way back to the Summer Games beginning Thursday when the eight-team CONCACAF Olympic-qualifying tournament opens in Guadalajara, Mexico. Teammate Jackson Yueill said the secret for making that happen is pretty simple.
“To qualify,” Yueill said Wednesday “you have to win.”
The tournament kicks off Thursday with the U.S. facing Costa Rica. Mexico will take on the Dominican Republic in the second game. Group B will begin play Friday with Honduras facing Haiti and Canada meeting El Salvador. The top two teams in each group will advance to the tournament semifinals March 28 with the winners of those two games earning a spot in the Olympic competition this summer in Tokyo.
U.S. coach Jason Kreis said anything short of that will be a failure.
“We need to continue to lay down markers that we are a dominant team in this region,” he said. “So yeah I do believe that this is an important moment for us to continue on that path, to continue to change people’s opinions about our national team programs.”
In men’s soccer the Olympics are a U-23 tournament and it’s one Mexico has missed just once this century, winning the gold medal in 2012. Honduras also has played in four of the last five Olympics, and the U.S. has made just four appearances since the tournament became an age-group event in 1992.
Kreis’ roster is talented and features professionals from six countries. The 16 MLS-based players came to Mexico lacking match fitness, however, since their teams opened preseason training camp less than three weeks ago. Costa Rica’s domestic league is 13 weeks into its season.
“We go into this first match knowing it’s extremely important,” Kreis said.
“We like the experience of group. That should be something that we can lean on.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.