What’s on the line tonight in Olympic qualifying vs. Canada

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With such a fast start in group play, the mission for Caleb Porter’s U.S. under-23 team is quite simple over the next three days: Don’t slip up.

To properly manage the next two group stage matches, today vs. Canada and Monday vs. El Salvador, is to ensure a first place Group A finish. Topping the group means maximizing the odds of avoiding Mexico in the all-important semifinal round.

So that’s the “team” goal.

But significantly more is at stake individually. Because the CONCACAF qualifying is serving two purposes from a U.S. perspective: The obvious is qualification for London 2012.

There is a less-obvious process at work here: this is all an extended tryout for each and every member of Porter’s 20-man squad. Because some very difficult cuts are ahead. Excruciating cuts, in fact.

Bottom line here is that at least five members of this team – most of whom have poured so much into training camps, and who will give everything they have to see their country safely through Olympic qualifying – will not be on the plane bound for London this July.

At least five. Five, it would seem, is the starting point.

We know three overage players are permitted, and Porter will surely exploit the opportunity to add a Landon Donovan, a Clint Dempsey, a Carlos Bocanegra, etc.

You may or may not know that Olympic rosters will be limited to 18 members, two fewer than CONCACAF rules permit for the ongoing qualifying.

So there’s five.

The X factor is about the age-eligible talent not currently in Nashville. What about Jozy Altidore? He’s eligible. What about Tim Chandler, the fine young German-American prospect? What about anyone else who inserts himself into the conversation between then and now, someone like Andrew Wenger, the No. 1 overall pick in January’s MLS draft. (That one is unlikely, but not out of the question since Porter knows exactly what the talented Duke product can do.)

So it could well be than six, seven or even more of the current squad will be culled from the final Olympic roster. (This is all assuming the United States makes it, of course.) That’s tough stuff, but it is what it is.

That’s why a bad individual performance here and there over the next week or so might not be fatal to the team … but it could seriously impact individual careers going forward.