Setting up tonight’s important under-23 Olympic qualifier

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The basics: The United States men’s under-23 national team meets El Salvador at LP Field in Nashville, a 9 p.m. EDT kickoff. The game is live on Universal Sports Network and (Spanish-language) mun2. It’s also being streamed live at CONCACAF.com and UniversalSports.com.

What’s at stake: A trip to the summer games was never a slam dunk – even if too many assumed as much. As I wrote last week, the United States’ Olympic-bound party bus got sideswiped en route to the Athens 2004 games. And Mexico hit a nasty road block four years later, never making it to the Beijing 2008 games. The two regional heavyweights may indeed progress and make it to London this go-round, but the United States needs a win tonight just for a chance to do its part.   

What has to happen (simple version): A United States win tonight ensures passage out of group play, into the tournament semifinals this weekend in Kansas City. That’s more or less it. (From there, both semifinal winners qualify for the London 2012 games.) But a loss or a draw tonight almost surely squashes the dream; they are very likely eliminated and will not participate this summer.

What might happen (slightly long version): There is a chance the United States can advance with a tie, but it’s a ridiculous long shot.  That’s because Canada is very likely to beat a weak Cuban side in Monday’s other Group A finale. (Cuba has been out-scored 10-0 in its first two contests.) Should Canada somehow fall to Cuba, Caleb Porter’s U.S. side could advance with a draw. (Everything will be set by kickoff of the U.S. match, since Canada-El Salvador is first up tonight, a 5:30 p.m. EDT kickoff.)

Going forward: The Group A winner meets the Group B second-place finisher (mostly likely Honduras or Mexico) in Saturday’s critical semifinal round. The final stage schedule:

Final Stage, Livestrong Sporting Park, Kansas City, Kan.

Saturday, March 31

Semifinal: Group B winner vs. Group A runner-Up, 6 p.m. EDT (Telemundo)

Semifinal: Group A winner vs. Group B runner-Up, 9 p.m. EDT (*NBC Sports Network/Telemundo)

*Game times subject to switch; NBC Sports Network will televise the U.S. semifinal, if the team makes it.

I’ll have more in just a while on the match, including projected lineups and a match prediction.