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CMOQ launches Thursday at Sporting Park
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Sporting Park (pictured) will host the opening doubleheader of the 2015 CONCACAF Men's Olympic Qualifying Championship.  (Photo: Mexsport)

KANSAS CITY, Kansas – The 2015 CONCACAF Men’s Olympic Qualifying Championship opens Thursday with a Group A doubleheader at Sporting Park. 

Thursday – October 1, 2015

Panama v Cuba, 6:30 p.m. ET

USA v Canada, 9:00 p.m. ET 

Group B -- consisting of Costa Rica, Haiti, Honduras and defending champion Mexico -- will start play Friday at the StubHub Center in Carson, California. 

The tournament will crown the Confederation champion at Under-23 level, qualify two teams (semifinals winners) directly to the 2016 Olympic Football Tournament and send another (winner of the match for third place) to a playoff against Colombia for an additional berth. 

Here’s a look at Group A quartet: 

CANADA

Canada has not participated in the Olympic Games since 1984, when went it advanced to the quarterfinals before falling to Brazil on penalty kicks after a 1-1 draw. The Canadians reached the semifinals of the 2012 CONCACAF qualifying competition, but to earn a place at Rio 2016 they will rely on squad composed of 14 players from domestic-based sides and six playing abroad. Head coach Benito Floro, a former Real Madrid manager, is also in charge of the full national team. He has selected three performers, who scored one goal each at the 2015 CONCACAF Under-20 Championship: Jackson Farmer, Michael Petrasso and Hanson Boakai, who also scored two goals at the 2013 CONCACAF Under-17 Championship. 

Player to Track: Midfielder Samuel Piette (Racing de Ferrol/Spain) 

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CUBA

Those underestimating Cuba in this competition may do so at their own peril. The Lions of the Caribbean possess a talented offense spearheaded by Maykel Reyes. The 22-year-old led the squad in Caribbean qualifying with seven goals, including five in an 11-1 win over Aruba. He also struck for the goal that enabled Cuba to topple Guatemala in July’s CONCACAF Gold Cup, sealing it a place in the quarterfinals. Equally impressive is 20-year-old forward Frank Lopez, who scored nine goals in CONCACAF Under-20 competition over the last 15 months (7 in Caribbean qualifying, 2 in CONCACAF finals). Although it has appeared in two Olympic Games (1976, 1980) Cuba is winless in 13 all-time CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying finals matches. It is making a third straight appearances in the competition. 

Player to Track: Adrian Arturo Diz Pe (La Habana/Cuba) 

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PANAMA

Panama is certainly relying on youth to boost the cause for a first-ever appearance in the Olympic Games. More than half of the Panamanian squad (12 of 20) is comprised of players born in 1995 or later, including a pair of 18-year-olds: forward Ismael Diaz and midfielder Justin Simons. Despite his relative youth, Diaz has been a known quantity for many years in international football circles. The forward, who scored nine goals in CONCACAF under-20 play over the last 16 months (5 in Central American qualifying, 4 in CONCACAF finals), signed with European power Porto from Tauro in August. Diaz played in the 2013 FIFA Under-17 and 2015 FIFA Under-20 World Cups. In addition to Diaz, three others from the 2015 CONCACAF Under-20 Champions Best XI team made the roster: goalkeeper Jaime De Gracia, defender Chin Hormechea and defender Kevin Galvan. Panama went unbeaten in Central American qualifying with two wins and draw, producing three goals in each of the victories (3-0 v Nicaragua, 3-2 v El Salvador 

Player to Track: MF Edgar Yoel Barcenas (Arabe Unido) 

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UNITED STATES

Three years ago, on the last day of Group A play in the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Championship, the United States needed to beat El Salvador for a place in the semifinals. With a 3-2 lead in second-half stoppage time, that objective looked entirely attainable. Then, Jaime Alas struck for the equalizer, sending the Catrachos to the second stage, while also breaking American hearts. Thoughts of that day in Nashville need to be banished if the U.S. is to book a ticket to Rio 2016, but judging from the squad assembled by head coach Andreas Herzog, the talent is there to do so. Forward Jordan Morris is the only amateur in the side, but he’s already acquired significant experience with the full national team. The Stanford University standout, 20, netted in a 2-1 win over Mexico last April. Days after that encounter, when the nations met again in an under-23 friendly, he scored again. If Morris is to make an impression in this competition, midfielder maestro Gedion Zelalem, 18, may just be the one to provide the service. Although eligible to represent multiple countries, the Arsenal youth star (currently on loan to Rangers in Scotland) declared for the U.S. and played in the FIFA U-20 World Cup earlier this year. Towering central defender Matt Miazga has played a key role in the New York Red Bulls’ success in Major League Soccer this season and could establish himself as a future CONCACAF star. 

Player to Track: MF Luis Gil (Real Salt Lake/USA)

 
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