The Buccaneers expansive practice fields gave the United States men's under-23 national soccer team plenty of room on which to prepare for its tournament
There was a slightly different brand of football being played on the practice fields at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' state-of-the-art facility this past week.
This wasn't the typical pads-and-helmets version of football you would usually find at One Buccaneer Place. It was what some call "real football," depending on what part of the world they live in…or, if you will, fútbol.
Whatever you call it – perhaps "soccer," as most Americans do – the Buccaneers were proud to host the United States men's under-23 national team as it practiced at One Buc Place this past week while participating in an Olympic qualifying tournament at Raymond James Stadium.
Along with under-23 national teams from Cuba, Honduras and Panama, the U.S. team paid a visit to Tampa to participate in a round-robin tournament that will help set the field for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Four other countries – Canada, Guatemala, Haiti and Mexico – are playing a similar tournament in Carson, California this week, and the top two squads from each four-team tourney will meet in Nashville, Tennessee for semifinal matches on March 20.
The winners of those games will advance to the Summer Games, and while a championship game will be held between the two semifinal winners, it will only help decide bracket pairings later on. Winning one of the two semifinal matches is the most important goal, as it will punch a ticket to Beijing for two lucky squads.
Neil Buethe, senior manager of communications for the U.S. Soccer Federation, said the American team was very grateful for the Buccaneers' hospitality.
"The practice facility and Raymond James stadium have been fantastic for us," Buethe said. "We love coming to a place where we've got facilities like these, and the Buccaneers organization is great. Anything we need or want, they are willing to provide. The big thing for us is when we have that, it allows the team to concentrate on the important thing, which is the games."
And the games have been exciting, to say the least. Tuesday's games included a 1-0 win for the Honduras squad over Panama, followed by an intense 1-1 stalemate between the U.S. and Cuba. On Thursday evening, Honduras notched a 2-0 win over Cuba, and the Americans were able to pick up a solid 1-0 win against a tough Panama team.
The final games of the tournament will be played Saturday evening, as Panama will square off against Cuba at 5:30 p.m., followed by the Americans battling Honduras at 7:30.
With a win, the Americans can guarantee a trip to Nashville and a chance to play in a semifinal match with an Olympic berth on the line.
Buethe urged local fans to come out and support the American squad in its final game as they battle for a chance to represent the U.S. in the Beijing Olympics.
"The players on this roster are the rising stars in soccer in the United States," Buethe said. "A number of them have played for the full men's national team, with some having up to five [appearances]. It's going to be the core players making up the full national team in the next 10 years, so you'll get to see them first-hand in real competition that matters and that hopefully gets them to the Olympics. You'll get to see great soccer."