Jake Gleeson, Timbers vs. Independiente, 7.26.11
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

Goalkeeper Gleeson heads to New Zealand with hopes of Olympic qualification

Only a select group of athletes ever grace the Olympic stage, and now Portland Timbers goalkeeper Jake Gleeson has the chance to be one of the few.

Gleeson and the New Zealand Under-23 National Team kick off the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) Olympic qualifying tournament on Friday in Taupo, New Zealand, as eight nations will battle for one spot in the London 2012 Olympic Games.

One of the more experienced players on the roster, along with Marco Rojas of Australian A-League side Melbourne Victory, Gleeson is expected to be one of the group’s leaders.

“With their experience of professional football, Olympic Games or senior international football we expect them to be leaders on and off the field in what will be a testing tournament,” New Zealand U-23s head coach Neil Emblen said of Gleeson, Rojas and two others in a release.

The Timbers 21-year-old ‘keeper sounded excited for his chance to reach the Olympics, and that the Timbers allowed him to leave despite the fact that he will miss two MLS matches (FC Dallas on Saturday, New England on March 24).

“It’s something that I’ve been thinking about and wanting to do,” Gleeson said following the Timbers season-opening 3-1 win over Philadelphia on Monday. The goalkeeper then left for New Zealand on Tuesday. “Qualifying for the Olympics is definitely a big deal; I was pretty happy to hear that I was going to be able to go back down to New Zealand and play in the qualifiers.”

The Young All-Whites will play Papua New Guinea on Friday and then face Tonga on March 20 in Group B play. Group A consists of American Samoa, Fiji, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. The top two teams from each group qualify for the semifinals and a high-drama, winner-take-all final is set for March 24.

While New Zealand is surely a favorite heading into the tournament despite their young, inexperienced roster, the relatively unknown quality of the other countries could make for an intriguing competition.

“Know nothing about them,” Gleeson said of New Zealand’s two group-stage opponents. “It’s such a weird thing. You come up against these guys and they’re just big and athletic and you know nothing about them. It’s going to be a test, especially with our team because we have quite a young side and we’re missing a lot of top players that haven’t been released by their club. I’m looking forward to it. I think we can put on a good showing.”

With the prospect of playing in the Olympics on the line, each team will surely present its best challenge on the pitch.

“To play in the Olympics would be fantastic especially in a place like London where football is such a big part of their culture,” said Gleeson, who earned his first cap for the senior New Zealand National Team with a substitute appearance against Australia in a friendly on June 5, 2011. “England is the home of football. It’s going to be fantastic to head over there if we qualify.”