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South Bay has presence in men's soccer Olympic qualifying series Phillip Brents | Fri, Mar 23 2012 04:55 PM

The road to London has begun for a pair of soccer players with ties to the South Bay — Joe Corona and Miguel Flores.

Corona’s name might be more familiar. He helped lead Sweetwater to the 2008 San Diego Section Division II championship by scoring the lone goal in the Red Devils’ 1-0 victory against Oceanside. The goal was his 20th of the season.

He earned honors as the 2008 Division II Player of the Year and went on to play one season at San Diego State University before professional soccer came calling in the guise of the Club Tijuana Xoloitzcuintes.

Corona has helped elevate the Xolos to top flight status in the Mexican Primera Division, earning Mexican Federation’s Newcomer of the Year award in the process.

Many might have felt his international future might remain south of the border but the California native (his father is from Mexico and his mother is from El Salvador) has elected to pursue his fortunes with the United States as Team USA’s under-23 team embarks on the key qualifying process for the upcoming 2012 London Games.

Flores, who also was born in California and whose father is also from Mexico, attended middle school and one year at San Ysidro High School during his stay on this side of the border. Now a member of the storied Chivas de Guadalajara team in Mexico’s First Division, Flores will be wearing the colors of Team Mexico for the 2012 CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament.

Eight teams comprise the final CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament, with the two finalists earning berths to the London Games.

Team USA is in Group A along with Cuba, Canada and El Salvador; Team Mexico is in Group B along with Trinidad and Tobago, Honduras and Panama.

The championship game is scheduled April 2 in Kansas City.

An attacking midfielder, Corona has been training with the U.S. U23 team since November and was on the American squad that defeated Mexico, 2-0, in a friendly encounter Feb. 29 in Frisco, Texas. That match marked his international debut for Team USA. He started and played the full 90 minutes.

His second international match for Team USA was even more memorable, as he scored three goals to lead the Americans to a 6-0 victory against Cuba in the opening round of Olympic qualifying  in Nashville, Tenn.

It’s been a whirlwind soccer odyssey for Corona, whose family still resides in Chula Vista.

The former Red Devil standout owns the distinction of scoring the Xolos’ first goal when the club was promoted to the Primera Division. During the 2010-11 season, he made 39 appearances for the Tijuana team, including 34 starts, and scored six goals.

He said the Mexican Federation award backs up all the hard work and sacrifice he’s made to become a professional.

“It’s something important to me,” he said following the Xolos’ 5-2 victory against Major League Soccer’s Chivas USA as part of the San Diego Clasico Feb. 22 at the University of San Diego’s Torero Stadium. “It’s very special to be recognized for this. At the same time, it makes me realize there is a lot more for me to achieve in my career.”

Corona, who was born in Los Angeles, said playing for Team USA is also “very important” to him now.

“It’s a great group of guys on the team, it’s very enjoyable,” he said. “We have players who have been working very hard together in practice, in training camps, and now it’s time for us to get down to the actual qualifying games to get to London, so it’s very serious now for the whole team.”

Team USA will play its opening three pool games in Nashville. The Americans play Saturday, March 24, against Canada (4 p.m. PDT) and Monday, March 26, against El Salvador (6 p.m. PDT).

All games in the tournament will be televised on the Universal Sports Network, NBC Sports Network as well as Spanish-language TV and CONCACAF.com.

Team USA’s pool games will air on the Universal network while NBC will telecast the semifinals on March 31. The final will air on Universal Sports at 5 p.m. PDT on April 2.

The two semifinal winners qualify for the London Games.

For those watching on television, Corona will be wearing jersey No. 10.

Corona said he likes the Americans’ chances of advancing to the 2012 Olympiad. “I’ve been to three camps and I think this is a team that is very together and has a lot of talent. The most important thing is that we are all very hungry to get to London, and I think that is why we have a good chance to succeed.”

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