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U-23 analysis

A look at the domestic U-23 options for 2020 Olympic qualifying

The U.S. U-23 team will soon attempt to qualify for its first Olympics since 2008. It is unclear which players head coach Jason Kreis will have at his disposal but the most likely to be released by their clubs will be domestic players. How does the domestic player pool look right now? Brian Sciaretta takes a look. 
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
April 11, 2019
11:00 AM
THE UNITED STATES U-23 team coached by Jason Kreis will attempt to qualify for the 2020 Olympics at some point this year. While the dates of qualifying have not been announced, if it is anything like previous editions, domestic players will have to carry the heavy lifting.

As everyone knows, the U.S. U-23 team failed to qualify for the 2012 and 2016 Olympics but there should be room for more optimism this year. For one, the last three U-20 teams have been very good and deep. With consecutive CONCACAF U-20 titles, the team should have a good base of talent compared with other countries.

Of course, the Olympics are a hard tournament to qualify out of CONCACAF. Only two teams make it and there is no margin for error. It typically comes down to one or two must-win games against the best teams in the region outside of Mexico (Costa Rica, Honduras, etc).

Everyone knows that the best U.S. U-23 players are based abroad at the moment (Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, Erik Palmer-Brown, Cameron Carter-Vickers, Josh Sargent, Tim Weah, and Antonee Robinson) and will most likely not take part in qualifying. When looking at historical rosters, some players based abroad will take part but probably not of the high-profile nature.

The domestic-based players are the safest players to secure a release. So let’s examine what that pool of players looks like at the moment.


Goalkeepers: JT Marcinkowski, Trey Muse, David Ochoa

The skinny: Finding young American goalkeepers that are playing right how is actually tough. David Ochoa is very young but has been lights out for the Real Monarchs in USL and JT Marcinkowski continues to play for Reno FC while also being a backup for the San Jose Earthquakes. Trey Muse only recently turned professional. It is not a good position right now but if the U.S. team qualifies, one of the three overage options would be used on a goalkeeper.


Right back: Reggie Cannon, Brooks Lennon, Kyle Duncan, Julian Araujo
Central defense: Auston Trusty, Miles Robinson, Mark McKenzie, Justen Glad
Left back: Jeremiah Gutjahr, Matt Real, George Bello, John Nelson, Aaron Herrera, Marco Farfan

The skinny: Right back and central defense are strengths for this team. Cannon and Lennon are regular starters. In central defense, Trusty and Robinson start for their clubs while Glad will earn minutes for Real Salt Lake when he returns from injury. There is also plenty of reason to think Mark McKenzie will eventually get a chance to start again this year.

Left back is always a problem and none of the options are clear-cut starters except for Herrera. But Gutjahr could continue to feature for Chicago and perhaps George Bello will eventually breakthrough as he is one of the most talented America prospects.

Midfielders, wings, and Forwards

No. 6: Chris Durkin, Edwin Cerrillo, Derrick Jones, James Sands, Brandon Servania, Cameron Lindley.
No. 8/10: Paxton Pomykal, Gedion Zelalem, Djordje Mihailovic, Keaton Parks, Brenden Aaronson, Jackson Yueill, Gianluca Busio, Eryk Williamson
Wingers: Sebastian Saucedo, Jonathan Lewis, Omir Fernandez, Frankie Amaya
Forwards: Jesus Ferreira, Jeremy Ebobisse, Justin Rennicks

The skinny: The No. 8/10 options look pretty good at the moment for Jason Kreis. Mihailovic has been solid for Chicago, Paxton Pomykal is a lock starter for Dallas and an anchor for the U.S. U-20 team. Those two will be the more creative forces on the team. The way Jim Curtain talks about Brenden Aaronson, it seems as if the New Jersey native could log north of 2000 minutes this season. Meanwhile Gedion Zelalem could still be in the picture with more minutes for Sporting Kansas City. Gianluca Busio is extremely young but is playing for Kansas City and has two goals on the young season. 

Defensive midfield looks okay although Chris Durkin needs to paly more as he is by far the most talented young domestic-based player in the position. The U-20 World Cup will be a good stepping stone for him.

The wing positions are extremely thin at the moment. Jonathan Lewis and Sebastian Saucedo have played in important youth national team games and are now getting solid minutes for their clubs. Beyond them, there isn’t much. Omir Fernandez played for the Red Bulls to start the season but his minutes have tailed off. Perhaps Busio can shift to the wing?

It seems like a safe bet that Jesus Ferreira will finally be a citizen in time for this tournament and that will help as he is playing well for FC Dallas. Jeremy Ebobisse played at the 2017 U-20 World Cup and has also developed quite a bit over the past year for Portland and was key to getting that team to MLS Cup in 2017. Rookie Justin Rennicks will likely see a lot of minutes at the 2019 U-20 World Cup could be important for the U-23 team if he can continue to play for New England.

Early Outlook

And entirely domestic U-23 team still has a lot of holes but it compares favorably with the U-23 qualifying team four years ago at this stage. When looking at the team which was during the height of the “Missing Years” generation, former coach Andi Herzog brought to qualifying, fullbacks were weak, central defense was extremely young, there was not much creativity in the midfield, and there was minimal professional experience at forward.

There are a good number of players from that roster who are either out of the game or struggling to keep their careers afloat.

The 2019 pool has fallen off in goalkeeping from 2015 but has a lot of depth in central defense, right back, and central midfield.

The 2019 season will be imperative for many of the key players in the pool to not just be earning minutes, but rather to be high impact players. Paxton Pomykal has already earned the MLS player of the week twice in the first month. He will need to continue that progress. Djordje Mihailovic is continuing to progress in his first season back from the ACL injury. Auston Trusty and Reggie Cannon are second year veteran starters.

The big question marks for the 2019 team will be the wingers and forwards. There just is not a lot of depth there – despite some interesting options.

Finally, the pool above only reflects domestic options. While elite players based abroad typically don’t take part in U-23 Olympic qualifying, some of the abroad-based players should be able to fill in the gaps. Players from Scandinavian-based clubs (Jonathan Amon, Christian Cappis, Emmanuel Sabbi) and Mexican clubs have traditionally played. There are also players from Europe who are not first-team starters who have historically been released. Potential options for this cycle could be Luca de la Torre, Nick Taitague, Chris Gloster, Sebastian Soto, Sergino Dest, Alex Mendez, Richard Ledezma, Haji Wright, etc.).

It’ll certainly be tough for the team to qualify and Jason Kreis will have his work cut out for him to address the team’s weaknesses. It will also be up to the players, particularly those on the youngers side, to maximize their development with first-team minutes in 2019.

But compared with previous cycles, it’s not a bad starting point and Kreis will have more to work with than his predecessor.

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