As Olympic qualifying approaches, what could the U-23 roster look like?
January 21, 2021
THE UNITED STATES U-23 team will be the next American team on the men’s side of the sport to play in important and meaningful games when Olympic qualifying takes place in Guadalajara at the end of March 2021. While the last time the team was assembled was in March 2020 for the qualifying tournament which was postponed, a lot has changed in the 10 months since.
For one, the 2020 MLS season saw some players make improved cases to be part of the team. On the other hand, some players saw their stock fall. The past 12 months have shaken everything up.
There are also injuries and transfers which change everything. Richard Ledezma was slated to be on the 2020 qualifying team but is obviously out. It seems as if Paxton Pomykal won’t be back in time either (or will be too rusty after missing most of 2020). Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie’s moves abroad make them unlikely as well after being on the 2020 roster.
But in terms of incoming players, Daryl Dike emerged in 2020 to put himself in a great position to be on the 2021 team. Andres Perea filed his one-time switch to make himself eligible. Eryk Williamson had fine season in Portland – as did Henry Kessler in New England. None of these players were on the roster in 2020.
Then, of course, you have the topic of releasing players. I think U-23 head coach Jason Kreis will get his top picks out of MLS – and even Liga MX. Getting players from the European leagues, however, will continue to be difficult. He will get some of the players, but not many.
Getting European-based players released will come down to a bunch of factors such as:
- The importance of the club games the player would miss
- The club’s interest in the player’s long-term development – where these U-23 games would give valuable minutes.
- The club’s interest in keeping the player happy, if he wants to participate.
- The club seeing U-23 participation as a way of improving the plays transfer value
- The player still being good enough for the U-23 team despite missing minutes.
One major concern for Kreis and the U-23 team right now is the fact that due to COVID, the start of the 2021 MLS season is not settled and there are concerns it will be delayed. In a normal start, Olympic qualifying would have started after MLS preseason and the first three games of the regular season. Now players might only be in preseason form at the start of the final preparation camp ahead of qualifying.
That might open the door for European-based players, like Bryang Kayo or others, who are still only playing at the reserve levels – because they are at least playing games.
The current roster in Florida also was revealing. While Jason Kreis told the media that a player like Cole Bassett would be in contention for a spot on the qualifying team, it seems like the odds of a non-injured, MLS-based player not on the Florida roster would be slim. Such players would include Basset, Keaton Parks, Justen Glad, Marco Farfan, Frankie Amaya, and others.
Finally, during the era of COVID, a deep roster is absolutely necessary. These days, there is a very high degree of likelihood that late changes will have to get made – perhaps to key players. Kreis will need to have a lot of players on standby who are willing and able to contribute.
So with all that said, here is a predicted U.S. U-23 roster for Olympic qualifying – assuming the 17 field player, 3 goalkeeper roster limits from 2020 remain the same.
1) J.T. Marcinkowski
2) Matt Freese
3) Brady Scott
In the running: David Ochoa, Jonathan Klinsmann
European based options: Chituru Odunze, CJ Dos Santos
Outlook: Marcinkowski is the starter. The backups aren't nearly as clear but Freese and Scott have the opportunity to impress this entire January camp, so they have the edge.
4) Julian Araujo
5) Kyle Duncan
6) Miles Robinson
7) Henry Kessler
8) Mauricio Pineda
9) Sam Vines
In the Mix: Justen Glad, Aaron Herrera, George Bello, Donovan Pines, Auston Trusty
Possible European-based options: Chris Gloster, Mark McKenzie, Chris Richards, Erik Palmer-Brown, Cameron Carter-Vickers, Bryan Reynolds (likely).
Outlook: Araujo should be the starting right back and it will be Duncan or Herrera who serves as a backup for either side. Robinson, who has played with the full national team, is a likely starter in the middle. Pineda has been around the team the past two months and should also be included. Kessler’s season with the Revs was too tough to ignore. Based on 2020, Vines should be ahead of Gloster at this moment on the left side.
10) Andres Perea
11) Hassani Dotson
12) Jackson Yueill
13) Eryk Williamson
14) Sebastian Saucedo
In the mix: Frankie Amaya, Cole Bassett, Keaton Parks, Tanner Tessmann, Anthony Fontana, Gianluca Busio, James Sands.
European-based options: Brenden Aaronson, Alex Mendez, Christian Cappis, Luca de la Torre, Chris Durkin, Bryang Kayo, Johnny Cardoso (not Europe but South America)
Outlook: After making a one-time switch from Colombia and having a good 2020 season, Perea is a big addition to this team at the No. 6. That might free up Jackson Yueill to play more of a No. 8 role with his passing. Williamson is a lock at this point as a central mid. Saucedo is certainly a bubble player who could get bumped if Kreis has any success landing Aaronson but his versatility should have him on the inside. Hassani Dotson is another bubble player but is tough to leave off a small roster give he can provide backup at the No. 6 position or either left or right back. Dotson might find competition if Kreis seeks the release for Johnny Cardoso at Internacional in Brazi - who will be at the end of their season in March.
15) Jesus Ferreira
16) Djordje Mihailovic
17) Jonathan Lewis
18) Uly Llanez
19) Daryl Dike
20) Jeremy Ebobisse
In the mix: Brooks Lennon, Benji Michel, Ayo Akinola
European-based options: Sebastian Soto, Konrad de la Fuente, Emmanuel Sabbi, Haji Wright, Cam Harper.
Outlook: Dike and Ebobbise are strong center forwards that Kreis should be happy to have. The wing position is far from ideal on this team. Lewis and Mihailovic should get the nod as domestic options on the wing, although Mihailovic can play the No. 10 as well. Ferreira is a player who can play a number of different roles across the frontline and as a No. 10 (not unlike Saucedo). Of all the European-based options, Llanez seems to be the most realistic although Benji Michel and Brooks Lennon are still very much in the mix.
A look at the European-based options
At the start of camp, Kreis said that when seeking the release of European-based players, he was going to pass on attempting the players who were obviously going to be denied. This would include Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, Gio Reyna, Yunus Musah, Josh Sargent, and Sergino Dest and all other players who are regular starters in the top five European leagues.
While adding that Brian McBride was going to handle the discussions in terms of releasing players, Kreis added that he would going to at least reach out to clubs for players that he wanted who might be long shots but situations where he felt he could have at least a 15%-20% chance of obtaining a release.
It is impossible to know who he was referring to and what the exact odds would be, but there are some reasonable guesses.
The most likely release for a player Kreis probably would want seems to be Uly Llanez. The winger currently on loan at Heerenveen is struggling for minutes and probably would not be missed by the club. Most importantly, Llanez would address a specific need at winger.
Other players who seem likely to obtain a release but it would come down to whether they are better than the existing options would be Jong PSV left back Chris Gloster, who is on his way out at PSV, Alex Mendez at Jong Ajax, and Sebastian Soto who has been recalled on his Telstar loan from Norwich City. Both of these players need minutes but is Gloster better than Vines? Is Soto better than Dike or Ebobbise at the moment? Does Mendez fit in beyond Yueill, Williamson, and Saucedo or others who could be released? Those are tough calls that Kreis will need to make.
The most interesting releases Kreis could attempt to get would be for important players who are still long shots to get but still somewhat realistic. There are several of these players who would address key weaknesses of the team. Attacking midfielder Brenden Aaronson is tops on the list after recently completing a move to Red Bull Salzburg. U.S. soccer might find a sympathetic ear in American manager Jesse Marsch regarding Aaronson (after Marsch was willing to release players for U.S. Soccer duty while the manager of the New York Red Bulls). Aaronson’s release is unlikely but still possible. Not in Europe but South America, Johnny Cardoso is certainly possible as the Brazilian season is over come the end of February and Kreis got to know the defensive midfielder at the USMNT camp in November.
This team needs wingers and the most enticing target would be Konrad de la Fuente who is not playing much Barcelona but would be a massive upgrade at the wing position. It also might be an situation where Barcelona sees the benefit of letting the Miami native go to the tournament and play a lot of minutes in meaningful games.
Of course, the big area where are numerous options would be central defense. While Cameron Carter-Vickers is now playing regularly for AFC Bournemouth, Mark McKenzie at Genk and Chris Richards at Bayern Munich are still not established with the first team level at their clubs. McKenzie just arrived but if he is not a starter by March, it fits within the low-probability but possible model. The same with Richards who was not released in 2020. Erik Palmer-Brown is also someone to consider depending on his situation at Austria Vienna where he is unlikely to return for another loan next season.
Is the team good enough?
To answer the question – can this team be the first U.S. U-23 team in 13 years to qualify for the Olympics? Yes, this team is good enough and yes, it is much better than the last two qualifying teams. It speaks well about the state of American soccer at all levels both domestically and abroad to talk about the remarkable talent of this age group that won’t even be in consideration for this tournament. Every domestic-based field player mentioned above starts on a regular basis for his club. Above it all, this team is built on the player pools of the 2017 and 2019 U-20 cycles - which both won CONCACAF for the first time. These players have a history of competing well at this age level among other teams in this region.
Of course, it is still going to be difficult and one poor game could end any hopes of qualifying. Olympic qualifying is very unforgiving and it must be pointed out that only two teams from CONCACAF Qualifying. That is far different from having four teams qualify for the U-20 or U-17 World Cups, or even the 3.5-4 berths for the FIFA World Cup.
The team has its strengths. The central defenders are all above-average, regular starters. The fullbacks are also solid. Defensive midfield and holding midfield at the No. 6 and No. 8 positions are strong. Jackson Yueill brings a lot of experience and Andres Perea is a welcome addition to the player pool with a strong upside. Eryk Williamson at the No. 8 is coming off a great year. But perhaps no other positions is as strong right now as center forward with Daryl Dike and Jeremy Ebobisse who both showed very well in 2020.
But the team has a lot of holes. The domestic-based wing position needs to be better and Kreis will need to push hard for re-enforcements from abroad. Jesus Ferreira and Djordje Mihailovic are both good players, but what position will they play? The same with Sebastian Saucedo.
The big question mark is goalkeeping. JT Marcinkowski’s breakthrough into San Jose’s starting lineup was huge for the U-23 team in 2020. This was always an area of concern, but his improvement is a big improvement for the team. Unfortunately, goalkeeping at the U.S. youth national team levels has been a major concern since the 2015 U-20 World Cup when Zack Steffen and Ethan Horvath were terrific options on one team. The pressure will be on Marcinkowski to prove he can make the big saves that will be required to get the team to the Olympics.
There are a lot of other questions. Will the players at least be in preseason and fit ahead of the qualifying camp? How much will the region’s other teams be prepared?
Regardless, this team has what it takes to get to Tokyo but it is a tough and unforgiving path.