ASN Exclusive

Kreis sees big changes to the U.S U-23 pool heading into 2021

While there is much excitement for the United States national team getting back together for this first time since February, there is also an eye to the U.S. U-23 team with a young roster assembling in Wales and Olympic coach Jason Kreis part of the staff there. ASN’s Brian Sciaretta spoke with Kreis about how that team has evolved despite the inactivity due to COVID.
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
November 09, 2020
4:30 PM

THE CURRENT ROSTER for the United States national team now assembled in Wales is noted for its youth. The initial roster contained an average age of under 22 and 20 of the 24 players were age-eligible for the United States U-23 team. It should come as no surprise that the U-23 team head coach, Jason Kreis, in on Gregg Berhalter’s staff for this trip.

Like many youth teams around the world, the United States U-23 team has been largely inactive in 2020. The last time the team was assembled was in March for the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament in Mexico. Almost as soon as when the players arrived in Guadalajara, the players were sent home due to COVID.

It is unclear when that tournament will take place but the most likely scenario is for it still to take place in Guadalajara in March 2021. What is clear is that the U.S. U-23 team will not look the same as it did earlier this year.

The 2020 season in MLS saw many players enter the pool with strong seasons. Other players faded. Some players such as Reggie Cannon and now Brenden Aaronson have been sold to European teams making their releases less likely (as a rule, clubs are never required to release players for U-23 teams or any youth national team – even if it is in a FIFA window).

In a conference call with reporters on Monday, Berhalter said there will be some players on this national team roster who won’t be back with full team for awhile – instead they will focus on other U.S. Soccer teams. This will mostly likely mean the U.S. U-23 team.

With the player pool for the U.S. U-23 national team undergoing significant changes in 2020 – both domestically and abroad – as well as the current roster and coaching staff having a slight eye to U-23 team, ASN spoke with Jason Kreis about how he sees the team heading into 2021.


BRIAN SCIARETTA FOR ASN: How much of this camp is geared towards a U-23 approach?

JASON KREIS: It's a question that is impossible to answer because I don't think any of us ever look at it from a percentage perspective. There is no other way to say it other than it is a bit of both. We want the national team program to be from the youth levels all the way up to the full team.

Everybody who is part of U-23 Olympic qualification should be thought of as possible full national team players. I think this is an opportunity to look at an all-encompassing group of players.

ASN: What have you been doing regarding the U-23 team since March?

KREIS: For me right now, it is about staying on the same page as the players as well as scouting. There is obviously communication with the players that are in the pool and have been in the pool and are going to be new to the pool.

As you probably know, there are more new players that are now stepping forward in MLS and in other countries getting a whole lot of first team experiences than was happening a year ago. So what happens is that our pool keeps getting bigger and bigger as we've been able to watch more and more games.

ASN: But in a way, is the pool shrinking a little bit? Is it true that many players, like Brenden Aaronson and Reggie Cannon, are now getting older and entering into situations where club releases are much harder in 2021? The same with Richie Ledezma rising from Jong PSV to the first team at PSV. There are now more reasons for clubs to deny the release. Your team is now a U-24 team where more players in the pool are first team players with their clubs and with it being a youth national team, club releases are never mandatory.

KREIS: That's of course one of the major difficulties for us - trying to project who will be available and who will not be available. That is always going to be a major concept so we have to evaluate how every player would look on our team.

You said it correctly with Richie. I don't know whether or not PSV would qualify him yet as a first team player yet - he's had one appearance with the first team but a week before he was playing with Jong PSV. It could be a situation with him on the timing of the matter and the depth of their first team squad, it could make a player like him available. We have to have a full comprehension of what the total pool looks like.

ASN: When you go back and look at your qualifying roster from March, is that still what you consider to be your core? Or is it now essentially starting from scratch? You have guys like Aaronson likely leaving but Eryk Williamson and Henry Kessler are probably in a much better situations within your player pool than last year.

KREIS: I expect it will be very, very different. That group was put together based on who was available. Those wasn't the first players selected. That was the absolute best players at the time who we could get based on availability. It will be the same next year except that you have to add in the wrinkles that some of those players won't be available because their stature within their clubs has been raised and there has been a bunch of new players that have stepped into the forefront. Eryk Williamson is a perfect example of that. There are many others that you can list.

ASN: In terms of your radar, there are a lot of incredibly young players now getting minutes - players born born in 2003 who would be on the younger side for even the 2024 Olympics. Are there players surfacing who weren't even on your radar at all last year?

KREIS: I don't want to mention names unless I am absolutely certain. But even older, there are some guys who were playing college soccer recently that are now playing on their first teams. They weren't even on my radar then but now they're showing to be quite interesting.

ASN: Dual nationals have been a hot topic and I know you will meet several players like this with the U.S. team in Wales and Austria. But within the MLS-based pool, Ayo Akinola and Daryl Dike are two forwards coming off great seasons and both have ties to other nations. Canada is reportedly interested in Akinola and two of Dike's siblings played for Nigeria. What do you think of these players as being part of your pool and are you concerned they could have options elsewhere?

KREIS: The discussions with them have been that they are piquing our interest and have been on different levels. One, was because we happened to be at the same location with the player [this summer]. The other is has been more from a coaching point of view which is to leave them alone until the season is over. Those players have piqued the interest of not only the U-23 team but also the U.S. men's national team as well.

ASN: In terms of the timeline of this team, it has been inactive since earlier in this year. When do you think this team can get together again?

KREIS: Those are ongoing questions we are having with U.S. Soccer trying to put together. Obviously, it is a really, really difficult situation as you can imagine just with having our first full team camp. I couldn't think there would ever have been a scenario where we would have a U-23 camp before we had a full team camp. I've been patient but also eager to get a group together and work with them.

I think everybody has the same perspective now that the group we put together for qualification could look a lot different. The desire to get the group together is quite high but sometimes you look at the desire and what you really need, and it's just not possible. We'll keep pushing and keep hoping, so we'll see.

ASN: There are rumors that the 2021 MLS Season might have a much later start date. How much do those discussions affect what you want to do and how you can organize this team? Are you concerned that a late start could have your team still in preseason or maybe even offseason form if qualifying takes place in March 2021?

KREIS: It's from a perspective of how late he start would be. If it is pushed back a month, then you're dealing with a group that is in preseason compared with what last year would have been 3-5 games in MLS. The difference isn't drastic but there are challenges along the way. There will be struggles putting the group together and struggles if we make the Olympics because it is going to be such a busy calendar year. But none of those struggles should keep us from getting what we want. We're moving forward with a positive mindset and as enthusiastically as we can.

ASN: The U.S. U-20 team might have its World Cup qualifying within a month or so of Olympic qualifying. Is here much of an overlap between players both you an U-20 head coach Anthony Hudson might want? Do you have priority?

KREIS: I don't know if I could give you a set answer that I would have priority. That's a group decision between myself, Anthony, Brian [McBride], Ernie Stewart, and Gregg Berhalter. A consensus decision will rule where those players could best fit among a couple of different teams. But Anthony and I have had a couple of discussions already.

ASN: What have you made of the 2020 MLS season in terms of young players getting on the field? Have you gotten the sense that this has been a groundbreaking season where more clubs are on board with giving young players, attacking players, a chance to give important minutes?

KREIS: I think it is the truth that younger players are getting more opportunities. There are a couple of factors in there.. It is a shortened season and coaches are taking a few more liberties about giving opportunities and taking a few more risks because they understand that this season is very different from anything before. I also think you cannot deny the fact that we as a country and as a league are doing a pretty darn good job in the past five years or so at developing prospects. A lot of people should be congratulated for the job they've done over the past five years in developing these players.

The pool has expanded greatly over the past year and it needs to expand because with all the challenges of putting a team together, you need to be in a situation where you can't go wrong if the pool is wide - when you have a pool you really like.

ASN: The position of goalkeeping was probably a concern for you last year. There has been a little bit of an uptick with JT Marcinkowski emerging as a starter for San Jose. But not many U.S. youth national team goalkeeping prospects have been starting. This used to be a cornerstone of the U.S. team. How is that area with your team?

KREIS: That was an area of concern because as of March none of the prospects in the pool for use were playing first team soccer at all. We had a few that were playing with USL teams but the guys who were doing that were doing that on a consistent basis. I am really pleased to see JT step in [for San Jose]. I thought it was interesting to see Jonathan Klinsmann get a couple of games for the Galaxy.

I was hopeful that Ochoa would get regular games for RSL but that hasn't happened. There is another challenge to this year that is the ability of MLS players to be going up and down with their USL teams has been severely limited. That has had a little bit of a negative impact on guys like Ochoa, Matt Freese for Philadelphia and also Drake Callender who has been on our radar in Miami.

: Central defense is often the key to winning youth games in CONCACAF. You must be pretty comfortable with the amount of minutes players like Mark McKenzie, Miles Robinson, Aboubacar Keita, Justin Glad, and now Henry Kessler as well as big European players like Erik Palmer-Brown, Chris Richards, and Cameron Carter-Vickers bring to the table?

KREIS: I feel really good. That's a group that when I really started to look at it I was thinking this was going to be an area where there will be the hardest decisions because there are a lot of players playing first team soccer on a regular basis. Then again, I think a majority of those decisions are interesting because sometimes those decisions make themselves due to availability in whether or not a club will release them. It's another area where in five months in March it could be different than it does right now.

ASN: How do you feel about this current U.S. roster and working with these players? If you get to the Olympics, maybe you could be working with a bunch of them - like Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, Christian Pulisic, Sergino Dest, and Gio Reyna? Several of them have already seemed eager about playing in the Olympics.

KREIS: It's exciting. Right now I am seeing a lot of these guys for the first time in person and working with them. The prospect would be remarkable because I think the team we could put together to represent our country in the Olympics could arguably be the best full team as well. It would be exciting and fun but those things are tough to put together.

ASN: It is way down the road, but if qualifying is successful, do you think this could be the first men’s team to seriously expect to medal?

KREIS: I don't know if I would go so far as to put medal in the sentence [laughs] but I would say it would just be a really exciting prospect to be more competitive on more levels.

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