ASN Exclusive

With the 2024 Olympics on the horizon, Mitrovic optimistic where his U.S. U-23 team stands

With the Olympic games approaching, ASN's Brian Sciaretta had a long conversation with U.S. U-23 head coach Marko Mitrovic about where his team stands heading into 2024, 
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
December 28, 2023
11:45 AM

WITHOUT QUESTION, 2024 is going to be a big year for U.S. Soccer with the Nations League final rounds in March, the Copa America starting in June on U.S. soil, and the U.S. team returning to the Olympics for the first time in 2008. While the Nations League and Copa America are important measuring sticks for the U.S. team right now, the Olympics is a great measuring stick for the future.

Historically, previous Olympics teams have been very important to the men’s program to bridge the gap between youth national teams and the full national teams. It’s easy to lose sight of this because it has been so long since the U.S. team has played in the Olympics. But the tournament has been critical for top players such as John O’Brien, Landon Donovan, Josh Wolff, Maurice Edu, Stuart Holden, Benny Fielhaber, Charlie Davies, Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, and Brad Guzan.

But the Olympics will now take part in a far different era for U.S. Soccer. The U.S. U-23 team will not just be fully professional, but most of the players will be starters and key players for their clubs – both domestically abroad.

U.S. Soccer hired Marko Mitrovic in September to coach the U.S. U-23 team. The Serbian-born, naturalized American citizen previously was the U.S. U-19 head coach. Prior to that, he served as an assistant coach to Velko Paunovic for the Serbian U-20 World Cup winning team, the Chicago Fire, and finally Reading FC.

The team held its first two camps during the September and October international windows. Mitrovic will now be on Gregg Berhalter’s staff for the January USMNT camp which will include many Olympic-eligible players. Then in March and June, the U.S. U-23 team will host its final two camps prior to the start of the Olympics in late July.

Last week, ASN spoke at length with Marko Mitrovic.


Brian Sciaretta for ASN: Last month you concluded the second of four U-23 camps you will have before the Olympics. You had great results in the first camp. I know the second camp might not have had the results you wanted, but you've probably still learned a lot. Discuss how you see this team after the first two camps?

Marko Mitrovic: You started with results. I would never say that the results are not important, but we are really in a process. And for the group, it was the first time together. For us, it was really important to learn as fast as possible about our dynamic, to evaluate the players, evaluate the staff and the group.

When I look back to these two camps, I think there is a great foundation that we can build on. I think that the environment that we want to create - everybody understands that and that's important… I think that players really understand the way we want to play. The feedback we got from the players on and off the field about expectations - it's very positive. Like I said, it's a great, great foundation for us and for the evaluation of the process.

With those two camps, what are the things that we must add or change? But also, what are the positives from those to bring with us moving forward?

ASN: Were there any specific positives that you like from the team that maybe took you by surprise or concerned you?

Mitrovic: When we speak about the environment, I really like the cohesion between the players. In the first camp, I believe there were so many players who didn't even know the other guys. Some have played their whole life abroad and they don't know the players currently within MLS, or the players here just play against each other. But that's something that is very positive about our cohesion within our team, within the staff as well.

There were also a lot of positives on the field and there are things that we have to do better. But to be honest, they don't concern me. It's something that we can fix. Overall, I'm really happy with where we are standing right now.

ASN: Does the does the approach for the team now change after these two camps? I know you only have four camps together with this team along with the USMNT January camp, which is going to have a lot of Olympic eligible players involved. But does the approach now shift from evaluation to building a team?

Mitrovic: Definitely. We have to go more and more narrow with everything - with our roster, with the results as well to connect those puzzles in the right way. We have very limited time. We don't have that luxury to keep evaluating. We have to go narrower and prepare very specifically with everything towards the Olympic games.

ASN: With January camp, you will be on Gregg Berhalter's staff, and I assume there's going to be a lot of Olympic eligible guys on that team. What are you looking to accomplish for this camp? Is this a chance to build for the Olympics? A chance for players to showcase themselves in front of the USMNT staff? Is this also a chance to maybe look at some overage options?

Mitrovic: I think it is everything you mentioned, literally everything. There's going to be players who are in the Olympic age group -  players that have been with us and players that we want to see who, for different reasons, haven't been with us in the first two camps. There are going to be overage players who, besides USMNT stuff, we have an opportunity to take a look at them by working with them in a daily environment. That's on the players perspective.

Also with the MNT staff, we will have our collaboration and then when we evaluate the players and speak about them, we will have more clarity. But also, one other thing is just for myself and my development. I have a great collaboration with Gregg. I used to work with B.J. and Anthony, but I've never worked with Gregg in a camp. For my growth, I think it is a great opportunity as well.

ASN: Have you begun speaking with potential over age options to gauge their interest and their potential fit into the culture and environment you are creating within your U-23 team?

Mitrovic: We are still building that strategy. We are going to start very soon to talk to the overage players. Most of that conversation will start with Gregg and the MNT staff…. We know that it's not just the Olympic games, we have the Copa America. It's a very sensitive time between these two big tournaments. Some cases might have a domino effect - like for one decision then we must go to the other decision. We just want to be clear when we talk to the players and when we talk to the clubs that we are sending the right message.

That's our strategy and the deeper we go through this process, you actually see how many small things can affect our decisions. We just want to be sure before we take those steps that we have a real strategy and we control that. Even things that we don't control down the road, we are ready for the next scenario, so that we don't react.

ASN: What kind of characteristics are you looking for from these overage players? Is it maturity? Leadership? Is it ability to potentially fit in with a team where the overage player is from a completely different generation? Would you be hesitant about taking someone who is over 30 onto a U-23 team when there is such a big age difference? Also, is it very positionally oriented with these decisions where you try to fill a position that maybe you believe is thin among the existing U-23 pool?

Mitrovic: That's exactly it when we speak about strategy. Like are these high potential players that are not with the MNT, but down the road they have an opportunity to be part of the MNT? Is it part of a positional need? Is there leadership? We don't want to put any limitation there - like we don't want to take players over 30 years old. If that player will help with what we need, we are still open for that.

And just like I said, it's maybe a domino effect because the Copa America is a priority for federation and that will determine our roster as well. And then and how are we going to manage that?

ASN: March is the next time there's a dedicated U-23 camp, and this is the second to last camp before the Olympics. You said that the team is changing quickly, and every camp must get more specific. What do you want that March camp to look like? Will this be close to what you want to take to the Olympics at that point? Are they going to be overage players involved in that camp?

Mitrovic: I would say everything that we can control which we know we've got to transform from March to July, we've got to do it. If we speak about the roster of the players, it's going to be narrower. But if we speak about a final roster, there's 20 plus games for every player within his environment. We talk about MLS or players that are playing abroad, there are so many games. I think it's a luxury for us if we say in March that we are closing the roster, because there are so many things that can happen over the next four months.

We know that in the Olympic games, we will play every third day. What can affect the roster is also the form of the players. A player that has not been playing for five months, how he can sustain such an intense environment as the Olympic games? So, I believe that between March and July there's going to be a lot of things that are going to happen that will still affect our roster.

We will try to go as narrow as we can [in March]. That's also related with senior players, like overage players. If we are sure that we have a clearly marked candidate, we're going to bring him in [March]. But if there is still uncertainty, we will wait for the June camp. And it could be one or two or three players.

And that's when we speak about our style of playing, that's something that we must be now as sharp as possible. We are coming closer to the Olympic games. Everything, like I said, gets narrower.

ASN: You recently saw Aidan Morris and Patrick Schulte win MLS Cup with Columbus. They both had big moments in the playoffs which helped them win the title. How important was it for you to see them contribute in such big ways? For Aidan, it was his second time winning MLS Cup. They were with you for the October camp, and both played well there.

Mitrovic: First, when you work with someone closely, you always root for those guys. So, I'm very happy for them that they achieved what they achieved. I also believe for their careers, for their lives, that it's a great legacy. Every player that plays soccer dreams about winning trophies.

When you speak about that being connected with us, listen, if we want to go and do what we want in the Olympics, we need winners. We need people that know how to win the trophies and know how to win the games. As you mentioned, both of them had a massive role in winning. They were not just part of the team. They had a massive influence on the field. That's something that we need. We need these kinds of players that when there are hard moments in a game, they still go. They believe in the process. They believe in themselves. They believe in the team - and they can win.

ASN: When you look at guys who haven't been with your team yet, I assume it's tough because you only have four camps and missing two is a lot. When you look at players like Diego Luna, who had a nice run in the playoffs, and Rokas Pukstas who won the Croatian Cup with Hadjuk Split and they're currently atop the table in Croatia. They haven't been into camp yet. Are they in the mix? Is it harder for them to make it? I mention them specifically because you talked about needing players who are winning – and they are.

Mitrovic: Yes. They've both been in consideration for the October and November camps. They both have different reasons why they haven't been with us, but definitely, both of them are in the mix and in consideration for March camp and then ongoing from there.

ASN: It's always a frequently asked question for you, but releases affect your roster tremendously and clubs have complete freedom to deny releasing a player for the Olympics. It’s also tough since there are still two transfer windows before the Olympics, so you might not know all of the clubs involved yet. But last time we spoke, you said you were optimistic. Is that still the case? How are discussions going?

Mitrovic: If we speak about MLS teams, we had a small delegation from U.S. Soccer meet with 20 plus clubs in person to talk about our Olympic process, our collaboration, and expectations and just getting them familiar with our process. The feedback was very, very positive. I know it's December, it's offseason, but I hope that feedback and support that we got, we are going to have for the rest of the cycle. There are some clubs who, for different reasons, we couldn't speak with last week but we are going to talk with them right after the new year and we will have the same idea to go to Europe and talk with the clubs where our players are playing. But right now, I feel positive about the Olympic games.

ASN: With the degree of age-eligible players who overlap with the full national team, there could be interesting decisions. I know the obviously players who are likely to go to the Copa America -  like Gio Reyna, Yunus Musah, Ricardo Pepi, and others who play regularly for the USMNT. But there seems to be players who are in a middle area where they are either on the fringe of the USMNT or they are only more distant sub options - but they could start and be impact players for the Olympic team. Players like Kevin Parades, Paxten Aaronson, Tanner Tessmann, Johnny Cardozo, and Gaga Slonina. Have you begun talking with Greg Berhalter about these overlapping players as to where they could play this summer? Or will those discussions take place closer to the Copa America?

Mitrovic: That's part of that process that we are in right now by making the best strategy and deciding how are we going to do it. There are so many, like I said, scenarios that it's difficult to sit now and say, okay, this is the path because we know there are so many things that we don't control and may happen down the road. There is a big portion of the players that are with the MNT that are actual Olympic age group players. But I want to say that we're really deep into the process and we want to do what's best for the MNT in the Copa America and for the Olympic team. And I feel very, very comfortable right now. I know we are going to bring a good team to the Olympic games. I believe whoever gets on that roster will represent this country at the highest level.

ASN: What do you think of this team's potential beyond the Olympics? Historically, the team was a great springboard for young players to move into the USMNT. In 2000, Landon Donovan, John O'Brien, and Josh Wolff used their performance in the Sydney Olympics to take a bigger role leading into the 2002 World Cup. Then in 2008, it was Maurice Edu, Stuart Holden, Charlie Davies, Michael Bradley, Benny Feilhaber, and Jozy Altidore who used the Olympics to become important USMNT players for either the Confederations Cup in 2009 or the World Cup in 2010. Now that you've seen many of the players in this group, do you think this team will see players go on from the 2024 Olympics to push for bigger USMNT roles heading into 2026 and beyond?

Mitrovic: That's really our goal. We know it's a massive event with the Olympic games, and we are going there to represent the country in the best possible way with the best possible result. But we also know that's a massive stage for those players to get the experience to show themselves that they are ready for the next step. And listen, I would say we have to make it a win-win with the Olympic games. We have to get a good result there and make people proud in the country. But, also, we have to be sure that after the Olympics, we have enough resources for the MNT that can compete for their spots in the World Cup 2026. These two goals, we can't separate them. They go together.

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