In international soccer, history can have an odd relationship with the present day. Player and coaching turnover can be so frequent that what’s happening now can have little connection with what occurred previously. Outwardly, that would appear to be the case for the United States‘ under-23 squad attempting to qualify for this summer’s Olympics. None of the players on manager Jason Kreis’ 20-man roster were in the mix back in 2015, when the U.S. fell to Honduras in the semifinals of the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament and then came up short in a playoff against Colombia.
Those defeats marked the second time in a row that the U.S. didn’t reach the Olympic tournament.
“I don’t think any of us should feel any real onus about what happened four years ago, and none of us were a part of that,” Kreis told reporters earlier this month. And yet that failure and the fiasco that was qualifying for the 2018 World Cup still linger. Even in Kreis’ mind, that history loiters around the periphery, stating that the Olympic qualifying tournament is an opportunity and a chance to “right some wrongs.”
“We have sort of the first opportunity to make a major step forward, qualifying for a major tournament, whereas the full team has [World Cup qualifying] at the end of the year,” he added. “We kind of get the first bite at this, and that’s another motivating factor.”
It will not be easy. The U.S. is in a group with Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic and rival Mexico, with the top two teams advancing to a winner-take-all semifinal. With that in mind, there are questions to be answered.
Is this squad good enough to get to Tokyo?
The squad certainly has enough talent and experience. While age-eligible players (the Olympics is a U23 tournament, with each country able to select three over-age players) such as Christian Pulisic and Tyler Adams aren’t available because clubs aren’t required to release players, the roster is still filled with performers like the San Jose Earthquakes‘ Jackson Yueill and the New England Revolution’s Henry Kessler, who are regulars for their clubs. Then there are players like Norwich City’s Sebastian Soto, who have delivered at previous international youth tournaments.
That said, the team that attempted to qualify for the 2016 Olympics had talent as well — Cameron Carter-Vickers, Matt Miazga and Jordan Morris were all on that roster — although it was thin at outside-back.
With this group, the big question is where the creativity will come from given that the likes of Pulisic or even Brenden Aaronson aren’t available. At first glance, the roster has four defensive midfielders in Hassani Dotson, Johnny Cardoso, Andres Perea and Yueill. Kreis told reporters on a conference call that players like Dotson and Cardoso have more in their attacking toolbox than they’ve been asked to show at the club level. Those players, as well as wingers like Jonathan Lewis and Sebastian Saucedo, will need to be at their most dynamic if the U.S. is to qualify.
There are also concerns about whether there is enough diversity in the forwards corps tasked with scoring the goals. To be clear, Kreis was only allowed to have 17 field players on his roster, thus limiting his options to a degree. But neither Jesus Ferreira nor Soto provide much of a physical presence, relying more on their mobility and foot speed to get the job done. Kreis has made it clear that he expects his forwards to drop back into midfield and help with the buildup, but his decision to not select Portland Timbers forward Jeremy Ebobisse may come back to haunt him.
Is anyone in this group ready for the senior side?
Yueill has already caught the eye of U.S. senior team manager Gregg Berhalter, earning nine caps and performing well as a deep-lying playmaker in games when Berhalter needed such a role player. Otherwise, it’s tough to see too many players breaking through in the short-term, especially given that young, Europe-based players like Adams and Giovanni Reyna that are now mainstays. There does seem to be an opening when it comes to the understudy for Adams in midfield, so Perea, Cardoso and Dotson will be looking to impress.
The striker position with the senior side is there for the taking as well, giving Soto and Ferreira a chance to garner more minutes. That said, Ferreira struggled through a tough 2020 and Soto is now trying to break into Norwich’s first team now that his loan to Dutch second-tier side Telstar is over. As is often the case, their performances with their respective clubs will play a huge role in their progress with the national team.
Why do the Olympics matter?
As much as the Olympic tournament is derided in some parts of the globe (read: Europe), it still provides an opportunity for international experience that isn’t always available for U.S. players.
The last time the U.S. played in the Olympics, in 2008, you had players like Sacha Kljestan and Stuart Holden who used the tournament as a platform for bigger things. Might they have reached the same level of success internationally without it? Possibly, and that was certainly the case for Olympic teammates Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore.
But every layer of international experience helps, especially when it comes to the slog that is World Cup qualifying. It also provides Berhalter with more data points as he fills out his depth chart, and given the number of events this year — Nations League, Gold Cup, World Cup qualifying and the like — he will need to dig deep into his pool of players. More importantly, the Olympic qualifying tournament is another opportunity for the U.S. men to show that the program is heading in the right direction after the failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.