Preview: USMNT U-23s chasing Olympic qualification

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On Thursday night, the United States U-23 national team will kick off its campaign to qualify for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics when head coach Andi Herzog’s side faces off against Canada at Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kansas.

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Needing to advance from their four-team group as one of the top two sides and win a single semifinal matchup to qualify for next summer’s tournament, the not-so-baby Yanks are a mere 360 (or 390) minutes away from righting the wrongs of 2012 and proving themselves capable of taking the torch from the likes of Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Tim Howard and Jermaine Jones over the next two World Cup cycles.

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So who’s on the roster? Who’s expected to start, and star? Who do they have to beat in order to qualify? And what are expectations for the team as a whole? Let’s dive right in…

For full coverage of the U-23s’ first two group games in KC, make sure you check back on PST throughout the week, and feel free to follow me on Twitter as I’ll be reporting live from Sporting Park through the weekend.

Goalkeepers (3) — Charlie Horton (Leeds United); Ethan Horvath (Molde FK); Zack Steffen (SC Freiburg)

As always, the U.S. player pool is rich with quality goalkeepers. Steffen starred during the U-20s’ run at the World Cup this summer, though he’s far from the most established of the bunch back at their respective club sides. Horvath was recently given a run of first-team minutes with Molde, one of Norway’s biggest clubs, and has so impressed during that stretch that Herzog said during a Wednesday conference call he felt it best to leave the 20-year-old Highlands Ranch, Colorado, native with his club until the official beginning of the upcoming international window.

For games no. 1 and 2, it’ll be either Steffen or Horton, who moved from Cardiff City to Leeds United this past summer.

Zack Steffen, Chris Odoi-Atsem, Harrison Shipp
Zack Steffen, University of Maryland — 2013

Defenders (6) — Cameron Carter-Vickers (Tottenham Hotspur); Eric Miller (Montreal Impact); Matt Miazga (New York Red Bulls); Will Packwood (Unattached); Matt Polster (Chicago Fire); Dillon Serna (Colorado Rapids)

While Jurgen Klinsmann’s senior team might be struggling for capable center backs — maybe he’s the one struggling to select the right ones — Herzog’s U-23 squad has two of the brightest prospects we’ve seen at the position in a long, long time. Matt Miazga, already a regular starter and budding star for the Red Bulls, has come on by leaps and bounds from 2014 to 2015, fairly warranting talk about a call-up to the senior team sooner rather than later. He turned 20 over the summer.

Then there’s Cameron Carter-Vickers, who won’t turn 18 until New Years Eve later this year. Speaking of stars at the U-20 World Cup, no American player burst onto the scene and announced his arrival more loudly than Carter-Vickers. Built and sculpted like a 26-year-old veteran already — limbs like tree trunks — Carter-Vickers reads the game exceptionally well for a player his age. It won’t be long before he’s being considered by Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino for UEFA Europa League games. Carter-Vickers spoke at length to PST’s Joe Prince-Wright last month in England.

Polster, who has quickly become one of Major League Soccer’s best defensive midfielders as a rookie, gets pushed to the backline due to an abundance of quality, deep-lying midfielders. Having played fewer than a handful at center back this season, it will be interesting to see how much and how quickly Herzog goes to the 22-year-old Milwaukee, Wisconsin, native in the back.

Miller has reportedly been “recalled” by the Impact due to “injury” — his condescending air quotes, not mine, in a frustration-filled Twitter post on Wednesday that has since been deleted — meaning the starting right back job is wide open. Serna, who irregularly features as a midfielder for the Rapids, could actually end up winning that spot.

Cameron Carter-Vickers, USMNT U-23s
Cameron Carter-Vickers, USMNT U-23s

Midfielders (7) — Fatai Alashe (San Jose Earthquakes); Gboly Ariyibi (Chesterfield); Luis Gil (Real Salt Lake); Emerson Hyndman (Fulham); Marc Pelosi (San Jose Earthquakes); Wil Trapp (Columbus Crew SC); Gedion Zelalem (Rangers)

Trapp, Hyndman and Zelalem are three of the most gifted central midfield players — in that order, present moment — the U.S. system has produced in quite some time. There’s just one problem with that: the former two might be so close to identical players that they’re unable to play together. Trapp has flourished with Crew SC playing alongside big, strong Tony Tchani, a mountain of a tackling midfielder with great passing skills, awareness and ability to organize. That, Hyndman is not.

In a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 system, there’s certainly room for both players to fit into the same midfield, but there’s not enough soccer balls for two very ball-dominant operators. Fatai Alashe, another MLS rookie, seems the best fit to start alongside one of Trapp or Hyndman.

No player in the current U.S. pool has more hype surrounding him right now than Zelalem. The 18-year-old Ethiopian-German-American playmaker (Arsenal) has begun his loan stint with Rangers in scintillating form, becoming a first-team regular for the Scottish second-division side and frequently impressing with smooth dribbling skills and his ability to pick out the decisive pass into the final third. With a clear lack of attacking wing players on the roster, the onus of creating quality scoring chances will fall almost solely on the shoulders of Zelalem.

Gedion Zelalem, USMNT U-23s
Gedion Zelalem, USMNT U-23s

Forwards (4) — Alonso Hernandez (FC Juarez); Jerome Kiesewetter (VfB Stuttgart); Jordan Morris (Stanford); Maki Tall (FC Sion)

Up top, there’s Morris, followed by the great unknown. Tall showed well in the U-2os’ first World Cup game before missing the rest of the tournament through injury. Still just 19 years old, the Washington, D.C., native moved from Lille to Sion (Switzerland) this past summer.

As for Morris, it was a bit of a surprise to see the Stanford University standout on the U-23 roster when Klinsmann has so regularly called him into senior team camps over the last six months. With the CONCACAF Cup showdown with Mexico scheduled for October 10 — the same day as the U-23s’ potential semifinal appearance — the possibility still remains that Klinsmann plucks the 20-year-old after one or two group games. With Morris in the starting lineup, the U-23s have one of the quickest and craftiest strikers in the entire U.S. player pool, both in terms of getting from Point A to Point B and confounding defenders with intelligent, tough-to-track movement. Without Morris in the squad, who knows where the goals will come from.

Jordan Morris, USMNT U-23s
Jordan Morris, USMNT U-23s

Group A schedule

Thursday — vs. Canada (9 p.m. ET, live on NBC Universo)
Saturday — vs. Cuba (5 p.m. ET, live on Telemundo)
Tuesday, Oct. 6 — vs. Panama (9:30 p.m. ET, live on NBC Universo)

Outlook

The qualifying disaster of 2012, in which the U.S. U-23s failed to even get out of the group stage, both feels and is a long, long time ago now — not only in a literal sense, but considering how much better and deeper the under-23 talent pool is this time around.

Finishing top of Group A — seven of nine points is distinctly possible — should be the only target for Herzog’s squad. From there, it’s a win-and-you’re-in showdown against the runners-up from Group B, could be, but is unlikely to be, Mexico.

Failing to qualify for the Olympics won’t set the senior team back one bit — remember, it’s a U-23 competition with three overage players — but in terms of bridging the gap from the current generation of USMNT regulars to what is looking an increasingly promising group of youngsters working their way through the ranks, it would be a massive opportunity missed to gain invaluable major tournament competition before making the jump up to World Cup qualifying and the World Cup itself.

USMNT’s Arriola likely will miss MLS season, six World Cup qualifiers

Paul Arriola
AP Photo/LM Otero
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WASHINGTON (AP) D.C. United midfielder Paul Arriola had major knee surgery Monday and likely will miss the entire Major League Soccer season and the United States’ first six qualifying matches for the 2022 World Cup

The operation was to reconstruct his right anterior cruciate ligament. The team said there was no additional cartilage damage.

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The 25-year-old midfielder injured his knee Feb. 15 during D.C. United’s preseason match against Orlando in Tampa, Florida.

Arriola has been a regular starter for the U.S. national team under coach Gregg Berhalter. Arriola has five goals in 33 international appearances.

After failing to reach the 2018 World Cup, the U.S. starts qualifying for the 2022 tournament this year. The Americans have two matches each in September, October and November, then complete qualifying with two games apiece in March and September 2021.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

State of play in CONCACAF Champions League

CONCACAF Champions League
AP Photo/Carlos Gonzalez
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Four of five Major League Soccer clubs alive in the CONCACAF Champions League Round of 16 are in fine shape to reach the quarterfinals after one leg.

The fifth has a tall hill to climb.

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LAFC trails Club Leon by two and did not collect an away goal in Mexico during first leg play last week.

“It’s 2-0, but we’re going to work hard,” said LAFC attacker Latif Blessing. “We’re going to prepare ourselves to win the next game. … We did good, but we want to win. It couldn’t happen that way but we’re going to prepare next game to win this game. We need to win.”

The second leg in L.A. is one of the last two matches of the round, kicking off at 10 p.m. ET Thursday just as Seattle Sounders square off with Olimpia.

The Honduran side managed a controversial comeback in the 2-2 draw with Jordan Morris-fueled Seattle last week, but the Sounders will be happy to have those two away goals and home field.

Montreal Impact has the same situation for Deportivo Saprissa’s visit at 8 p.m. ET Wednesday, while Atlanta United scored an away goal in a draw with Motagua and hosts the visitors from Honduras’ capital at 8 p.m. ET Tuesday.

That leaves us with NYCFC, who got a Heber hat trick amongst five away goals at Costa Rican side San Carlos in a 5-3 win. The second leg begins at 6 p.m. ET Wednesday at Red Bull Arena (yes, you read that correctly).

Elsewhere, Liga MX sides don’t have it much better. Cruz Azul leads Portmore 2-1 heading back to Mexico, while Club America scored an away goal in a draw with Comunicaciones.

Finally, Tigres UANL trails 2-1 after one leg with Alianza in El Salvador.

CCL second leg schedule
all times ET

Atlanta United v. Motagua (1-1) — 8 p.m. Tuesday
Cruz Azul v. Portmore United (2-1) — 10 p.m. Tuesday
NYCFC v. San Carlos (5-3) — 6 p.m. Wednesday
Montreal Impact v. Deportivo Saprissa (2-2) — 8 p.m. Wednesday
Tigres UANL v. Alianza (1-2) — 8 p.m. Wednesday
Club America v. Comunicaciones (1-1) — 10 p.m. Wednesday
Seattle Sounders v. Olimpia (2-2) — 10 p.m. Thursday
LAFC v Leon (0-2) — 10 p.m. Thursday

Eleven to go: Ranking obstacles on Liverpool’s unbeaten path

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Liverpool has won all five of its matches since the last time we evaluated its path to an unbeaten Premier League season.

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Those matches were ranked 14th, 12th, 11th, 10th, and 4th on our first rankings of obstacles to immortality, so very little of the heavy lifting has been conducted.

Let’s get something out of the way: If Liverpool is unable to overturn their first leg deficit against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League, you can probably etch that zero in the league loss column into stone.

That said, many expect the Reds to overcome that 1-0 disadvantage from Madrid, so here’s where we slot the difficulties moving forward.

Unranked — Crystal Palace at home (March 21) and Brighton away (April 18) — Both of these dates are very easy on the eyes, but will be moved if Liverpool is alive in the FA Cup.

9. Newcastle away, time TBD May 17 — We’re now calling this the easiest date left. Klopp’s men aren’t going to lose an unbeaten season at the altar just because Steve Bruce bunkers down. St. James’ Park is a hassle, but

8. Watford away, 12:30 p.m. ET Saturday Klopp probably feels like he’s already playing with house money in the FA Cup, so there’s no reason to think he’ll hand any priority at all to the following FA Cup meeting with Chelsea.

7. Bournemouth home, 7:30 a.m. ET March 7 Situated between Chelsea in the FA Cup and the home UCL second leg versus Atleti, it’s not easy…  but the Cherries have given us less reason to believe they’ll threaten the Reds than any other team besides Newcastle.

6. Aston Villa home, 11:30 a.m. ET April 12Dean Smith‘s desperate Villans will have Villa Park rocking before Liverpool’s possible UCL quarterfinals 2nd leg days later.

5. Burnley home, 7:30 a.m. ET April 25 — Taking place just before a possible UCL quarterfinal first leg, Burnley will try to trouble the Reds in a similar manner to West Ham.

4. Chelsea home, time TBD May 9 — Both the Blues and Reds could be coming off UCL semifinal second legs. Don’t forget that Chelsea took the Reds to the wire in the UEFA Super Cup despite it being very early in Frank Lampard‘s tenure.

3. Arsenal away, time TBD May 2 — Both sides may be days away from needing a result to qualify for the UCL or UEL final.

2. Everton away, 4 p.m. ET March 16 — This may as well be the only match left on the Toffees’ docket that matters more than another, as Carlo Ancelotti and his men know the message they could send regarding the building up of Everton.

Not only that, but Everton has nothing else left to circle, no other competitions, nothing.

1. Man City away, 11:30 a.m. ET April 5 — Taking place 3-4 days before the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals and on the heels of an international break, it’s the lone date on the calendar that Liverpool won’t be heavy favorites to win.

Champions League: Chelsea, Napoli aim to slow Lewandowski, Messi

UEFA Champions League preview
Photo by Power Sport Images/Getty Images
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Four of the most dangerous attacks in Europe begin their UEFA Champions League Round of 16 ties on Tuesday.

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For Chelsea that means trying to find a way to limit the damage of away goals when Bayern Munich visits Stamford Bridge.

Of course, that means trying to slow lethal Robert Lewandowski. The 31-year-old Polish striker has scored 38 times in 32 appearances this season.

Here’s Frank Lampard, via Football.London:

Form of his life means something special with Lewandowski because of how well he’s been consistently in Europe for the last, how many years, I don’t know,” Lampard said. “Everything about him, from a distance, from afar, is just top class. Having the opportunity to watch a lot of Bayern in build-up to this game, that shines through. Of course, he’s going to be a huge threat. He’s not the only threat but he is a spearhead.”

Lampard points to the Blues work without the ball and away from it that will determine whether they can limit Lewandowski and Bayern.

“We traveled to Ajax and had a fantastic game off the ball,” he said. “We’ve had games like that this year in the league as well. But the levels have to go up.”

The Blues won’t have Christian Pulisic, Callum Hudson-Odoi, and N’Golo Kante, while Ruben Loftus-Cheek is finally available after a long injury absence. Pedro may play.

[ MORE: JPW’s score predictions ]

Tuesday’s other first leg sees Napoli hosting Barcelona, which means Gennaro Gattuso trying to find a way to cool down Lionel Messi.

The world’s top player scored four goals at the weekend and had six assists in his three previous La Liga outings.

Another player who’s helped Barcelona reclaim the league lead will be critical to controlling the midfield against Napoli, and that’s Frenkie de Jong.

The 22-year-old has had fits and starts at Barca, especially this month. He admits that he’s had an odd time adjusting to Messi, the teammate, though it hasn’t been part of the problem. From FCBarcelona.com:

“When I began training with him it was strange, because when I was 12, still in secondary school, I used to watch a lot of football. He was already the best in the world. He won the Ballon d’Or back then, so I was a fan, or whatever you want to call it.”

Napoli boss Gattuso was a bit more effusive when addressing Messi, via Football.Espana:

“I have read whether to make a cage or not, but we need the collective game to combat someone like him, and it is not just him,” Gattuso said. “He is the best in the world, for how he has lived his entire career. He is always perfect, never a misplaced word, he is an example for everyone. He does things that I only see on the PlayStation. He has an incredible quality and for years he has been the best of all-time.”

Both matches kick off at 3 p.m. ET Tuesday.