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.

[ STREAM: Watch Olympic qualifying games live ]

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.

Live, UCL: Ajax in action as playoff round begins

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The first legs of the UEFA Champions League playoff round kick off on Tuesday, as Ajax, Club Brugge and Slavia Prague all head on road trips as they hope to clear the final hurdle and reach the group stage.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores ]

It is rather outrageous that Ajax, the reigning Dutch champions who reached the semifinal of the UCL last season, have to qualify for this tournament, but here they are. Dusan Tadic (fresh from signing a new seven-year contract) is once again leading the charge for this young Dutch side who have lost Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt over the summer, and edged past PAOK 5-4 on aggregate in the last round. Ajax head to APOEL Nicosia of Cyprus in the first leg and hope to have a healthy advantage to take back with them to Amsterdam for the second leg next week.

Club Brugge head to LASK Linz from Austria as USMNT goalkeeper Evan Horvath now faces real competition for his starting spot as Belgian national team and former Liverpool goalkeeper Simon Mignolet arrived over the summer. LASK shocked FC Basel in the third qualifying round

As for the other game on Tuesday, CFR Cluj host Slavia Prague in Romania in a clash between two teams who have been making waves in Europe over the past few years. Cluj knocked Celtic out in the last round and it will be quite the occasion in Transylvania, as Slavia’s star man is Romanian international Nicolae Stanciu.

Below is the full schedule for Tuesday’s games, with all games kicking off at 3 p.m. ET. Three more UCL playoff games take place on Wednesday.

Click on the link above to follow all of the action live, while we will have you covered with a roundup of the action right here on Pro Soccer Talk.


Tuesday
APOEL Nicosia v. Ajax
CFR Cluj v. Slavia Prague
LASK v. Club Brugge

Premier League player Power Rankings

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Matchweek 2 is in the books and there is plenty of movement in our latest Premier League player Power Rankings.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Players from Man City, Liverpool, Leicester and Man United dominate our list, while there are a few surprise names from some of the teams who have surprised us all in the opening weeks of the new season.

Remember: this is a list of the top 20 performing players right now in the Premier League. If they didn’t play in the last matchweek, they aren’t getting in this list!

Let us know in the comments section below if you agree with the selections.


1. Sadio Mane (Liverpool) – New entry
2. Teemu Pukki (Norwich City) – New entry
3. Kevin De Bruyne (Man City) – Up 3
4. Dani Ceballos (Arsenal) – New entry
5. Marcus Rashford (Man United) – Down 2
6. Raheem Sterling (Man City) – Down 4
7. Harry Maguire (Man United) – Down 6
8. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Arsenal) Down 3
9. Aaron Wan-Bissaka (Man United) – Down 1
10. James Maddison (Leicester City) – New entry
11. Roberto Firmino (Liverpool) – Up 7
12. Anthony Martial (Man United) – New entry
13. Virgil Van Dijk (Liverpool) – Up 2
14. Ashley Barnes (Burnley) – Down 7
15. Chris Basham (Sheffield United) – New entry
16. Caglar Soyuncu (Leicester City) – New entry
17. Jordan Pickford (Everton) – Up 2
18. Mason Mount (Chelsea) – Up 2
19. Alexander Lacazette (Arsenal) – New entry
20. Leandro Trossard (Brighton) – New entry

St. Louis awarded MLS expansion franchise

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Major League Soccer is heading to soccer’s spiritual home in the United States of America.

St. Louis, Missouri was awarded an MLS expansion franchise on Tuesday, as it became the 28th team in the rapidly expanding league.

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The franchise is expected to enter the league in 2021, along with Austin FC as Inter Miami and Nashville SC are schedule to arrive for the 2020 season.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber was on hand in downtown STL to make the announcement.

Garber was alongside Mayor Lyda Krewson, plus the ownership group led by Andy Taylor and Carolyn Kindle Betz of Enterprise Holdings and Jim Kavanaugh, CEO of World Wide Technology and Saint Louis FC, who celebrated their success of bringing top-tier soccer to St. Louis. Kindle Betz will be joined by other female members of the Taylor family, which will make STL the first female majority-owned team in MLS history.

“After two decades of discussion about St. Louis becoming part of Major League Soccer, we are here today to announce it,” Garber said. “Saint Louis, with its incredibly rich soccer history, not only deserves an MLS team but has earned one.”

With the owner of Saint Louis FC, the USL franchise in the Midwest city, also involved in the arrival of MLS it is believed the team name, badge and colors will now be selected.

“Our ownership group has come a long way since we first announced our bid last October at Mathews-Dickey Boys and Girls Club, and it’s an incredible feeling to now be able to say, St. Louis is home to the first official majority female-led ownership group in MLS,” Kindle Betz said. “Our MLS team and stadium will only add to St. Louis’ renaissance currently underway and will provide us with a great opportunity to bring together many different segments of the community, uniting people in their love for the game.”

St. Louis’ Downtown West district is now set to be transformed with the stadium kickstarting a larger development which will include mixed-use retail, restaurants and gathering spaces open year-round to the public.

The ownership group have previously released plans for a 22,500-capacity stadium in the West Downtown neighborhood. Not having a solid stadium plan curtailed the efforts of others to bring MLS to St. Louis in the past, with the city council voting against partial funding for a stadium near Union Station in 2017.

But just when it looked like St. Louis would miss out on the MLS expansion race, they’re in.

With St. Louis losing the NFL’s Rams to Los Angeles, this is a shrewd move from MLS and follows their model of placing teams in major U.S. cities which do not have major league franchises across all sports. It takes the league to 28 teams, with Sacramento, Phoenix and Charlotte said to be among the favorites for the next two franchises as the league aims to expand to 30 teams.

It also helps to link up Midwest cities, as FC Cincinnati, the Chicago Fire, Columbus Crew, Sporting Kansas City and Nashville SC now have a new rival.

STL has brought in very good crowds for their USL side Saint Louis FC and also USMNT and USWNT friendlies, plus international friendlies between European clubs in recent summers.

Many of the USA’s top talents hail from the STL region (Taylor Twellman, Tim Ream, Brad Davis and Steve Ralston to name a few) and there is a rich soccer heritage in the city, with five of the 11 starters for the U.S. side in their historic 1950 World Cup win against England from St. Louis.

College soccer, amateur teams and former pro teams from St. Louis have all had a major impact on soccer in the USA.

There is now an MLS team to build on that legacy and create new iconic moments in St. Louis.

Report: Beckham stadium site has unsafe arsenic levels

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MIAMI (AP) An environmental analysis shows the proposed site for David Beckham’s Major League Soccer stadium in Miami is far more toxic than previously expected.

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The Miami Herald reports the analysis found arsenic contamination reaching more than twice the legal limit, and surface-level soil samples containing hazardous debris at the Melreese golf course site, where people have played golf for more than 50 years.

The consultant’s report says almost the entire site near Miami International Airport is contaminated by ash from a municipal incinerator shut down long ago.

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez said Monday night that team officials said the findings could increase cleanup costs to $50 million at the site.

The sprawling $1 billion commercial and stadium complex would serve as home to Beckham’s MLS team, Inter Miami .