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.
[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage ]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.