Maki Tall

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.

[ 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.

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.

Preview: USA vs. New Zealand in group game No. 2 at U-20 World Cup

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Who’s up for some late-night soccer? I mean, some really late-night soccer.

At 3 am ET on Monday night/Tuesday morning, the United States’ U-20 national team will face New Zealand in their second of three group stage games at the U-20 World Cup.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s U-20 WC coverage ]

Following Friday night’s 2-1 victory over Myanmar, Tab Ramos’ side currently sits atop Group A, the group’s only nation to emerge victorious on day one of the tournament. Three hours before the Americans clawed and scraped their way to a narrow victory, Tuesday morning’s opponent, New Zealand, were busy securing a 0-0 draw with Ukraine in the tournament’s opening game.

Thanks to his one-goal, one-assist performance against Myanmar, 19-year-old Fulham midfielder Emerson Hyndman is the Yank garnering all the headlines, but ahead of Tuesday’s showdown with the tournament hosts, one question remains in the forefront of American minds: when will Gedion Zelalem make his first competitive start for the U.S.?

[ MORE: U-20 WC preview: The groups, the favorites, USA outlook and stars of the future ]

Zelalem, the 18-year-old Arsenal midfielder who was only cleared to play for the U.S. last month, made his competitive debut for the Yanks on Friday night when he came on as a second-half substitute, playing the final 35 minutes of the game (Zelalem highlights in below video). With just three days of rest between games, Zelalem could make his full competitive debut against New Zealand.

Elsewhere, 19-year-old forward Maki Tall (above photo), scorer of the U.S.’s first goal on Friday, will reportedly miss the remainder of the tournament after breaking his toe in the game against Myanmar. After leaving the game in the 49th minute, Tall was replaced by 18-year-old LA Galaxy forward Bradford Jamieson IV.

[ MORE: Caution over hype: Zelalem being handled carefully, correctly by U.S. soccer ]

Under FIFA rules, the U.S. U-20 squad will not be allowed to replace Tall on the roster.

A victory, along with Myanmar draw or defeat to Ukraine (Monday, 9 pm ET), against New Zealand would secure the U.S.’s place in the knockout rounds as, at worst, second-place finishers in Group A.

Hyndman stars as U.S. U-20 team downs Myanmar 2-1 to open World Cup play

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Emerson Hyndman set up the first goal and bagged the second as the United States U-20 team came back to beat Myanmar 2-1 overnight to earn three points from their World Cup group stage opener in New Zealand.

On his return from a broken collarbone suffered in late January qualifying, the Fulham midfielder captained the side at Northland Events Center in Whangarei, and was the brightest player in a somewhat shaky side.

Myanmar controlled the opening 15 minutes and scored early as the US looked shaky and disjointed, a Tab Ramos side that was quite different looking from the one that qualified via a playoff against El Salvador. They struggled mightily to string together more than a few passes and were unable to hold solid possession, appearing somewhat unfamiliar with one another.

But a set-piece goal from DC-born Lille youth product Maki Tall in the 17th minute evened things up and, while it didn’t jump-start the US immediately, it put them on the right path. 19-year-old Kellyn Acosta had a wide-open goal in the 53rd minute on a ball from Rubio Rubin and somehow missed the sliding chance, but Hyndman eventually scored the winner minutes later on a brilliant run from midfield to give the US an early lead atop Group A. Here’s a look at the game-winner:

The win is a great start for Ramos and the team, but they’ll need to be much better to avoid a different fate against New Zealand and Ukraine, who played to a 0-0 draw in Auckland.