photo by ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
When it comes to tournaments spanning a few weeks, versatility is often discussed as a positive trait for players to have.
The U.S Under-23 men's national team has a lot of those players, and head coach Caleb Porter believes their versatility will be key to the group's advancement to the 2012 Olympics.
With Olympic qualifying set to begin for the United States in Nashville, Tenn. on March 22, Porter has called in a roster littered with players who can be deployed at different positions. From Juan Agudelo being able to play up top or out wide, to Perry Kitchen's experience at midfield and in defense, Porter has lots of options to choose from on this U.S. U-23 team.
"We're playing three games in five days in the group stage and five games in 12 days total, we need versatility," said Porter on a conference call on Tuesday afternoon. "It's nice to be able to shift guys in different spots without having to necessarily need specialists in this group. We've got very few specialists in this group. We've got guys that can shift different spots all across the board in every position. We've got a lot of versatility which will help us over the course of these 12 days."
Versatility is a strength of this U.S. team, but perhaps no position on it is as versatile as defense. Porter has called in only six defenders for the qualifying tournament, of which only one is a pure centerback.
With Ike Opara the only natural central option, Porter will need to choose a centerback pairing that will have at least one player (if not two) who spends most of his time at another position with his club.
Still, Porter is fond of the group he has chosen.
"We really like Ike and Perry," said Porter of the centerback position. "Obviously everybody in the camp still has to win a job, there's no decision made at this point on the starting lineup. The next eight days will determine that. But Ike and Perry did well as a tandem against Mexico (in February). They did solid and together they provide a balance of what we want in those positions.
"Zarek Valentin can also shift in there. He played in the last two camps in (Los Angeles) and Costa Rica and a little bit in this last camp in Dallas in that position and in numerous games. He's played in that spot with Montreal. Obviously, I've seen him there with my team at Akron. That's where he played for two years. He's a guy I think can shift in there along with Amobi Okugo. He can drop down there and play in that spot."
If any of those players gets in card trouble or suffers an injury during the tournament, Porter plans on relying on that versatility to secure passage to the Olympic Games.
"We feel good about our cover," said Porter. "What I like about our backs is they're very versatile. We can shift guys left and right back, like I said Zarek can go in the centerback, Perry can go to the outside back or even holding mid. Amobi has even seen some time in training and for a short period in one of the games at centerback. I think we're covered there."
Porter still needs to add one more player by March 20, the deadline for teams to submit official rosters. Only 19 players were on Porter's named roster on Monday due to one player (presumably Columbus Crew midfielder Dilly Duka) having to withdraw due to an injury picked up over the weekend.
Porter has options to choose from domestically and abroad, but it appears the replacement player will come from Europe. Hertha Berlin midfielder/defender Alfredo Morales is an option, as are West Ham midfielder Sebastian Lletget and Kaiserslautern forward Andrew Wooten.
Not wanting to specify who the team was considering, Porter did not mention any names when asked.
"We're in discussions right now with clubs to name that player," said Porter. "At this point we don't want to close any doors and we're not going to rush into a decision. Right now we're just going to keep the options open and if we need a player, it could be next couple days, it could be March 20."
As far as MLS teams go, their players who were summoned will report to camp in Nashville this week to begin preparations. That means clubs like Sporting Kansas City and the Chicago Fire will be without Week 1 starters Teal Bunbury and Sean Johnson for the next couple weeks at best.
"The MLS side of this has been seemless," said Porter. "Hasn't been as easy with the overseas club, but that is going to be expected. That is not a surprise. The good thing is that 13 of our 20 players right now (play) in MLS and all of them will be in camp leading up to qualifying."
For the Americans, qualifying begins with a Group A fixture versus Cuba on March 22 at LP Field. Two days later, the United States takes on Canada before wrapping up group play against El Salvador.
Porter and his coaching staff have already scouted their upcoming foes, but will continue to do so as the tournament nears.
"We've been collecting scouting information on all of our opponents," said Porter. "Obviously, we'll see Canada and El Salvador after they play their initial games, but we also have scouting information. We've seen those teams, whether it's live or on tape. We have guys that have devoted full time to scout these opponents. We'll have someone scouting the games in LA and someone doing the scouting in Nashville."