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U.S. U-23s enter Olympic qualifying eager to erase memories of previous cycle’s failure

Wil Trapp U.S. U-23s England 11

 

By FRANCO PANIZO

It has been seven years since the U.S. Under-23 Men’s National Team competed in the Olympics. It was 2008 when the Americans, featuring a squad that included Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore, most recently reached the quadrennial tournament.

Since then, frustration and disappointment has reigned. The U.S. U-23s of the last cycle bombed out in the group stage of CONCACAF qualifying, leaving that batch of promising youngsters without the key developmental experience of competing against some of the world’s best in a high-stakes international competition.

Because of that there is more pressure on the current crop of U.S. U-23s to step up and deliver.

The 2015 CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Championship is set to begin later this week, and U.S. U-23 head coach Andi Herzog is the man tasked with successfully navigating this current generation of Americans to the 2016 Summer Olympics. Herzog has to first get his side to be one of the top two teams that advances from its group before winning a semifinals round game that would punch a ticket to Brazil.

The task seems simple enough — especially since the Group A opponents are Panama, Cuba and Canada — but simple almost never proves easy in CONCACAF.

“It’s going to be difficult. It’s going to be a grind, but that’s what you want as a player,” midfielder Wil Trapp told SBI. “You want it to be difficult, especially because we have some added incentive with the last group not making it. There’s a little bit more pride and a little bit more pressure, but good pressure.

“I think we have a lot of quality and talent in our group, guys that have had to qualify for back-to-back Under-20 World Cups and know what those high-pressure moments have been like.”

There is no denying that Herzog’s squad has the skill to accomplish its mission of reaching the Olympics. All but one of the players on the 20-man roster named earlier this month are playing professionally, whether that be in MLS, Europe, or Mexico. The one that does not, Stanford forward Jordan Morris, has already shown on multiple occasions that he is gifted enough to contribute at the full international level.

The tricky part for Herzog, however, is blending all of these youngsters and their different playing styles into a cohesive unit on the field. While Herzog has held camps in recent months to help in that respect, the 47-year-old Austrian has not had the luxury of having this entire group together before. Some players will have met for the first time this week, but such is life in youth international soccer where clubs are not obligated, even now, to release players.

Making things even more challenging is that Herzog only recently was able to introduce a handful of U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team players like Gedion Zelalem and Matt Miazga to the fold. Those promising prospects may have settled into their new surroundings quickly in the camp in Europe earlier this month, but chemistry on the field is built up over time and not something that can be rushed.

“I think we have a solid group of players that are going and it’s just whether or not we can put it together and perform when it counts,” midfielder Fatai Alashe told SBI. “That’s obviously what matters. You can have as good of a team as you want, if guys don’t perform when it matters then obviously you’re not going to do well. But I think we’ve got a lot of players that will definitely help us out a lot.”

Several positions are undoubtedly up for grabs going into Thursday’s first Group A match with Canada, even the one that figured to be set but is not any longer. Regular starting goalkeeper Cody Cropper recently suffered a knee injury that required surgery, and he will miss the Olympic qualifying tournament as a result.

Goalkeeper Ethan Horvath, who is playing these days with Molde FK, seems the likely candidate to replace Cropper. Horvath, however, is facing competition from Leeds United’s Charlie Horton and Zack Steffen of SC Freiburg.

Neither of those two are seeing competitive minutes at their respective clubs, but Steffen more so than Horton still appears to have a good shot at taking the No. 1 jersey given his immense talent and recent impressive performances at the Under-20 World Cup this summer.

“We have very good depth in the goalkeeper position,” said Miazga. “Obviously Steffen had a really good U-20 World Cup and is an amazing ‘keeper and Ethan obviously is a really good ‘keeper, too. He’s been playing (UEFA) Champions League qualifiers, Europa League qualifiers, and he’s been playing in Europe consistently, so that’s good.

“It doesn’t really matter who the goalie is. They have to compete and step up for the spot, but it all comes down to coach’s decision. I think no matter who’s in that position, we’ll be okay.”

Regardless of whether it is the goalkeeper, field players, or coaching staff, something that will benefit all of the U.S. is that the tournament is being played on home soil in familiar stadiums.

The first match against the Canadians and second vs. Cuba on Oct. 3 will be played in Sporting Kansas City’s Sporting Park. The group finale with Panama is at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, the home venue of the Colorado Rapids, three days later. The potential clincher will be in Real Salt Lake’s Rio Tinto Stadium on Oct. 10.

Sizable crowds also expected at several, if not all, of these games, meaning the Americans should have a true homefield advantage throughout qualifying. The U.S. knows full well how much of a benefit that is, especially in qualifying tournaments where sometimes the smallest things can make the biggest difference.

“Definitely playing in the U.S. is going to help,” said Miazga. It’s not like the U-20 (World Cup) qualifiers that were in Jamaica where you don’t have as much of the amenities and the Wi-Fi and good food and stuff like that. It’s definitely going to be much better being in an environment that we know here in the U.S. and obviously the support is going to be very valuable.”

As advantageous as it might be to play in the U.S., it also makes for heightened expectations. There is no excuse for failing to reach the Olympics for a second consecutive time, as there should not be any hostile crowds of intimidating atmospheres to deal with.

Qualifying for Brazil 2016 might still not come easy, but the Americans are more than prepared for that.

“Obviously the last cycle didn’t qualify so there’s definitely more added pressure,” said Miazga. “It’s the Olympics. Everybody wants to play in the Olympics. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity, so every country that we play is going to be giving it their all and so are we.”

Comments

  1. After the injury time free kick goal that dashed our hopes of advancing out of group in Beijing; and after the injury time goal by ES — when we had a corner kick mind you — in 2012; we need a break.

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  2. The group is the easiest that could reasonably be asked for. The semi-final will be much tougher, hopefully the group stage enables the team to build up and peak for that game. This team is mostly made up of U-20s from the last cycle and I think there are some good players in that group so I’m reasonably optimistic.

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