When the roster for the U.S. Under-23 Men’s National Team was released on Monday, it included three Atlanta United players, an inclusion that came despite the fact Atlanta United had already made it clear it wasn’t releasing the players for the upcoming Olympic qualifying training camp, or for Concacaf Olympic qualifying.
Citing the team’s upcoming Concacaf Champions League participation in early April, and Covid-related concerns, Atlanta United balked at releasing Miles Robinson, Brooks Lennon and George Bello, with Robinson’s exclusion hitting particularly hard given his expected role as a key defensive leader.
“Atlanta was an interesting situation,” U.S. Under-23 coach Kreis told reporters on Monday. “They have two to three players, I would say who have been very, very big contributors for us in this camp. We’ve been working for the past couple of weeks on trying to come to a solution that would be beneficial for both parties. Obviously, as I said, these were going to be big, big players for us in this qualification process.
“Atlanta wanted to keep the players because they’re in Concacaf Champions League,” Kreis said. “They were also concerned with some COVID stuff. And so we thought we had moved to a solution that was going to work, and over the weekend, we found out that Atlanta ultimately decided to not make those players available to us. So, unfortunate situation for us, unfortunate situation for the players, but ultimately, as a former MLS coach, I think we have to respect the decision.”
This isn’t the first time Atlanta United has balked at a national team call-up, having rejected USMNT call-up bids for Robinson and other players for the January 2020 national team camp.
Robinson did take part in the USMNT’s most recent January camp, earning a start and impressing in the team’s 7-0 win against El Salvador. That performance reinforced Robinson’s standing as the top centerback heading toward Olympic qualifying, making Atlanta United’s decision not to release him a difficult one for the U.S. Under-23 team.
“To not have him I think is a pretty big blow to us, but I do think that we’ve got four centerbacks right behind him in (Justen) Glad, (Henry) Kessler, (Mauricio) Pineda and (Auston) Trusty,” Kreis said. “They’ve all gotten significant minutes and significant experience at the very highest level in the US in the past year. So we believe that we’ve still got a deep enough and strong enough group.”
Alvarez not ready to decide national team future
Kreis’ decision to include Efrain Alvarez on the preliminary roster for Olympic qualifying could be best described as a token gesture of interest to a player who was extremely unlikely to rush a decision on his national team future, so it wasn’t much of a surprise when Alvarez’s name was missing from the training camp roster.
“Efra’s a player that we were working with and talking with about making as we said from the beginning, a very, very difficult and personal decision,” Kreis said. “He’s decided to not make that decision yet. So he’s decided that he wasn’t ready to commit to one team or another, which puts us in a very hopeful position.
“Again, we continue to let Efra know that we support it, that we would like him to be a part of the US men’s national teams programs,” Kreis said. “But ultimately, we understand that this is a very personal and deep decision. We want to respect that.”
Kreis did bring in another teenage midfielder who hadn’t been part of the January U-23 camp in Colorado Rapids standout Cole Bassett, while pointing out that Gianluca Busio was ultimately not included due to not having been a part of any past U-23 camps.
While Alvarez put off his decision between the United States and Mexico, two other players facing a similar decision will take part in the U.S. camp. Julian Araujo and Ricardo Pepi were called up by Kreis, and both are still eligible to represent Mexico.
Ebobisse’s absence was a coach’s decision
One of the more surprising exclusions from the Olympic qualifying training camp roster was Portland Timbers striker Jeremy Ebobisse. The most experienced of the striker options in the available U-23 player pool, Ebobisse was passed over in favor of Sebastian Soto and Jesus Ferreira as striker options, along with Ricardo Pepi, who is a long-shot to make the final roster, but who likely earned a call-up in a step toward trying to convince the FC Dallas forward to continue representing the United States rather than potentially switching to the Mexican national team.
“It was coach’s selection,” Kreis said of Ebobisse’s omission. “We know that ultimately, we’re going to end up with a roster with probably two number nines. (Ebobisse)’s a player that you know, I felt in the past was a player that could play winger, but could also play nine. But through working with him in the January camp, I walked away from that camp feeling very strongly that he is a number nine. And for us at the moment we have two number nines that we prefer to him. So that’s the decision we make.”
U.S. U-23 has a different look after a year-long delay
The upcoming Concacaf Olympic qualifying tournament will come a full year after it was originally slated to take place, a delay caused by the Coronavirus pandemic that froze the world, and a look at the training camp roster for the United States shows just how much things have changed.
A total of nine players on the 20-player roster chosen for last year’s postponed edition of Olympic qualifying are not included in the current group, including a trio of standouts who have since secured transfers to Europe. Reggie Cannon, Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie were all projected to be starters on the 2020 team but are not available now as they have established themselves as regular contributors with their current teams in Europe.
In other instances, injuries have played a part, with Paxton Pomykal having endured a difficult time and Richie Ledezma having undergone knee surgery that has sidelined him. Erik Palmer-Brown’s recent injury ruled him out after it was believed he would take part.
“I think the team feels different in a lot of ways,” Kreis said. “You know, obviously, not having players like (Brenden) Aaronson and (Mark) McKenzie. Those players would have been, I think, really important players for us. But you know that those players are also not available. Also, Erik Palmer-Brown’s not available this year. So there’s a host of players that weren’t available this year that were available last year.
“But as we’ve said, what we have gained as we’ve gained players that had a tremendous amount of experience in MLS this past year due to the, I think, more opportunity for young players in the league,” Kreis said. “So we’ve got I think, arguably, probably a more experienced group as far as how many of these players have played lots of matches in the last year to two years. But ultimately looks a little bit different from from the top end perspective, perhaps so deeper group.
“And I think still, at the end of the day, I still feel very good at the talent level we have the team that we’re going to be able to put forward to help us qualify for the Olympics.”
Among the new faces who have emerged to position themselves as key contributors are centerbacks Mauricio Pineda and Henry Kessler. The two players are coming off standout rookie seasons in MLS, whereas a year ago neither was anywhere close to being on the Olympic qualifying radar.
Brazil-based midfielder Johnny Cardoso is another player who wasn’t in the picture a year ago, but has now emerged as a promising prospect who made his USMNT debut last November.
Then there is Sebastian Soto, a star at the 2019 Under-20 World Cup, but a player who wasn’t available for the 2020 edition of Olympic qualifying, but who will now be expected to start in the 2021 qualifying tournament.