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U.S. Under-23s focused on not repeating mistakes of past Olympic qualifying failures

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The U.S. Men’s Under-23 National Team has had some nightmarish experiences in Concacaf Olympic Qualifying over the past two decades, having failed to qualify for three of the past four Olympics. As much as that failed history began 17 years ago,  the Americans know full well about the history and are determined not to repeat it.

“It’s for sure, on our minds,” U.S. defender Justen Glad said of the program’s poor track record in Olympic qualifying. “We’ve seen what can happen if you’re not 100% focused and not 100% prepared, and we don’t want to repeat those same mistakes.”

The Americans head into the Concacaf Olympic qualifying tournament with a good team, but also with the knowledge that Olympic qualifying can be a tricky proposition, and the current tournament’s path is no different.

The United States is in a group with Costa Rica and Mexico, knowing a stumble against the Ticos in Thursday’s tournament opener could doom them, especially with a stacked Mexico side waiting in the group finale next week.

“We’re just going to go as if Costa Rica is the final, that’s just kind of how you have to think about it,” Sebastian Soto said. “And then once you get over that hill, the next one comes and that’s just tournament play.”

The U.S. team’s history in Olympic qualifying has been a painful one over the past 20 years, starting with the 2004 qualifying tournament. That U.S. team, featuring Landon Donovan, dominated the group stage with three straight victories, but wound up facing host-country Mexico in the decisive semifinal and suffered a 4-0 loss.

The Americans qualified comfortably for the 2008 Olympics, but the 2012 qualifying tournament delivered another brutal failure. After opening with a 6-0 humbling of Cuba, the United States suffered a shock 2-0 loss to Canada, but still had its fate in its own hands heading into the group finale against El Salvador.

After battling back from a 2-1 deficit to take a 3-2 lead, the Americans looked well on their way to a victory to move into the knockout rounds, but a stoppage-time equalizer by El Salvador helped by a goalkeeper blunder from Sean Johnson doomed the Americans to a stunning group-stage exit.

The 2015 qualifying tournament was much like the 2004 tournament in that the Americans swept through the group stage a perfect 3-0 only to suffer a semifinal loss to Honduras that cost them a chance at an automatic berth to the Olympics. The United States still had a chance to qualify via a playoff with Colombia, but lost to the South Americans, 3-2, over two legs to miss out on the London Olympics.

U.S. coach Jason Kreis isn’t likely to be spending a ton of time dwelling on that painful history, but his players are fully aware of how challenging and dangerous the qualifying tournament can be, and as Glad noted, the players know the history and are determined not to repeat it.

“I think being aware of that, and realizing that it can happen like this, you go down a goal and all of a sudden, your back’s against the wall,” Glad said. “We’re aware that that can happen. So we’ve got to be ready and make sure it doesn’t. We’ve got to flip the script.”

Working in the U.S. team’s favor is the fact that the current group boasts more professional experience as a collective than any previous U.S. Olympic qualifying squad. All of the team’s projected starters have spent time as first-team regulars, and while there is some concern about the team potentially not being as strong as it could have been a year ago when players such as Brenden Aaronson, Reggie Cannon, Richie Ledezma and Mark McKenzie were slated to be on the team, Kreis still has plenty of talent to work with.

“If we do what we’ve been working on these past two weeks, the goals will come, the wins will come,” Glad said. “And then we just got to perform and play how we can.

“I think we all know we can and we should qualify,” Glad said. “We have the quality to, and anything less than qualification is obviously a huge disappointment in our eyes.”

Comments

  1. With COVID restrctions some Euro based players will be unavailable for the U23s and the full squad. The hammer just hasn’t fallen yet.

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  2. item 1 that he can control is maybe drop the naive 433 and open soccer, and shift to a more defensive and controlled formation. do we get this is tournament soccer? everything since klinsi came in except brazil seemed to be to prove some abstract stylistic point. what used to win us games was being organized. item 2 he cannot control is player access. history shows we either “graduate” (pulisic, mckennie) or “can’t get released” many superior players, and so show up with almost a B team. i think this is very frustrating to people who take age groups too seriously as some sort of signal. when it really reflects that in, say, 2015, honduras could get their new stars like elis released, and we couldn’t. i think the last full roster access team is U20 and we do fine there. i think we nonetheless repeated the previous mistake of trialing a bunch of first team players we should have known wouldn’t get released. i think if we wanted to cope with the access issue the strategy would be focus on drilling an accessible unit of MLS players and european age groupers that we could rely on. try to win on defense and chemistry. but if you want to show up with a fallback B side of who got released and play an open end to end style as opposed to organized soccer that sounds like a frustration recipe. mind you, i think it’s a weird age group and am not getting too worked up about results at that level. my ego is more concerned with the senior team. but if you seriously wanted to challenge at U23 you would change the formula and not just run into the wall the same way every 4 years.

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    • i mean, same thing over and over. stories about who all was U23 eligible. “this one will be different.” and then everyone euro first team is a “no” and atlanta is a “no.” dramatically different team, several people i have never heard of. this happens every 4 years and yet they run the pool on the same naive concepts. if you’re not getting weah short of the olympics we should be watching and gelling someone else. the focus instead should have been on the sotos of the team struggling in their careers. but that would run counter to our club form obsession — even though it’s the better predictor of availability here.

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      • Your complaint is predicated on there being a pandemic that caused Aaronson and McKenzie to no longer be available and see Ledezma (who was released last year), Pomykal, and Ebobisse injured. EPB was also released last year by the same club but not this year. So they did pretty much what you wanted them to do but the tournament was postponed and so guys they’d worked with during the cycle that were MLS or youth teams in Europe became unavailable because their situation changed in a year. A year with limited availability in camps.

    • Over 20 years ago, Bob Bradley commented that he did not think youth soccer should employ the 442. He said it was used by international teams in the the ultimate elimination tournamemt to get results. He felt youth players should be more free to attack without so much concern with results. The 442 makes sense when winning is the main concern.

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      • my point is the tactical naivete is broader than just age groups, is driven from up high, and is questionable there as well. but in terms of age groups, if the complaint is we are not qualifying at the odd duck U23 age — which i think is a silly worry due to availability and “graduation” but anyway — then maybe it’s time to tip back towards tactical coolness. bradley read backwards is saying if you wanted to elevate winning you would make my choice. i thought you all said you wanted to win? i thought we were trying to work around availability problems? so maybe show up in a more serious formation and play like you are trying to be a more disciplined sum than the parts. otherwise if you show up undermanned each time and honduras has their young elises, and you double that with naive tactics that make games end to end, you are like raising the vulnerability to “max.”

        as i have said about 20 times i remember c. 2010 people saying they would rather play pretty soccer and not qualify than play like bradley did. i think down deep some of the aesthetes think the style is more important than the steak. having won plenty of ugly games as a kid — and some pretty — i think this idea of soccer is silly. the game doesn’t usually play out exactly like you want. you should start with your pants someplace other than down tactically, and you should be flexible. the idea is supposed to be a system delivers results, not is an artful end in itself.

      • U23 is also stretching “youth soccer.” the whole point here is we can’t get who we want because so many of the players are busy 5th year pros. i get arguing U10s should be just playing soccer. but U23s? pros? fwiw when i saw my alma mater play last year i thought the defense had regressed in the decades since i was there. that i was a better defender, and i had some goals and assists too. i think the pendulum has swung too far. at some point they need to learn organization and defense, which are half the game too. and to be clear in italy and germany you wouldn’t see the field if you didn’t get stuck in. still. mckennie’s juve or adams’ leipzig. like i am only hearing one side of a two sided conversation where a lot of the more winning teams — particularly internationally — pick organization. holland never won the world cup…..why are they the xerox?

    • IV makes some good points, but at the end of the day, the issue is what is the goal for the U23’s? Qualify at all costs or play a system?

      At the last Olympic Qualifying Tournament, the goal was for the U23’s to play an open, attacking game, and qualify. This was mandated by Klinnsman who was in charge of all things US Soccer at the time and who hired Caleb Porter to coach the US 23’s in the style that Klinnsman wanted. I think in theory Porter would love to play that way. Remember that Porter’s Akron teams implemented a Barcelona tika-taka style where the defense was based on possession of the ball and quick pressure when possession was lost. That worked great until it didn’t against Honduras in the semi-final.

      It is always difficult for an aged based squad coach to get all of the right players. Then the question is do Berghalter-Kreis want to play a certain system (4-4-2, 4-3-3-, 3-5-2, W-M, inverted christmas tree with free striker – sweeper-stopper), or do you try to get the best 11 on the pitch and adjust the system to them?

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      • i think the past 6 years we have not qualified and then treaded water this cycle with no real burst of quality against good opponents yet. the one positive streak was tying france and beating mexico in 2018. which were 541 and 451 respectively. ever considered part of our problem is tactics? that the 433 provides entertainment but not team organization? i’d be more concerned with winning games and less concerned with being liked or appeasing aesthetes who want this to look a certain way at all costs.

        i mean, you get these two oly non-qualifiers followed Klinsi’s decree, right? maybe this is style over substance, at senior level, at youth level. yet to see GB’s team look good or beat anyone decent.

      • everyone on the “talent” bandwagon seems to neglect that just because the talent was off last cycle doesn’t mean you should double down and make it worse by running out a 433 with wingbacks who can’t defend. i mean, the normal response in college to a bad recruiting year would be this year we are playing a more conservative, defensive oriented style. a team with recruitment problems that goes toe to toe with you is saying i would rather play a certain way and win or lose who cares……..under normal circumstances the best chance the weaker team has is being better drilled….

      • i am also going to note that over last boring weekend i saw some bits of some scottish and irish league and everyone plays a 433 now. you are not special. you are not innovative. you are wearing parachute pants when everyone else is. your formation cancels out with their 433. if you wanted to stand out and have a tactical and formational advantage you’d be the one on the next idea.

    • Playing 4-4-2 plays Pulisic out of position (either as a LM or striker), either McKennie as a RM or Reyna as a RM and Wes as a dual 6, leaves Adams isolated just as Bradley was last cycle because the the diamond midfield allows Concacaf to flood the center of the pitch. Requires two F’s our weakest position. Not to mention continues to perpetuate mediocrity.

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      • F is our weakest position? really? we have a pile.

        from my point of view we peaked in 2010 and the mediocrity is what followed. 2010 won its group and maybe if clark sits goes deep. ever since we got these “aesthetic” ideas we have been less successful (2014) and then out of the tournament (2018). the theory is that is improvement but so far it’s going backwards.

        the talent is about to lift us back up but that’s talent and not tactics. any idiot could stick us out there in any formation and this team probably qualifies.

    • We went just as far in 2010 as 2014, you know 2014 when we played a 4-4-2 or 2018 when we played a 4-4-2 and didn’t qualify. 4-4-2 was fine when we weren’t very skilled and we just tried to be more athletic. We depended on our goalkeepers to keep us in games by standing on their head. At those times a majority of our rosters were coming through MLS where everyone played 4-4-2, now most teams use a different formation. What you do with your formation is truly what matters anyway. We’ve seen Berhalter play with a 4-3-3 but in several different ways to get this attacking shape.

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    • ATL plays Alajuelense on April 6. Alajuelense released 7 players for Olympic Qualifying. 3 of 4 defenders released have started over half the games this Winter season. Alfaro has played in almost every match starting half as a DM. Martinez had started all but one before leaving for camp. Montenegro played in every match this season. These are regulars and ATL’s opponents gave up 7 of them.

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    • the counter-gambit would be call the U23s we wanted as senior players. i had the same thought on aaronson in reverse. austria is at the end of their regular season and RBS has an unassailable lead. release him for U23 or we will call him for the march friendlies anyway. so this is the reverse. you want to tell us no on miles for U23? congratulations, he’s on the senior camp roster. probably need to see what he can do anyway.

      that being said, the way the world cup is set up this time there may be little release time ahead of that fall tournament. so maybe the alternative is you tell atlanta they can push back like this but in exchange for letting our guys out a little earlier for qatar.

      so, either be creative or aggressive. not a fan of just sitting here taking it.

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      • Salzburg has a 5 pt lead with 11 matches to play, after Sunday that 5 pt lead is cut to two or three because point totals are halved before the final 10 match round. Salzburg would jump at the chance for Aaronson to play with NT in Europe with the final friendly taking place on the 28th the same day as the semifinals, Aaronson will be back much sooner. With better fields and more professional players to compete against injury risk is lower with the NT too.

      • JR: aren’t we in this context supposed to be US fans seeking ideas to help them get players? you sound like atlanta’s spokesperson. yes, i get atlanta can say no. we also have our rights or could ask for specific trade offs later on. or we can just take the abuse i guess. you do know under normal circumstances these sort of bull hockey excuses are why FIFA has the release rules, right?

    • IV see my comment above about how I called out ATL for refusing call up when their opponent released 7 regulars. I’m not supporting ATL I’m simply pointing out your ideas were childish, naive and nonsensical. You claimed leverage we didn’t have with Aaronson, showed lack of understanding of how Austrian league works, and your “solution” would only serve to increase animosity with one our countries biggest clubs.

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  3. Pretty good interview with Ebobisse yesterday, where he talked about how he was still struggling with his post concussion during January camp. Felt he wasn’t really ready physically or mentally to be at his best but that he felt it was a step he needed to be ready for the season in April.

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