The U.S. Under-23 Men’s National Team begins its quest for a spot in the Tokyo Summer Olympics on Thursday and fully expects a tough challenge from a familiar opponent in its opening match.
Jason Kreis’ squad takes on Costa Rica on Thursday at Jalisco Stadium, the first of three group stage matches for the Under-23 team in the eight team tournament. Unlike the Costa Ricans, which are in the middle of their domestic season, many of the American players come in with little to no game experience under their belts in 2021 with the MLS season still several weeks from beginning.
It will be an added challenge for the Americans, who will try to kick off group stage play with three points.
“I think it would be nice to be fully into a season and have the guys have some games under their belts,” Kreis said in a conference call with media. “A lot of these guys were part of our January camp and got to play in the game there.”
“I think they’ve kept that momentum going and they’ve come into camp fit this time around. It could’ve helped us a bit more to have some more games but overall I think the group has done well to keep the hunger at a high during the break. We’re looking sharp and ready to go.”
A handful of Costa Rica’s players will be familiar faces to the MLS contingent on the USMNT U-23 roster after going head-to-head in the North American league. Luis Diaz is coming off an MLS Cup-winning campaign with the Columbus Crew, while Randall Leal impressed with 2020 expansion club Nashville SC and Marvin Loria is a young talent for the Portland Timbers.
Even with many unknown faces on the Costa Rica roster to some of the American players, it will still be a tough test to limit the overall talent within the squad.
“We know of some of the players from back home in MLS and the good players abroad as well,” USMNT midfielder Jackson Yueill said. “We’ve definitely looked at the team overall and individually they have a lot of pace and aggression in defense and also like to get out offensively. We know they’re going to be a very, strong team and I think we’re ready for that first challenge of the tournament.”
“I think you can tell from the team unity, the guys have been around each other for a while now whether it’s playing at the youth or senior level. I don’t think we’ve been together as much as we would’ve wanted due to COVID, but I think the coaching staff has done well to get everyone together on the same page and thats been one of the best parts of this camp.”
The Americans will be looking to reverse the U.S. U-23 program’s disappointing track record in Olympic qualifying. The Americans have not won the tournament since 1992 and is looking to earn its first berth back to the Olympics since 2008.
With matches coming up against Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, and Mexico, the need for a tight defensive unit will be key for the Americans to advance out of an intriguing group.
“I think the leadership of all of those guys [Justen Glad, Sam Vines, Aaron Herrera] has been monumental in our successes over the years,” Yueill said. “They all have great qualities and they’re going to be a key factor to us doing well in this tournament. The unity and the dynamic between all those guys have improved. I think we’ve all been able to play with one another a little more this camp than the January camp and I think that will help us defensively.”