It was subtle and fleeting, but those who have participated in the US Under-23 men’s national team’s media availabilities over the past few months could detect a hint of impatience creeping into Jason Kreis’ voice on Wednesday.
The coach has been asked constantly about his program’s painful history of Olympic woes over the past two decades. The United States glaringly failed to reach the 2012 and 2016 Summer Games, struggling while competing on home soil.
That topic came up again in his final press conference before Thursday’s opener vs. Costa Rica (5:30 pm ET | FS1, TUDN), their first and possibly most important Group A match of the long-awaited Concacaf Olympic qualifying tournament in Guadalajara, Mexico.
“I look at things maybe a little differently than most people,” said the former Real Salt Lake, NYCFC and Orlando City SC boss. “I look at things from a perspective of, can we play to our potential? And because of what I believe our potential is, then yes, I feel that this group should be capable of qualifying to the Olympics. And that is our clear objective and that is what we're going to move forward for.
“But I don't feel any extra pressure about what's happened in the past. Because frankly, I think we're at a different place in our country in the game. And I wasn't involved in any of those past qualification efforts.”
San Jose Earthquakes tempo-setter Jackson Yueill, who was named team captain on Wednesday, echoed that mindset. “One game at a time” may be a hoary old sports cliché, but this side believes it’s still the best mantra given the challenge and the schedule in front of them.
“We're not too worried about the past, we're not too worried about the future, we're focused on the next game. And we're focused on Costa Rica right now,” Yueill said. “The unity between the whole team, and the drive and the hunger to succeed in this tournament, is what I think will [serve] us really well in this tournament, and we're excited to start it off.”
It can be hard to escape history, though. The country’s struggles in past Olympic cycles have taken a toll on their Concacaf coefficient, resulting in Kreis' team dropping into something of a group of death alongside hosts Mexico, Los Ticos and Caribbean up-and-comers the Dominican Republic.
That's piled extra weight on Thursday’s match for both the US and Costa Rica, neither of whom want to meet Mexico in dire need of a positive result. Group A’s top two finishers will advance to the semifinals, where a win against a Group B opponent will book passage to Tokyo this summer.
“We go into this first match knowing that it's extremely important. And we want and we're going after the points that we feel we're going to need in this first game to put ourselves in the best position for the rest of the round-robin,” said Kreis, who singled out the Ticos’ MLS-based trio of Randall Leal (Nashville SC), Luis Diaz (Columbus Crew SC) and Marvin Loria (Portland Timbers), all three quick, technical attacking talents.
“We feel that they have some very, very good attacking players and are very good in transition and we're going to need to be prepared for those,” Kreis noted.
Costa Rica are also coached by an MLS alum, former RSL and Chivas USA midfielder Douglas Sequeira. Notably, he’s called in a whopping seven players from LD Alajuelense, the current runaway leaders in Liga FPD, the domestic league that – like Mexico’s Liga MX – is well into the meat of their spring season.
Kreis admitted that his own squad, which is predominantly MLS-based, faces a deficit of match fitness by comparison. On top of that, they haven’t played a competitive U-23 match together in over a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which is also the reason this tournament is happening 12 months later than originally scheduled.
It's also why they haven’t even been allowed to play informal scrimmages against other participants or local club teams during their 17-day prep camp in Guadalajara, leaving the coaching staff to compensate as best they could with 11-a-side intrasquad games made possible by the larger 26-player group that joined before the final roster cut last week.
“You kind of go into this first game saying to yourselves, 'OK, I'm not real sure about the opponent, I haven’t been able to scout them to the level of detail that you would scout any typical opponent,'” said Kreis.
“And you’re also sort of saying to yourself, 'I'm not real sure about our group.' So we go into this with open eyes and ready to work extremely hard as we move forward after the first game. Because now we'll have actual game footage for ourselves to look at our group, as well as game footage of the two next opponents to look at and really digest in a lot more detail.”
Opening matches often set the tone for tournament runs, and that’s true in spades for the US U-23s. Thursday's Yanks-Ticos clash takes place at 5:30 pm ET at Estadio Jalisco, then the US meets the DR on Sunday (7 pm ET) and Mexico next Wednesday (9:30 pm ET). All three games are broadcast live on FS1 and TUDN.