First, though, let’s acknowledge the difficulty and complexity of Under-23s head coach Jason Kreis’ task. He and his staff, working hand in glove with the senior side’s Gregg Berhalter, had to sift through a large and growing US player pool around the world, build a big-picture depth chart and then go about convincing as many of those players’ clubs as possible to voluntarily release them for camps leading up to and including the qualifying event.
Then COVID happened, and the U-23s’ tournament got paused suddenly at the last minute and eventually delayed a full year, forcing Kreis to basically do it all over again with an even bigger pool and new clubs, many of whom are markedly more possessive of their American players than in past generations.
At the end of it all, he had to decide which 20 guys were a) available, and b) pivotal to his plan for booking the US men an Olympic berth for just the second time this century. And recent European moves for projected starters like Brenden Aaronson, Reggie Cannon, Daryl Dike, Mark McKenzie and Bryan Reynolds have effectively marked them off the board.
Any roster born from such a tortuous process and constrained so much in size will have concerns and soft spots. It’s why they hire the likes of Kreis and not schlubs like me. ALL THAT BEING SAID…
He’s staked a lot on certain things to go right in key areas. Here’s my take on three big ones.
3) Juggling goalkeepers?
This one carries a question mark because we don’t know if he’s going to actually do it. But in Thursday’s press availability Kreis raised the possibility of starting two different ‘keepers in the first two matches, then using those outings to decide who to ride the rest of the way.
While not naming names, he telegraphed that JT Marcinkowski has “a slight pole position” on Matt Freese, with David Ochoa in hot pursuit. Marcinkowski took part in all nine U-23 camps this cycle and has more first-team minutes than his colleagues by virtue of winning the San Jose Earthquakes’ No. 1 job last summer, but got hampered by an ankle injury in January camp and may only recently have regained full bore.
It’s not that there’s an obvious gap between any of these three GKs, just that it’s a bit unconventional to do a planned rotation in these circumstances. Maybe it won’t matter – competition is part of the business and all that...
2) Tinkering with the spine
… Here’s where Kreis is playing with fire. We’ve been led to believe that the U-23s will roughly mirror the full USMNT’s tactics and shape, including a central midfield triangle with one holding player and twin No. 8s covering ground and wreaking havoc from box to box.
This makes sense, especially if you go by the fun, up-tempo flavor flashed in November’s European friendlies vs. Wales and Panama, where the Tyler Adams-Weston McKennie-Yunus Musah trio had a hell-raising good time in bossing the engine room. The question is whether that look can reliably be replicated with the Olympic group – particularly considering the closest thing we have to a lock for the starter in the No. 6 role.
Only two players logged more USMNT minutes in 2020 than Jackson Yueill (it was Sebastian Lletget and Reggie Cannon, if you’re wondering). The Quakes’ deep-lying distributor already has nine senior caps, and it’s because the staff loves his cultured passing range, which brings a different look than the leather-lunged Adams, inevitably. And that begs the question of whether smart, skilled adversaries like Costa Rica and Mexico will try to expose Yueill – who has, it should be said, made major strides in the intensity of his defending under Matias Almeyda – with overloads and transitions.
So Kreis has gone with a cadre of rangy candidates for the two 8 spots, the likes of Johnny Cardoso, Hassani Dotson and Andres Perea, even if they perform notably different jobs for their clubs. Which to some is a more thoughtful way of saying that he’s ready to play them out of position. Kreis says all three midfielders will be expected to provide defensive cover, and that the 8s can and must advance into the attack, too.
Djordje Mihailovic and Uly Llanez can playmake, but what if there’s no room for them centrally? Might they do work from the wings instead? Are they better suited for an attacking band of three instead? And up top, Jesus Ferreira is getting rave reviews for the work he’s done as a false 9, though that’s based on a small sample size of US games because FC Dallas usually use him elsewhere.
1) Potential over production
Maybe the hardest part about a job like Kreis’ is comparing the credentials of players performing in widely different club settings. That means looking at someone like Dotson, a utility player for Minnesota United, and gleaning how he might fare as an international 8. It also means gauging individual fitness and form.
For example: Striker Sebastian Soto is a real talent on an upward trajectory with experience of tournaments like this month’s, having starred in the US side at the 2019 Under-20 World Cup. He scored in bunches for the youth national team and in Hannover 96’s youth system, and recently snared a UK work permit that allows him to join Norwich City in earnest after banging in seven strikes in 12 matches on loan to Telstar in the Dutch second division. But he’s still in the early stages of earning a place in the Canaries’ promotion-chasing first team and thus hasn’t played matches of consequence in months.
Much the same can be said of Llanez, one of the country’s most exciting talents but fresh off a knee injury and unsuccessful loan spell at Heerenveen, capped by a return to California to deal with what Kreis called a “family situation” back home. His upside may be the highest of anyone in the pool, but his prospects for reaching that level in big games, right now, are uncertain.
“He's a guy that has shown real hunger and commitment to play the way that Gregg and the national teams have asked him. He's done very well with the full team. He's a player that gets probably a little bit more of an opportunity than others might because of that,” said Kreis of Llanez, acknowledging that the staff “continue to build his fitness” in the current camp.
Compare those two to the Portland Timbers duo of Jeremy Ebobisse and Eryk Williamson, longtime youth national teamers who have earned significant roles for a title-contending MLS team by churning out solid numbers (3g/5a in 2020 for Williamson, 22g/8a over the past four seasons for Ebobisse) for a first team that uses some of the same principles as the U-23s. Neither made Kreis’ final cut.
Maybe it’s most important to weigh long-range USMNT potential. Maybe this group has shown day in, day out on the training ground that it’s the best mix for grinding through what looks to be a rugged path to the Olympics. Maybe that path is intense enough to require heavy squad rotation, with all that entails.
For the next couple weeks, we’ll wait, watch and wonder about the bets Kreis has made.