After a long pandemic delay, we're almost set for the Concacaf qualifying tournament that will see two teams make summer reservations for the Olympic gold medal chase in Japan.
In addition to helping punch their team's ticket to Nippon, the tournament will feature oodles of players aiming to use the experience as a development tool/avenue to a better club career trajectory. And as every Concacaf team apart from Mexico has Major League Soccer representation on the roster, many of those players looking to prove something or to simply warm up before the 2021 season begins come from MLS rosters.
Which of these young MLS players can benefit the most from an impressive showing at the Concacaf Olympic Qualifying Championship? We thought you might ask, and have come prepared with some answers.
Luis Diaz (Columbus Crew SC, Costa Rica) Randall Leal (Nashville SC, Costa Rica)
Costa Rican winger Randall Leal was one of Nashville SC's most effective attacking players in their expansion season | USA Today Sports
The Costa Rica wingers experienced somewhat similar 2020 seasons.
big-play artist Leal each stumbled a bit out of the gate, but came on as the year progressed and eventually got into some playoff heroics. Now they'll kick off 2021 as leaders on a Ticos side that has its work cut out for it to escape Group A. Perhaps even more important than this shot at Olympic heroics, they can avoid another slow start in club life by revving into form before they get to the MLS starting line.
Jesus Ferreira (FC Dallas, United States)
In addition to the obvious Olympic aim, the
youngster will go into Concacaf qualifying trying to put a rough 2020 MLS campaign behind him to fly into the new season with momentum. On a whole other level,
will also be tasked with serving as human proof of concept the US system can work with a false nine "up top" of the formation. That's basically three jobs being asked of the 20-year-old, but if his recent senior side friendly destruction of Trinidad & Tobago is any indication, he might be up to all the tasks.
Douglas Martínez (Honduras, Real Salt Lake)
Last season, the Honduras forward did a lot of good things in his first full
Real Salt Lake
season. He ate up space and consistently helped the team navigate into good positions. What he didn't do was shoot enough or shoot accurately once they reached the money zone. Olympic qualifying offers
a chance to gain some confidence in front of goal ahead of the MLS season (which he may well need to establish his usefulness before Bobby Wood rides into Rio Tinto this summer).
Benji Michel (Orlando City SC, United States)
The US has a truckload of tempting options for the right wing job in the Under-23 pool. Tim Weah,
(if he commits by summer) and even super ripe potential overage selection
could all be impact picks. However, exactly none of those guys are available for qualifying, which means that job likely falls to
. Most of the
play driver's best MLS outings have come off the bench (because, well, it's not easy to get Mueller off the field), but he should now have a chance to prove he can make noise from the opening whistle.
Djordje Mihailovic (CF Montréal, United States)
Djordje Mihailovic will be playing with something to prove in 2021 after his offseason trade from Chicago Fire FC to CF Montreal | USA Today Sports
Speaking of US guys with something to prove and a seemingly big opportunity to do it, the fresh
catch enters Concacaf's qualifying tournament as the only midfielder on head coach Jason Kreis' roster with some track record of coming up with ideas in the final third. Of course,
hasn't been so effective playing behind the striker to keep
from shifting him out to the left flank last season. He'll have a shot at proving he can hold attack keys down in Mexico, and doing that should pay off when he returns to a Montréal side starving for a genuine interior playmaker.
Callum Montgomery (Minnesota United, Canada)
The Canada center back is in great position to benefit from a strong showing during Olympic qualifying. In fact, it's downright ideal. After failing to crack the FC Dallas rotation, Montgomery moved north to join
. With the Loons remaining unsure of
's status with preseason already underway, there may be room for an upstart to claim some minutes at Allianz Field.
Ballou Tabla (CF Montréal, Canada)
The Canada winger looked primed for big things back in 2017 (yeah, it has been that long), but a disappointing Spanish adventure took the wind out of his sails. Since returning to Montréal midway through 2019,
has played less than 300 minutes across all competitions. He wasn't even included in the squad for their slim playoff loss to
. Suffice it to say the 21-year-old needs to regain his mojo, and a strong run at age-level competition might just do the trick.
Sam Vines (Colorado Rapids, United States)
Many of the guys in this list are in a career position where they need to take advantage of the forthcoming qualifying tournament to raise or re-establish their game.
is not one of those players. He's the clear left back starter in the United States Olympic pool, up to and including summer, and not far off from being a genuine Bext XI contender for
. What the 21-year-old can gain down in Mexico, aside from a ticket to Japan, is a stronger case he's the guy Gregg Berhalter needs to push Sergino Dest back over to the USMNT's right side.