You, dear reader, no doubt either watched or read about Tim Weah's goal for Ligue 1-leading Lille in the Europa League on Thursday. You also probably know that Brenden Aaronson started for RB Salzburg in that same competition, as did Chris Richards for Hoffenheim. Sergino Dest, Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie all started in the Champions League earlier in the week. Gio Reyna did not, but he's a part of a Dortmund side that's still very much alive. Same with Christian Pulisic and Chelsea, who play next week.
Josh Sargent's Werder Bremen are not at that level, nor are Reggie Cannon's Boavista, Mark McKenzie's Genk, Matthew Hoppe's Schalke, Antonee Robinson's Fulham, Yunus Musah's Valencia or Daryl Dike's Barnsley. But all of those players are regulars -- at the very least -- for their respective sides.
And all of the players mentioned above have at least one thing in common: They are extremely unlikely be released for Concacaf Olympic Qualifying, which is slated to be held next month. Check out the full schedule here.
The Olympics are mostly a U-23 tournament, and Olympic qualifying is exclusively a U-23 tournament (though this time around it's kind of a U-24 event, since everything got pushed back from 2020 into 2021 because of the pandemic). That means players born January 1, 1997 or later are eligible, and every single one of those guys is in that age cohort.
But because the Olympics are technically considered to be a youth tournament by FIFA, no club is obligated to release players for it, or (obviously) for qualifying. Therefore the vast majority of European clubs, all of whom are in season, simply will not. No matter how nicely they're asked.
That brings us to the point of this exercise: I'm laying out a United States U-23 depth chart for Olympic qualifying. This is not a pure "who are our best 23-and-under players?" type of list. This is "who are our best 23-and-under players who are likely to be released for the tournament next month?"
That pares things down a good bit, basically to MLS guys and a few overseas prospects who've yet to break into their respective first teams. As always, I'm trying to judge things by how I imagine the coaching staff -- Jason Kreis is the U-23 boss, though I imagine he gets a good bit of direction from Gregg Berhalter -- sees things, as well as club performances and a little bit of my own views sprinkled in.
Here we go:
- JT Marcinkowski (San Jose Earthquakes)
- Matt Freese (Philadelphia Union)
- David Ochoa (Real Salt Lake)
- Brady Scott (Austin FC)
- CJ dos Santos (Benfica B)
I have Marcinkowski as the odds-on favorite to win the starting job based upon two things. First is that he's the only guy on this list who's won a starting job for his club team -- Marcinkowski was an instant and massive upgrade for San Jose last year once Matias Almeyda finally dropped Daniel Vega -- and that matters. The second is that Marcinkowski's very much a modern 'keeper in the "good with his feet" way. He's a pretty natural distributor, and is calm under pressure.
While that makes him the favorite, it shouldn't go unnoticed that it was actually Freese who made the gameday roster over Marcinkowski for the USMNT's friendly at the end of January. He didn't play, but just his presence on that roster is an indicator that Freese probably out-performed Marcinkowski over the course of that camp. I don't think that's nothing.
Freese, of course, hasn't won the starting job for Philadelphia. But he's got some experience, starting six games in 2019 and then the Supporters' Shield-clinching finale in 2020. That's a big moment.
Ochoa has also been in goal for a title-winning performance, back in 2019 when he backstopped Real Monarchs to the USL crown, and of this group I think he has the highest upside. But he's appeared just once in MLS and missed the January camp despite being called in.
Scott and dos Santos (who I'm guessing would be released for this tournament if the US asked for him) are the only other 'keepers that seem to be in the mix. Based on how previous camps have gone, they both seem to be behind Marcinkowski and Freese at the very least.
- Sam Vines (Colorado Rapids)
- George Bello (Atlanta United)
- Marco Farfan (LAFC)
- Chris Gloster (Jong PSV)
Vines is the easy choice as a starter here given how well he's performed for club and country. If you've paid attention to the USMNT over the past year you know he can play runners through, and he's also a very good crosser of the ball. Remember, though, that he originally won the starting job for Colorado because of his 1v1 defense (the first time anyone really noticed him was when he shut down Carlos Vela), and then kept it because of his ability to ping long diagonals:
Unless something wild happens, he's the starter.
It's clear that Bello, the only other player on this list who's a starter for his club, has the inside track as the back-up. The 19-year-old came a long way defensively in 2020, and has always been dynamic going forward.
Farfan's getting a career reboot with LAFC and Gloster is now looking for a career reboot after PSV announced this winter that he's free to sign wherever. To me, it would be a surprise if either of these guys cracked the top two.
- Miles Robinson (Atlanta United)
- Mauricio Pineda (Chicago Fire FC)
- Henry Kessler (New England Revolution)
- Aboubacar Keita (Columbus Crew SC)
- Donovan Pines (D.C. United)
- Auston Trusty (Colorado Rapids)
- Justen Glad (Real Salt Lake)
Based upon both January camp, Robinson is the clear No. 1 on this list and I think Pineda's probably got the inside track on the No. 2 spot. Each of the first five guys listed there were called in, but only Robinson (started and went 90) and Pineda (DNP-CD) made the final US roster.
Robinson, like basically the rest of Atlanta United, had a down 2020. But he's got "best pure defensive presence in the pool" potential and has become much better on the ball over the past few years, even if he's never going to be a game-breaking distributor.
Pineda, on the other hand, walked into Chicago's XI as a game-breaking distributor from the backline:
Both these guys are set-piece threats as well.
So is Pines, though I have him behind both Kessler and Keita, each of whom is more comfortable playing on the left (Keita's a left-footer) and each of whom has looked more assured in their MLS play. But Pines certainly has a shot at earning his way into the mix.
- Aaron Herrera (Real Salt Lake)
- Julian Araujo (LA Galaxy)
- Kyle Duncan (RBNY)
- Jaylin Lindsey (Sporting Kansas City)
I think there's a clear-cut No. 1 here as well, as Herrera's pretty steadily climbed the ranks through his career from U-20 back-up, to starter, to MLS starter, and then in January to his full US debut. It will be hard for him to ever become a full-fledged US regular with Dest, Cannon and Bryan Reynolds all younger than him and (likely) ahead of him already, but in any other era he'd be a guy who collects 50 caps. And that Serie A interest he had over the winter didn't happen by accident.
The overseas interest in Araujo is also real, though Araujo's four years younger than Herrera and far less polished. He struggled in his US debut against El Salvador in December and hasn't yet won a starting job at RB for the Galaxy, but he did beat out Duncan for the starting job in that particular game.
Would Lindsey be at the top of this list if not for the 2019 ACL tear that set him back a year? Possibly. He's a lot of fun out there, and has been for years:
But he does seem to be a distant fourth here for the moment, at least.
- Jackson Yueill (San Jose Earthquakes)
- Johnny Cardoso (Internacional)
- Andres Perea (Orlando City SC)
- James Sands (New York City FC)
- Hassani Dotson (Minnesota United)
- Aidan Morris (Columbus Crew SC)
I'll wager the entire pot that even if Cardoso is available, Yueill will get the start. He's earned it for his club play, but also repeated for his USMNT play -- including in one game that actually mattered (the 4-1 Nations League win over Canada). He solves problems for the US with his ability and willingness to get on the ball, and he creates problems for opponents with how he distributes it. Nobody else in the pool hits this pass:
Will Johnny be released? I strongly doubt it. While the Serie A season ends next Thursday, the Campeonato Gaucho begins... next Saturday. They play a lot of soccer in Brazil, and go well down the rosters to do so. That's helped Johnny get onto the field at a young age, but it also means it's unlikely they release him unless they really have to.
Still, it's within the realm of possibility and I'd say he's the No. 2 name on this list if he gets the green light.
Perea, based upon the fact that Berhalter had to work hard to get him to file a one-time switch from Colombia and then gave him his full US debut, is the other real competition for the No. 2 job here, though if he's healthy I prefer Sands. He's less dynamic on the ball and has yet to prove himself much of a distributor, but there's a lot to be said for never being out of position and cleaning up messes before they actually become messy.
Dotson and Morris are similar in that they're more classic ball-winners rather than registas. Dotson's earned a trio of U-23 appearances in the past, but hasn't really pushed into a full-time role for either club or country. Still, his versatility could be a point in his favor here, given that it's a 20-man roster, rather than a 23-man roster, for this tournament.
Morris, who's young enough for the 2024 Olympics, is probably a conversation for next cycle.
- Paxton Pomykal (FC Dallas)
- Tanner Tessmann (FC Dallas)
- Eryk Williamson (Portland Timbers)
- Cole Bassett (Colorado Rapids)
- Frankie Amaya (FC Cincinnati)
- Bryang Kayo (Wolfsburg II)
- Keaton Parks (New York City F)
- Gianluca Busio (Sporting Kansas City)
I debated breaking this group up into do-everything central midfielders who focus more on possession and ball-winning, and then attacking midfielders who focus more on chance creation and box arrival. But that kind of ignores the fact that in Berhalter's system (which I'm assuming Kreis will copy), the two advanced central midfielders are supposed to do all of the above. Certain players will be better at certain aspects of the job just based upon their own strengths and weaknesses -- Bassett's box arrival is fantastic, though he's not super ball-secure; Amaya's ball-winning ability is wonderful, though he doesn't present much of a box threat -- and the system will naturally adjust itself to a degree.
But still, these guys are all basically competing for the same roles.
And here is some good news: Pomykal went on a couple of podcasts last month and said that, as of mid-January, he was sprinting, cutting and doing some ball-striking, and that he was expected to be given the all-clear this month. Physically he said he was back to 100 percent, and there have been no reports of setbacks.
This timeline (it's been five-and-a-half months since he had surgery) matches up with what was originally expected when FC Dallas shut down his season last August. He managed just 150 minutes in 2020, but my word were they productive:
If Pomykal is healthy he's clearly a starter, and perhaps even the captain -- as he was for the 2019 US U-20 World Cup team. That has been the massive "if" in his young career thus far, though.
I have Tessmann No. 2 here over Williamson because Tessmann made it onto the full US roster and even got himself a 25-minute cameo at the end of the T&T game last month. That said, Williamson was the more dynamic and effective player last year in MLS, and there is certainly room for both guys on this roster.
Bassett and Amaya were singled out in that opening graph above because they represent two ends of the spectrum for the stated reasons. I think Bassett's goalscoring is a useful card to play in this system, but Amaya is, other than Pomykal, the best ball-winner in this group. Each has a strong argument, though it's worth noting that Bassett wasn't invited to January camp after having taken part in the December US camp ahead of the El Salvador friendly. That could mean precisely nothing or damn near everything.
I wouldn't stake my life on Kayo being released for this tournament, but Wolfsburg have played nice with both him and Uly Llanez (more on him in the next segment) over the past year-and-a-half. Both were released for the January 2020 camp -- Llanez started and scored -- and Kayo was released yet again for last month's camp, though he didn't make the final US roster.
Kayo is a big and rangy central midfielder who's maybe better suited to playing as a true No. 8 in a 4-2-3-1 than as one of the free 8 roles in Berhalter's system, but he has "he just blew the whole midfield up" individual talent. That is something nice to have on the bench.
One of the more surprising things over the past couple of years is that Parks hasn't been given more looks. He earned one full US cap in 2018 and a pair of U-23 caps in 2019, but seems very much to be on the outside looking in with this group despite being the most accomplished at the club level, and having a skillset -- he is smoooooooooth on the ball, with a good range of passing and some real courage about getting into good spots -- that would seem to translate.
Busio has shown flashes, but is almost certainly a name for the next Olympic cycle instead.
- Jonathan Lewis (Colorado Rapids)
- Uly Llanez (Heerenveen/Wolfsburg)
- Benji Michel (Orlando City SC)
- Cade Cowell (San Jose Earthquakes)
- Djordje Mihailovic (CF Montréal)
- Brooks Lennon (Atlanta United)
- Caden Clark (New York Red Bulls)
I have been Lewis's biggest fan forever, and just as I was about ready to give up he went out and signed a new long-term deal, beat out Michel and Chris Mueller for the starting job with the US last month, scored a brace and created constant danger by finding space in behind. Lewis was always pushing forward and puncturing the defense off the ball, and during camp he gave an interview with U.S. Soccer in which he said that Berhalter wasn't judging the wingers by how many goals or assists they picked up, but by how much pressure they placed on the defense by attacking space and getting in behind.
Lewis understood the role and took to it well. There is no reason to think it can't or won't continue.
Llanez would be the obvious No. 2 on this list if he's released, and he just might be. He's at Heerenveen on loan from Wolfsburg, and is down to about sixth on their winger depth chart. I think there's a chance they just terminate the loan and if that happens, there's not much reason for Wolfsburg to keep him in Germany.
Michel is the obvious next choice given that he made the US roster and can play some center forward as well -- remember, versatility matters a ton for tournaments -- and the fact that he's got six years on Cowell, who's a similar player. Each is more of a wide forward than a true winger like Lewis and Llanez.
Mihailovic is more of a playmaker, be it on the wing or inside as an attacking midfielder. Lennon, of course, brings a different kind of versatility, as he's comfortable on either wing and at right back, which could be truly useful.
The name I'm most interested in on this list, though, is the last one. Clark hit MLS like a thunderbolt last autumn, and while I think his long-term home is probably as more of a central playmaker, he's mostly been a right winger in his young career thus far. No one on this list can touch him as a ball-striker, and this was with his off* foot:
(*) I originally had Clark as a left-footer, but it turns out he's right-footed. Still tho... look at that hit!
Daniel Royer went full surrender cobra after that one. I don't blame him.
If you were to give me a lottery ticket for any one of the guys ranked near the bottom of these lists, it would be Clark. It doesn't matter to me that he's never really been part of any US youth national teams, or that he wasn't called for January camp. What I see is a kid who's consistently leveled up from the USSDA to the USL then to MLS without missing a beat, and who brings something distinct and devastating to the pool.
I bet he'll make the final roster.
For what it's worth, I almost added Sebastian Saucedo to this list, but I really don't think that Pumas would release him.
- Ayo Akinola (Toronto FC)
- Jesus Ferreira (FC Dallas)
- Jeremy Ebobisse (Portland Timbers)
- Sebastian Soto (Norwich City U-23s)
- Ricardo Pepi (FC Dallas)
Ferreira was superb last month against Trinidad & Tobago, and was pretty good a year ago in the winter friendly vs. Costa Rica. In between, he had 1g/1a in about 1100 minutes for FC Dallas across all competitions and I just can't look past that. I know the point of having a system is to get guys out there who understand its functions, know what space to find when and can use that to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts. Ferreira now has a compelling case that he's a guy who can do that.
But I can't just toss club form into the garbage chute like that, especially since Akinola -- who might still suit up for Canada instead, mind you -- was borderline dominant with Toronto this past year, and then carried that over into his US appearance vs. El Salvador. He's not the around-the-box creator that Ferreira is, but he's perhaps the most goal-hungry forward in the entire pool when it comes to his movement, and that type of approach doesn't just open up space for him:
With all that said, Ebobisse would still be my choice even though he was beaten out by both Ferreira and Dike for a spot on the gameday roster last month, and even though he spends most of his time for Portland on the wing, and even though his only US appearance came on the wing, and even though in last month's camp, I've been told he was mostly used on the wing.
He's been productive there, but he's clearly a center forward from my vantage point. And for me, the implication in this tweet is what separates him from the rest of this group:
Set pieces have always played an outsized role in our game. That's become even more pronounced in recent years, and in a tournament setting it's almost unfair. Remember what France did to teams on restarts in 2018? If you can't stop that, you have no chance.
Ebobisse is dominant in the air. The US are going to have a ton of the ball and draw a ton of fouls in attacking areas during most of these games. Put Robinson, Pineda and Ebobisse out there as targets on restarts against Concacaf sides and it could get ugly quick.
There's a case to be made for Soto as well, based upon his brace against Panama, but it's not a great one. He's yet to score in three appearances with the Norwich reserves, and he didn't exactly set the world alight in the Dutch second tier on loan. Plus it's not clear that Norwich would release him anyway.
I don't think Pepi will be called in, but I threw him on the list just in case. He's the type of talent who could actually win the job if the pieces fall into place, though that'd be a low-probability event.