The US men have failed to qualify for the Olympics since 2008 and the current under-23 team faces a daunting road to Tokyo, with group-stage meetings with Costa Rica and Mexico in this month’s Concacaf qualifying tournament, an event taking place in the warm, mile-high air of Guadalajara.
Jason Kreis’ squad must weather all that, plus quick turnarounds between matches -- and with just 20 slots on the tourney’s roster, the individual players have been battling to earn their place, as the group currently training on site in Jalisco is being cut down to size this week.
It adds up to a weighty psychological challenge for the U-23s, a side traditionally viewed as a barometer for the future of the full national team.
“There's definitely a pressure, but none of us are going to shy away from it. I think we're all just trying to embrace the pressure,” Real Salt Lake fullback Aaron Herrera told reporters on Monday. “We know that we haven’t qualified the past couple of times for this tournament and doing so this time is huge. It's a massive tournament on the world scale.”
With two Olympic berths at stake, the real prize at this eight-team event is a spot in the final, rather than the championship trophy itself. But the US U-23s are approaching the top spot on the podium as their goal -- and a glance at the history shows that the nation have only attained that honor once in the six decades over which Concacaf has operated a qualifying process.
With most of the US players having traveled to Guadalajara on Feb. 28 to begin camp ahead of their opening match on March 18, vs. Costa Rica, it’s a long road to that championship final, which is set for March 30.
“Every player here, every staff member, I think we all want to win the tournament,” said Herrera. “I think that's the goal going forward. But we know that being here a long time, we’ve got to look forward to just the next step, and just one step at a time, and right now it's Costa Rica on March 18, so I think that that's where all our focus and all our energy is right now.”
The lengthy pre-tournament camp is both a response to MLS’s delayed start to the 2020 season and an effort to help players adapt to the high altitude and warm spring weather of the Mexican Altiplano, while also helping to build team spirit. It’s also given Kreis and his staff a chance to gather final firsthand observations before trimming their squad.
There’s friendship among the group, but also keen competition. Coaching staffs are mandated to submit their final rosters 10 days before their team’s first match, so Kreis has probably already made his decisions. Concacaf is slated to officially release those lists to the public on Thursday.
“The majority of players here all play in the same league, so we're seeing each other all throughout the year. At the same time we've all been to, I can't even tell you how many camps together,” said Herrera. “Hopefully we can just use that camaraderie to just grind through this tournament and hopefully take a trophy home by the end.
“Everyone's been here just working extremely hard for however long we've been here already, 10 days or so. It sucks that guys have to get cut and unfortunately we can't keep all 30 players here, but at the same time, it definitely raises the level in training and it’s huge for us making each other better.”