National Writer: Charles Boehm

Walker Zimmerman in, Diego Luna out: USA 2024 Olympics roster takes shape

USMNT - Walker Zimmerman - long pass

One MLS star in, one surprisingly left out, and plenty still to prove for several others.

The final countdown to the US men’s program’s 2024 Olympic adventure began on Wednesday as head coach Marko Mitrovic announced an MLS-dominated squad for a June preparatory camp, the last gathering before he submits his roster for the tournament on or before July 3. And two of Mitrovic’s choices drew plenty of questions from reporters in a media availability a few hours later.

Zimmerman gets the nod

First was the inclusion of Walker Zimmerman, the only overage player in this camp, a strong signal that the Nashville SC defensive mainstay will fill one of the three slots available for players older than the age of 23 at the Olympics in France this summer.

“We identified that [center back] will be a position of need for us, where we would like to bring an overage player,” explained Mitrovic. “We spoke with Walker, I met Walker and I was very, very happy with his commitment to go to the Olympic Games. I used to work with Walker and I'm very aware of all the qualities that he's bringing on the table as a player, on and off the field.”

While nothing is official yet, it certainly sounds like Zimmerman will anchor the Olympians’ back line and wear the captain’s armband, with the full endorsement of the full US men’s national team staff, who are currently more flush in central defense options than the Under-23s.

“Walker is someone who was with us in the World Cup, someone who we think very highly of and also he's a player that's got a ton of leadership qualities,” said USMNT assistant BJ Callaghan in a separate press conference just before Mitrovic’s. “He's a leader and captain-type player.

"When he goes down with the Olympic group, we expect nothing less than that, is that he can transcend our identity into that group, but also be a leadership type of guy who has World Cup experience into a potentially younger group that has to go and perform very quickly, based upon the Olympic format.”

No Olympics for Luna?

The other flashpoint: the absence of Diego Luna.

The Real Salt Lake creator was a standout for the US U-20 national team as it won the 2022 Concacaf U-20 championship that served as a qualifying mechanism for both the U-20 World Cup and the Olympics, notching one goal and five assists. He then shined at last year’s U-20 World Cup, leading the US with three assists, while also scoring one goal, as the young Yanks made a run to the quarterfinals before falling to eventual champions Uruguay. Luna has also been a key contributor to RSL’s surge to the top of the MLS Western Conference standings this season

Mitrovic didn’t reveal too many details about his thinking, yet his choice of words hinted at lengthening odds for the starlet’s prospects.

“Listen, Diego is one of the players that we are considering,” said the Serb, who worked under Veljko Paunovic at Chicago Fire FC and Reading FC before joining U.S. Soccer. “He was in consideration for November camp, unfortunately he was injured. In March camp he was with us. Now there are some other guys there that we want to evaluate.

“The doors are open for every player and for Diego not being in June camp, like for any other player that is not in June camp, doesn't mean that they are not going to be in for the Olympic Games.”

Still, if “Moon Boy” really is still in consideration, he’d surely rather have the chance to show his abilities at this camp in Kansas City, which will conclude with a friendly against Japan on June 11 at Children’s Mercy Park, home of Sporting KC. Mitrovic sounded like a manager with most of his big decisions already made.

“We have the way we play, our tactics for the Olympic team,” he said. “Every player brings something different, but as Olympic team we have the way we play and what we are looking also for the players to adjust to the way we play. We will obviously have to adjust with the players, because every player brings different qualities, like I said, different strengths. We want to use the strength of those players on the field. But nothing that we're going to change something drastically now, comparing with what we were doing so far in the last three camps.”

Limited roster spots up for grabs

Mitrovic and his staff face a difficult numbers game thanks to the extremely small squad sizes at the Olympics compared to most other major international tournaments: Rosters comprise only 18 players, plus four alternates who can accompany that group and provide replacements only in the case of injury.

By way of comparison, both this summer’s Copa América and the 2022 World Cup allowed teams to bring 26 players each. Coaches at the 2020 Olympics (which took place in Japan in 2021) were allowed to use all 22 players in light of the COVID-19 pandemic’s effects, but Mitrovic said there’s no sign of any late-breaking expansion for this year.

He has called 25 players to this June gathering. Notably, nine of them have taken part in all four of the pre-Olympic camps: MLSers Nathan Harriel, John Tolkin, Jack McGlynn and Esmir Bajraktarevic, MLS alums Gianluca Busio, Bryan Reynolds and Tanner Tessmann, and FC Dallas academy products Johan Gomez and Jonathan Tomkinson.

There are many moving parts to this selection process. Not least among them are the difficult task of obtaining releases from the players’ clubs, which are voluntary for the Olympics, unlike events that fall on the FIFA calendar like the World Cup, Euros and Gold Cup, and the choices made by Gregg Berhalter for the senior US squad that will compete in this summer’s Copa América on US soil. Mitrovic said there’s a “possibility” that a handful of players could even take part in both of this summer’s tournaments.

“We always collaborate closely,” said Mitrovic. “We know that basically, there's a lot of decisions, who's going to be on MNT roster and that can affect our roster, obviously, and then trying always to make the best possible roster for Olympic team. And now going to June camp with MNT and then going to Copa América, based on the selection of those players, there is kind of a domino effect on our roster as well.”

Also of note, the coach praised the influence of the Philadelphia Union and their highly-rated development system, with two current Union standouts and one alum, Paxten Aaronson, in this group. He paid tribute to the Columbus Crew duo of Aidan Morris and Patrick Schulte, wishing them luck in Saturday’s Concacaf Champions Cup final vs. Pachuca, and noted the prominent role Benja Cremaschi, one of the youngest members of his squad, has carved out at Inter Miami CF.

The US men open their Olympic campaign against the host nation, mighty France, in Nice on July 24 before rounding out Group A play against New Zealand and Guinea on July 27 and 30 in Marseille and Saint-Étienne, respectively.