Jackson Yueill - US Under-23s - controls ball

The US Under-23 men’s national team cleared its first Concacaf Olympic Qualifying hurdle with Thursday’s tense 1-0 win over Costa Rica. The journey is far from done, however, and the young Yanks face a different (but still essential) task in Group A on Sunday when playing the Dominican Republic at Estadio Akron in suburban Guadalajara (7 pm ET | FS1, TUDN).

For the second of three matches in seven days under warm conditions at mile-high elevation and one in which the US are marked favorites, sweeping changes to Jason Kreis’ starting lineup are expected – or as many as a roster size of just 17 field players can allow.

A win is still mandatory no matter who gets the nod, as three more points would just about clinch a place in the semifinals and ease jitters ahead of the group-stage finale vs. Mexico on Wednesday. Here’s a few things to monitor.

Who steps into the XI?

With MLS still in preseason, the gap in match fitness and sharpness between the US and Costa Rica grew sharp in relief as Thursday’s affair ticked away, even after Kreis maxed out his use of five allotted substitutions.

It’s a good bet that most (or all) of those five subs will feature from the start against the DR. At least one, but perhaps not both, of Johnny Cardoso and Andres Perea should step into central midfield. This game would also be a good place to get late-roster addition Tanner Tessmann some minutes.

Sebastian Soto is a natural swap for Jesus Ferreira up top and Sebastian Saucedo is a logical wing option. Henry Kessler can spell Justen Glad – who’s carrying a yellow card – or Mauricio Pineda at center back. Aaron Herrera was mostly middling at right back against Los Ticos and will likely be relieved by Julian Araujo, who this coaching staff seems to rate very, very highly.

The Mihailovic-Yueill axis

A big factor in several of the above decisions is how Kreis manages Djordje Mihailovic and Jackson Yueill, two of the staff’s most highly-regarded midfielders. Yueill went the full 90 in the first game, bearing the left-handed compliment of Costa Rica’s decision to man-mark him to limit his influence, and there’s not really another deep-lying distributor quite like him in reserve. Time for a rest?

Mihailovic’s creativity is valued, but he was quiet on Thursday. Does he get the chance to play his way into form or is it better to measure his minutes? Perhaps he’s given a run-out on the wing?

The US stuck to their planned single-pivot shape, but no one really looked incredible in the twin 8 slots. It would be interesting to see the likes of Cardoso and Tessmann sit deep together and patrol from a different set of angles.

Goalkeeping competition?

David Ochoa finished just a nose ahead of JT Marcinkowski in the goalkeeping competition, then vindicated the decision with a Man of the Match performance against Costa Rica. Does that mean he’s The Guy from here on out? Or will Kreis follow through with his previous musings about a rotation for the second game? Aside from the San Jose Earthquakes backstop, they also have Philadelphia Union youngster Matt Freese on the roster. 

A Cinderella tale?

Unheralded upstarts climbing up the Concacaf dogpile grace us with some of our region’s best stories, and these Dominican Republic islanders certainly fall into that category. 

A nation traditionally dominated by baseball has advanced noticeably in the beautiful game by digging up dual-nationals like Osasuna’s Nowend Lorenzo and Hoffenheim prospect Fabian Messina from the Dominican diaspora. They’ve also made strides in domestic player development, helping them reach this tournament for the first time ever.

Los Quisqueyanos (a nickname derived from the Taino people’s word for Hispaniola) acquitted themselves bravely in their 4-1 opening loss to mighty Mexico, and while they’re still a longshot for semifinal advancement, these games are a precious opportunity for their individual players to turn heads.

Some aren’t even done with high school yet, including Connecticut-based (Taft School) defender Sebastian Manon and winger Edison Azcona, an Inter Miami CF homegrown signing and the scorer of Thursday’s consolation goal. The United States best not overlook these underdogs.