A look at the changing U.S. U-23 player pool and possible Olympic qualifying team
September 29, 2020
THE RECENT SALE of the Reggie Cannon and the upcoming likely sale of Brenden Aaronson are good news for all parties involved: the players, the purchasing clubs, the selling clubs, and the U.S. national team. The one team who it doesn’t really benefit, however, is the United States U-23 national team which hasn’t played together in a year and will look far different the next time it does.
While qualifying is rumored to be back in Guadalajara, Mexico next March, that is still not announced or confirmed. Obviously, the tournament will only partially fall inside a FIFA date and that makes getting releases harder for head coach Jason Kreis. While releases for youth national teams are never mandatory, there is always a much higher likelihood that clubs are willing to grant releases during FIFA dates.
While the Olympics were delayed a year, it has been reported that the birth year cutoff (born 1997 and younger) will remain the same. So essentially it is a U-24 tournament. From the U.S. perspective, that helps because a lot of the players were going to be on the younger side of the U-23 cycle and now they have another professional season under their belts to offset their youth. On the flip side, it also hurts because some of the European-based players are now further along in their club career and obtaining their releases will be harder.
When looking at the roster that was set to take part in Olympic qualifying last March, the releases for Ulysses Llanez, Reggie Cannon, Richard Ledezma, Brenden Aaronson, and Erik Palmer-Brown are now much more unlikely (Chris Gloster is the one European-based player that probably remains likely, should Kreis still want to select him). There is also rumors of interest for a sale of Mark McKenzie – although nothing seems pending. Paxton Pomykal’s recent surgery has him out likely five more months, so he’s doubtful – at best.
The good news, however, is that there are players who have improved their stock significantly over the past year. Eryk Williamson, Kyle Duncan, Frankie Amaya, and Anthony Fontana are just a few.
It is unclear when Jason Kreis will be able to have a camp. If his team is going to be mostly domestic-based players for March, he will have to work around the current MLS schedule and the league’s current quarantine rules. Perhaps camps in December or January and maybe one in February are possible. That is all undecided.
What could a potential roster look like? Here is one guess, at the moment. We will have to make one assumption that the roster size will remain the same (20 players total, three goalkeepers, 17 position players) although during these times, that can’t be a sure thing as of yet and CONCACAF might allow for larger teams.
But as things stand, here is a guess.
- 1) J.T. Marcinkowski
- 2) David Ochoa
- 3) Matt Freese
Others: Trey Muse, Brady Scott
The Skinny: This position probably remains unchanged from the March 2020 roster as no one has pushed any of these three keepers out. Marchinkowski has played games for San Jose recently and should be the starter.
- 4) Kyle Duncan
- 5) Aaron Herrera
- 6) Matt Real
- 7) Mark McKenzie
- 8) Justen Glad
- 9) Miles Robinson
Others: Sam Vines, Chris Gloster, Henry Kessler, Johnny Nelson, Aboubacar Keita
The Skinny: In 2020, we saw several MLS clubs become difficult with their releases. Atlanta United blocked Miles Robinson and Brooks Lennon due to a reported new policy of only releasing players when it is mandatory. That is a harsh approach that will probably hurt with attracting youth players into the organization. It might be rethought. Plus, in 2020, Atlanta United had to deal with the CONCACAF Champions League and in 2021, they almost surely won’t. For that, we’re going to guess Robinson will join up with the U-23 team.
There is also the possibility that Mark McKenzie is sold after emerging as the best U.S. U-23-eligible central defender in the league. So with Robinson and McKenize both having questions about participating in this tournament, there could be two openings in central defense.
Henry Kessler has been very impressive for New England. He could certainly force his way into the equation should one of the openings happen. The same with Aboubcar Keita, who is a veteran of the U-20 World Cup, and now has professional experience under his belt.
At fullback, the departure of Reggie Cannon probably pushes Kyle Duncan onto the team as the starting right back. The Red Bull fullback deserves it and he also can provide cover at left back. Aaron Herrera is also a versatile fullback who can backup on either side.
Left back, Sam Vines was denied a release by Colorado in March 2020 and it is hard to see why things would be different in 2021. Then it comes down to Matt Real, Johnny Nelson, and an outside chance Chris Gloster would be released by PSV Eindhoven (as he is not playing with their first team). Real has the reputation of being an excellent locker-room player and has earned praise in that regard from Jim Curtin and Tab Ramos. But now Real is playing meaningful minutes for a very good Philadelphia team. Thus far in 2020, his performances have been solid – so he gets the nod.
- 10) Jackson Yueill
- 11) Hassani Dotson
- 12) Eryk Williamson
- 13) Frankie Amaya
- 14) Anthony Fontana
- 15) Keaton Parks
Others: James Sands, Djordje Mihailovic, Paxton Pomykal, Alex Mendez, Richard Ledezma, Christian Cappis, Johnny Cardoso.
The Skinny: This area of the field is going to change a lot from March 2020. Pomkykal is possible but unlikely due to injury. Brenden Aaronson’s likely sale moves him into an unlikely category and eventually Richard Ledezma will be in and around the first team at PSV. It’s not impossible Ledezma will be denied a release because he would play a lot in this tournament and probably wouldn’t be seeing an enormous amount of playing time at PSV. Still, it seems less than favorable. It is also impossible to evaluate Christian Cappis, who is talented, until his club situation is resolved.
It is hard to see many U-20 players getting the nod besides Ochoa – especially with U-20 World Cup qualifying likely to take place in early 2020 as well. Johnny Cardoso could be one to watch, however, since he has played with this team before (to this date his only appearance with any U.S. team) and is rated by Kreis. He’s certainly good enough and it comes down to a release from Internacional. He’s been playing with the first team but maybe not to the level where it wouldn’t be seen as beneficial to let him join the U.S. team and play important games.
For now, the most likely bet is known veterans. Hassani Dotson is very useful in tournaments with small rosters because he can also cover at either fullback position in addition to playing his normal defensive midfield position.
Eryk Williamson and Frankie Amaya are two players who improved their stock the most so far in 2020.It is hard to argue against the inclusion of either player.
For the remaining two midfield spots, I think it will come down to two of the three in Anthony Fontana, Keaton Parks, and Djordje Mihailovic. Fontana still needs more minutes, but he’s certainly made the most out of what he has been given from Curtin. As of now, he might not make the team but he’s trending in the right direction. Keaton Parks, meanwhile, has done well with New York City his season. Djordje Mihailovic is neck and neck while having played a lot earlier in the cycle under Kreis.
- 16) Sebastian Saucedo
- 17) Jonathan Lewis
- 18) Jesus Ferreira
- 19) Jeremy Ebobisse
- 20) Ayo Akinola
Others: Daryl Dike, Benji Michel, Brandon Vazquez, Omir Fernandez, Emmanuel Sabbi, Sebastian Soto, Mason Toye
The Skinny: Jeremy Ebobisse looks like a lock at center forward and his inclusion into the team is key. The releases of Sebastian Soto (Telstar) and Emmanuel Sabbi (OB) are not completely unrealistic as Dutch and Danish clubs value having players in these tournaments. Soto is now at Telstar on loan and it is not clear how the club (or his parent club at Norwich) would view the situation.
On the wings, Jonathan Lewis and Sebastian Saucedo is a pretty good pairing. Missing Uly Llanez hurts but this group should still be able to score and create. Plus, Saucedo could always shift to the No. 10 position and Jesus Ferreira could than move out wide. Saucedo and Ferreira are both versatile players that can handle a bunch of attacking positions.
The backup center forward position (assuming Soto or another European option like Nicholas Gioacchini aren’t released) is probably best for Ayo Akinola who provides a different level of skillsets than Daryl Dike – who is emerging in Orlando and doing well.
Obviously, injuries, release issues, and a lack of camps due to COVID make this a difficult situation for Jason Kreis – but a lot of the teams are all in the same predicament. But the fact that a lot of these players are regular starters and many are impact players. Even when you look at the long list of players eligible for this team but who probably cannot get involved due to various reasons (like the most obvious in Adams, Pulisic, McKennie, Reyna, Dest, Weah down to the more marginal like Llanez, Richards, Ledezma, Carter-Vickers, Palmer-Brown, then you consider that some MLS teams are now not releasing, and then you look at players in the pool who could get sold and now are doubtful) and see what is still remaining – it is a pretty good list.
Should the team qualify for Tokyo next summer, there is a chance U.S. Soccer prioritizes the Olympics for some players over the Gold Cup and tries to obtain releases for many of the top American players. That would make this an entirely different team – although a complete roster overhaul is still unlikely.
Qualifying for the Olympics out of CONCACAF is hard. The U-17 and U-20 World Cups each send four teams from this region. The senior national teams have 3.5 berths in the World Cups. The region has just two sports in the Olympics. The U.S. and Mexico are typically the favorites but it is rare to see both qualify because the limited spots mean there is zero margin for error.
Whether or not this team is successful will come down to chemistry, playing smart, and having a little luck along the way. It is very important that this team be successful in qualifying because the opportunities for U.S. teams to play important games outside of CONCACAF are now rare. The Olympics would serve that purpose while also being a unique showcase that has an effect of galvanizing the American public - an the men's side of U.S. Soccer could use that spark. It’s certainly not the most talented American team in this age group, but it can still get the job done while offering a new crop of players to showcase themselves in the international arena.