Olympic team notes

Analysis: U.S. U-23 team opens Olympic cycle with win over Mexico

The U.S. U-23 team opened up its cycle with a 2-1 win over Mexico in Phoenix. ASN's Brian Sciaretta takes you through the postgame reaction with quotes from Marko Mitrovic and a few of the key players. 
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
October 12, 2023
3:05 AM

THE UNITED STATES U-23 team formally kicked off its preparations for the 2024 Olympics with a 2-1 win over Mexico on Wednesday night in Phoenix, Arizona. The win was first of two friendlies the U.S. team will play this window as next Tuesday they will host Japan, again in Phoenix.

Due to “red tape” issues, this game against Mexico was not stream or televised.

The U.S. goals were scored at the end of each half as New England Revolution winger/attacking midfielder Esmir Bajraktarevic opened the scoring in the 45th minute.

Then in the 90th minute, Seattle Sounders Obed Vargas gave the U.S. team a 2-0 lead in the 90th minute. The famous “Dos a Cero” score, however, did not last long as Mexico scored in stoppage time to pull one back at 2-1 just before the final whistle sounded.

The U.S. team started a strong lineup but still with some interesting decisions made by head coach Marko Mitrovic. Tanner Tessmann is typically a No. 8 box-to-box with Venezia but he was instead started more as a No. 6 in back of Jack McGlynn and Gianluca Busio. This pushed Brian Gutierrez, normally a No. 10, out wide.

Taylor Booth started on the wing with Duncan McGuire also getting the start as the No. 9, which was expected. John Tolkin getting the start at left back was noteworthy as Caleb Wiley is also knocking at the door.

Central defense is also very thin for this group but Maximillian Dietz and Johnathan Tomkinson got the nod. While Chris Brady is a starter for the Chicago Fire, Mitrovic elected to start Crew goalkeeper Patrick Schulte.

The U.S. team nearly scored early when Booth drew a penalty in the fifth minute, but his ensuing attempt was saved. Booth was subbed out in the 32nd minute but that was prearranged as this was his first game since August 12 after returning from an injury. He was scheduled to play only about 30 minutes.


Fortunately, for the U.S. team, Booth’s substitute Bajraktarevic was also effective. His goal just before halftime was a nice left-footed strike from 22 yards.

In the second half, the U.S. made two massive waves of transitions in the 60th and 73rd minutes. This left Schulte and Dietz as the only players to go the full 90.

The U.S. doubled the lead in the 90th minute via Vargas on a played created by FC Dallas winger Bernard Kamungo who came into the game in the 73rd minute.

Shortly after a late Mexico goal, the game ended at 2-1 for the United States.

Busio, the U.S. team’s captain, was happy with the first game of the cycle.

“It was a great performance and obviously we don't have many camps leading up to the Olympics,” Busio said. “So just to build the habit of winning and playing in games like against good opponents will really prepare us. So just to start off the cycle like this with a good performance, we really learned a lot about ourselves. It's our third day together, for us to go out there and play like we've been together awhile really shows the commitment of the group. I'm looking forward to what is to come.”

Here are some notes on the game.


U.S controlled early, but Mexico responded


The U.S. team began the game on the front foot and were the better team in the first half. Mexico raised the game in the second half and the U.S. team was a bit more disjointed with the wave of substitutions.

Vargas noted that his goal in the second half was important counter Mexico’s increasing pressure.

“It was very good myself and for the team,” Vargas said of the game. “We were in a tough spot in the game. They were building a lot of pressure. We were 1-0 up but we had to get back into the game. Scoring that goal relieved some of that pressure off of us.”


Schulte was a difference maker


As Mexico responded, goalkeeper Patrick Schulte was important making sure the U.S team always stayed on top after the opening goal.

Schulte is one of those in camp who needs to play well because he is in an important battle. There will only be two goalkeepers on the Olympic roster, and he is battling with Gaga Slonina, Chris Brady, John Pulskamp, along with potential overage picks. In this game, he helped do his job.


Young goal scorers


What is particularly interesting is that both goal scorers, Bajraktarevic and Vargas, are 2005-born players who are not only eligible for the 2024 Paris Olympics but are also age-eligible for the 2025 U-20 World Cup and the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.  

Both players are also eligible for other countries that have tried to recruit them in the past. Vargas has, at times, been approached by Mexico as both of his parents grew up there. Bajraktarevic has been linked to Bosnia’s U-21 team and their coach has mentioned his name in interviews.

But in addition to their youth and dual nationality, both players specifically help this team because they are both talented and versatile. In a tournament where the roster size is just 18 players for group stage and knockout rounds, versatility takes on a different meaning all together.

Bajraktarevic has a head start heading into this camp because he has played for Mitrovic when he was the U.S. U-19 coach. The left-footed attacker from Wisconsin can play both on the right wing where he likes to cut centrally, as well as the No. 10 position.

“I was really excited,” Bajraktarevic said after the win. “This is obviously my first time with the group. I knew it was a big game playing against our rivals but it's always a good challenge. I was happy to play… I've played with Marko before with the U-19s. I don't mind playing as the 10 or out wide on the right wing. I like both. I know Marko's style so it was easy to get involved in this system.”

Vargas, meanwhile, can play both a deeper No. 6 role or as a double-pivot No. 8, which he typically plays in Seattle. In the first few days of this camp, he played as a pure defensive midfielder but subbed into the game as a No. 8. There he was able to move forward more easily and score the goal.

“It's a little bit different,” Vargas said. “At my club, we play with two pivots and do not have a deeper role. Today was my first time in that position. At training I was playing deeper No. 6 where Aidan was playing today. Today I played that. Watching the men’s team and seeing how they play, it's pretty easy to get into the field and know your role. Marko makes it super inclusive for everyone - even if you're not playing that position, make sure you're paying attention and know what the role is.”

While he is not as familiar with Mitrovic as Bajraktarevic, Vargas has a favorable impression of the coach at the start of this camp.

“I've spent three days with him and already I can tell that he's super close with his players. He likes to interact with his players, build relationships with his players and make sure he knows the personal side and not just the on-the-field stuff. That's important when you're a coach to have that deeper connection with your players and it makes them want to play for you. “

As for the dual nationality, Vargas seemed to be very happy with the opportunity to play and score against Mexico, with his family in the stands.

“It's just pride, both ways,” Vargas said. “My parents were in the stands. I was super excited to play against Mexico and I respect their organization. We know we will always have a great game when we play against them. It's going to get scrappy. It's going to get dirty. We always try to do our best. I was proud that I was able to score a goal for the USA…. We're working towards the Olympics but right now the focus is on this camp and make sure we do this right. It will help set us up for success on the future.”


Youth alignment helps


One theme that was also discussed after the game is that the U.S. teams are starting to see the benefit of having a similar style that links the U-15 levels all the way through to the full national team. Most of the players have been called up before and they came into this camp with a better idea of how positions play and work within the system.

Even for the 2001 and 2002-born players like Aidan Morris, Bryan Reynolds, John Tolkin, and Gianluca Busio who had their U-20 cycle canceled due to COVID, all have a least spent time with the full national team to have not lost their understanding as to how all national teams play right now.

“It's been a smooth transition,” Busio said after the game. “A lot of guys have been in camps for years, whether it be the U-15s. Everyone knows about each other and watches each other. For me, it was an easy transition… I think it's very similar. The U.S. system is the same throughout the youth teams. I experienced that with the U-15s through the U-17s and eventually the men's national team. They make it such a smooth transition. Everybody tries to play the same system. Obviously, it's different levels and different players. But the positions and how we want to play is always the same.”

“For me, the hardest part is coming back from Italy where it's a different system to this which is different, but it helps the players,” he added.

Mitrovic as the coach helps with this as he has come from within U.S. Soccer’s system as the U-19 coach. Now he is able to build a U-23 team that is of a similar mold.

“I actually think we are in line with each other, It's not just about a 4-3-3,” Mitrovic said. “That's a shape and a set up of the players. It's the way we want to play, our game model, our game idea in the phases of the game. I think the alignment helps, from when they're with us, through the age groups all the way to the USMNT, it's easier to adjust and adapt to the demands of the game and what we want them to do.”


Keeping it simple in the first camp


While this was a strong first step for the U.S. Olympic team, it was still just a first step and this game came after only three training sessions.

Mitrovic said he was more interested to see how the collective group of players were able to implement his ideas from the first few training sessions than he was about individual performances. After the camp, he said he will go back on video to start making evaluations about players to get an idea of who he wants to build his team around.

“The best evaluation will come after camp,” he stressed. “We are only three days into it.. Today was step one.”

Mitrovic said ahead of camp that the team only has four camps before next summer, so every camp, training, and game is valuable. It might be early, but the team will need to move quickly given the short cycle and the limited camps. But for now, it’s about building the foundation.

But he also added things have been positive to start.

“First of all, we're trying to be simple this camp. This is our first time together with this group. We've literally never been together. For us, it's to have a simple picture in their heads of the way we want to play. It's not just a playing style, but also some the values of the group and the DNA we have. How are we going to build our identity to perform in the long term?”

“It is a really good group of guys,” Mitrovic said. “They are all professionals. They know what they're doing. Everything is going so well, on and off the field. That is the only way we can work as a group.”


Other U.S. U-23 notes


Mitrovic has said that the overage component of the roster will be added “quite soon” and that these players will have to “compete.” But first, he said that he wanted to spend time evaluating the U-23 age group too. It’s tough to say if these players will be added in November or January, but it is coming quickly.

But one area that seems likely to have overage players is central defense, where just three age-eligible players are playing regularly at a high level (George Campbell at Montreal, Jalen Neal with the LA Galaxy, and Maximillian Dietz at Greuther Furth). But of this list, only Dietz is in camp.

The fact that this team only conceded one goal against Mexico (and it came from outside the box), helps. Still, the big question doesn’t seem to be whether or not overage options will be used in central defense, that is almost surely going to happen. The question is whether Mitrovic will bring one or two overage central defenders.

Also of note is that Duncan McGuire is one of the few players on the roster earning his first ever international call-up at any level. The Orlando City forward has 13 goals in all competitions this season and Mitrovic said he performed well but it required him to adjust from differences his requirements with Orlando.

“Duncan played with high energy today,” Mitrovic said. “I know that maybe he has some demands that are maybe different with the club, but I think he adjusted very well. He had some very good plays on the ball. I am positive about his performance.”


Other notes in American soccer


PanAm games information


U.S. Soccer on Wednesday announced its roster for the PanAm games. The U.S. team qualified for the tournament having been one of CONCACAF Olympic representatives. While the technical birth cut-off age is 2001 (like the Olympics), the team is coached by new U.S. U-19 coach Michael Nsien who was promoted from the U-16 level.

Nsien’s roster consists of some players who could feature for the next U.S. U-20 team but also some older players who could still factor into the U.S. U-23 team. This tournament does not take place during an international window thereby assembling a roster was extremely difficult.

The USA was drawn into Group B and will face Brazil on Oct. 23 (5 p.m. ET), Honduras on Oct. 26 (2 p.m. ET) and Colombia on Oct. 29 (5 p.m. ET).


GOALKEEPERS (2): Antonio Carrera (FC Dallas; Frisco, Texas), Chituru Odunze (Charlotte FC; London, England)

DEFENDERS (6): Reed Baker-Whiting (Seattle Sounders FC; Seattle, Wash.), Nico Carrera (Holstein Kiel/GER; Frisco, Texas), Mauricio Cuevas (LA Galaxy; Los Angeles, Calif.), Alexander Freeman (Orlando City SC; Plantation, Fla.), Nolan Norris (FC Dallas; Celina, Texas), Thomas Williams (Orlando City SC; Titusville, Fla.)

MIDFIELDERS (5): Javier Casas Jr. (Chicago Fire FC; Addison, Ill.) Daniel Leyva (Colorado Rapids; Las Vegas, Nev.), Sergio Oregel Jr. (Chicago Fire FC; Chicago, Ill.), Jack Panayotou (New England Revolution; Cambridge, Mass.), Brooklyn Raines (Houston Dynamo FC; Maricopa, Ariz.)

FORWARDS (5): Vaughn Covil (Hull City/ENG; San Diego, Calif.), Jackson Hopkins (D.C. United; Fredericksburg Va.), Tega Ikoba (Portland Timbers; Bettendorf, Iowa), Theodore Ku-DiPietro (D.C. United; Oakton, Va.), Rodrigo Neri (Atletico Madrid/ESP; Madrid, Spain)

ALTERNATES: D Noah Cobb (Atlanta United FC; Chattanooga, Tenn.), M Miguel Perez (St. Louis City SC; St. Louis, Mo.), D Michael Wentzel (St. Louis City SC; Baden-Württemberg, Germany)


Sargent signs new Norwich deal


Josh Sargent is injured right now with Norwich City but he has signed a new deal with the club through 2028. Prior to his injury, he had three goals from four games to start the season.

Sargent said in the interview that his surgery was successful and he hopes to be back in the December-January range. 

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