Mitrovic hired to lead the Olympic team and faces inherent challenges building his team

U.S. Soccer has announced the head coach for the men's 2024 Olympic team and it will go to Marko Mitrovic, who previously was the U.S. U-19 head coach. ASN's Brian Sciaretta writes about the hire and the task at hand for the Serbian-American coach. 
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
September 07, 2023
2:05 AM

THE UNITED STATES U-23 Men’s Olympic head coaching vacancy has been filled as U.S. Soccer formally announced that it has hired Marko Mitrovic for the position. The Belgrade native previously served as the head coach of the U.S. U-19 team.

Mitrovic, 45, rose through the coaching ranks working extensively with Veljko Paunovic. He was Paunovic’s assistant in 2015 with the Serbian U-20 team when it won the U-20 World Cup (narrowly defeating the U.S. team on penalties in the quarterfinals). He then was Paunovic’s assistant with the Chicago Fire and then Reading. In April 2022, he was hired as the U.S. U-19 head coach.

This will be the team’s first time in the Olympics since 2008. The 2012 failed to qualify under Caleb Porter. The 2016 team failed to qualify under Andi Herzog, and the 2020 team failed to qualify under Jason Kreis. This team qualified by virtue of the U.S. U-20 team’s performance at the CONCACAF Championships in 2022, led by coach Mikey Varas who is now a USMNT assistant.

In addition, U.S. Soccer announced that U.S. U-16 coach Michael Nsien would be elevated to the U-19 head coaching position. 



The Olympic rules


FIFA has already published its regulations for the tournament and here is what we know about it in terms of the rules.

  • The age limit is for players born in 2001 or later. Essentially these will be players from the pool of the 2023 U-23 team and the 2021 U-20 team (which had its cycle canceled due to Covid).
  • Releases for players are completely voluntary.
  • Teams will be allowed to select three overage players, as has been historically allowed.
  • The roster size will be 22 players, including three goalkeepers. Historically it had been 18 but FIFA expanded it to 22 for the games in Tokyo and will continue with that in Paris.
  • The tournament will take place from July 24 through August 10.
  • Venues will be in Paris, Nantes, Bordeaux, Lyon, Saint Etienne, Nice and Marseille.


Club coordination is key


Mitrovic will have several challenging tasks ahead of him. For one, the Olympics is not a tournament where player releases are mandatory. Typically, releases are more difficult the older the age group because players assume bigger roles within clubs as they get older. As a result, U-23 releases are harder than U-20 releases, U-20 releases are harder than U-17 releases.

Mitrovic will not have a lot of time with his group either. Gregg Berhalter said there are U-23 camps set for October and November. In 2024, there will likely be camps in January and March before final preparations in the summer.

Mitrovic will most likely have to be very proactive with engaging with clubs to see which players are in positions where they will be released. Are some players at clubs which won’t even consider a release? Are some players likely to move in January or next summer and it’s completely up in the air? Are some clubs taking a wait and see approach to releases?


USMNT coordination


Then, Mitrovic will also have to coordinate his roster plans with USMNT manager Gregg Berhalter because there will be significant overlap in the player pools for both teams. The U.S. team, of course, hosts and plays in the Copa America earlier in summer 2024 and that takes priority. It is hard to see any overlap between the rosters for the Olympics and the Copa America.

Age-eligible players like Giovanni Reyna and Yunus Musah will almost certainly be focused on the Copa America and not the Olympics because they are big players with the U.S. team when healthy. But there are a significant number of players who could play with the USMNT but would be backups. If they were with the U.S. U-23 team, however, they would be starters. Some of the many examples would be Joe Scally, Kevin Paredes, Paxten Aaronson, Tanner Tessman, Ben Cremaschi, Cade Cowell, Johnny Cardoso, Taylor Booth, or even Ricardo Pepi.

Mitrovic will have to coordinate with Berhalter as to which players are focused with the USMNT and which players are available for the U-23 team.

As a side note, two top age-eligible American players are not allowed to participate – Malik Tillman and Folarin Balogun.

FIFA has a rule that states: “A player who receives a favorable change of association decision is ineligible to participate for their new [national team] in any competition (qualifiers or finals) in which they already represented their [former national team].” Tillman and Balogun represented Germany and England, respectively, in U-21 games that were part of UEFA Olympic qualifying. That prohibits them from playing for the United States in the 2024 Olympics.


Overage Players


Once Mitrovic understands his player pool for players born 2001 and younger, he will have to decide on overage players based on where there are weaknesses from the age-eligible group. The overage players will also be looked to provide leadership. Release issues will be especially difficult for older players but typically this group is chosen from players who are established in their clubs and can miss preseason or midseason games.

Historically, the overage spots have been used on a goalkeeper, a central defender, and a striker. This team, however, could be in great shape for goalkeeping from young players. Central defense, however, is thin and two picks could be used there. Center forward is also a likely pick given the growing number of older options.


Bottom line


U.S. Soccer made a smart and pragmatic pick with Mitrovic. He is coming from within the organization, but he’s also done well with the U.S. U-19 team and was popular with the players. His teams generally achieved solid results and prepared players well for the U-20 team.

Given that the tournament is less than a year away and there will only be limited camps, Mitrovic has the benefit of knowing the player pool given his work with U.S. Soccer.

But it’s a great opportunity for Mitrovic to lead the team in the Olympics for the first time in 16 years. Historically, the Olympics have been a very useful tournament for the men’s side of U.S. Soccer in terms of bridging the gap between youth and senior national team levels. Many players have used the Olympic cycle to springboard from being part-time USMNT players to becoming members of the team’s core.

In 2000, Josh Wolff, Landon Donovan, and John O’Brien went from being occasionally used young USMNT players and into a core group for the 2022 World Cup. In 2008, Maurice Edu, Benny Feilhaber, Charlie Davies, Stuart Holden, Jozy Altidore, and Brad Guzan all took on bigger roles within the USMNT after the Olympics in Beijing.

If Mitrovic is successful, we could see many players he works with in the coming months take on important roles with the USMNT as it prepares to host the World Cup in 2026.

Post a comment