Thoughts on the U.S. U-23 team's 3rd straight Olympic qualifying failure
March 28, 2021
FOR THE THIRD consecutive cycle, the United States men’s team will not play in the Olympics after a failure to qualify. In 2012, the team failed to advance out of the group. In 2016, the team lost in the semifinals to Honduras and then lost in a playoff to Colombia. This year, it was a straight 2-1 loss to Honduras in the semifinal in a cycle where no playoffs were offered to CONCACAF’s third place finisher.
Even if the result is the same, every failure has its own story. One constant theme, however, is that Honduras always beats the U.S team at the U-23 level – it just matters if falls in line with qualifying. In 2000 and 2008, Honduras beat the U.S. team in the final – after both teams qualified. In 2016 and 2021, it prevented the U.S. team from qualifying. The only time the U.S. team managed a win over Honduras came in 2004, where the U.S. team won all three of its group stage games (including a 4-3 win over Honduras) but lost to Mexico in the semifinal.
But this failure was different than the two previous ones. In both 2012 and 2016, the U.S. team was going through the “Missing Years” generational gap and talent was thin. Even gazing at the U.S. team’s roster for the CONCACAF leg of qualifying in 2015, there are many players who were seen as key players – only to have their careers fail to take off: Boyd Okwuonu, Dillon Serna, Jerome Kiesewetter, Gedion Zelalem, Alonso Hernandez, etc.
At the U-23 level, players need to be much further along in their careers and it should be known at this stage that they will be, at least, viable professionals. Ideally, you would like to be confident that a U-23 cycle will have enough players with the ability to join the full national team player pool. That was not the case in 2012 and 2016.
This year was completely different.
What is not excuse is that the “elite” U.S. U-23 team did not have its best players. It was always known that Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Sergino Dest, Gio Reyna, Josh Sargent, Tim Weah, and Tyler Adams were not going to play for the team. It is true that since the initial team assembled in Mexico for qualifying in 2020 (only to have COVID postpone it for a year), more talent that was expected to be with this team left to situations were releases were not possible – Mark McKenzie, Brenden Aaronson, Reggie Cannon. Also releases and injuries affected Erik Palmer-Brown, Richie Ledezma, and Paxton Pomykal.
The problem that the U.S. team had no real preparation (no pretournament friendlies) as well as almost all of the players being stuck in pre-preseason form was a legit concern. The era of COVID-19 pushed the start of the MLS season out almost two months. Normally, this tournament would have started a month into the regular season - and that would have helped. The preseason nature of the problems, however, pails in comparison to the real problems, mostly self-inflicted, that were delt to the team.
This most disappointing aspect of this failure is that the U.S. team still had enough talent to compete well and qualify. Honduras, again, found a way to win with its two goal scorers on Sunday night coming from a Honduran-American who was born in the U.S., lived almost his whole life here, played high-school and college soccer in the states (at Sienna), and now plays in USL at Rio Grand Valley – along with another player who came to USL for a year on loan at the Real Monarchs – and did not stand out.
This U.S. U-23 team was built off players from the last two U-20 cycles in 2019 and 2017. In both of those cycles, the U.S. U-20 team won CONCACAF (the only two times it has done that it its history). The talent was obviously there at this level.
Here is what the U.S. program must consider in its loss.
No creative midfielders named
When the roster was released, red flags were immediately raised about the lack of creative midfielders. That was a strength of the 2020 roster which had Brenden Aaronson, Richie Ledezma, and Paxton Pomykal. Injuries and release issues ruled out all three of those players. Instead of trying to fill those spots, Kreis named an abundance of holding and defensive midfielders while hoping that one or two would be able to play further up the field.
Hassani Dotson, Jackson Yueill, Johnny Cardoso, Tanner Tessmann, and Andres Perea taking up five of the six midfield spots proved to be an overkill. Djordje Mihailovic has played the No. 10 at times but is now viewed mostly as a winger. As players, Dostson, Tessmann, Yueill, Cardoso, and Perea are all promising in certain roles but on this roster, they were asked to fill roles that are not to their strengths.
In the end, the midfield construction wasn’t balanced, it was extremely redundant. Hindsight is 20/20 but this is fair to criticize because many outlets, including ASN, expressed concern over this once the roster was named.
It is true that none of the potential options would have matched Aaronson, Pomykal, and Ledezma but looking to fill those holes with attacking players, while inexperienced, would have been better than overloading with holding and defensive midfielders.
Building off the unbalanced midfield, Kreis will have to answer for specific cuts he made. These are players he could have had released, but made the active decision to cut. In particular, five cuts stand out.
Jeremy Ebobisse: Kreis admitted several times that this was a coach’s decision and it was very clear that Kreis was not interested in taking Ebobisse. It is not just that Jesus Ferreira and Sebastian Soto made the team but also that Ricardo Pepi, 17, made the training camp roster as well. Combining the 2019 and 2020 seasons, Ebobisse had 20 goals for Portland over less than 2700 minutes and started in an MLS Cup. Ebobisse was left off supposedly due his performance in training camp in January - when he was just moving beyond a concussion.
Still, Ebobisse had more experience and goals than the other forwards combined. Ferreira (one goal in 2020), Pepi (three goals in 2020), and Soto (only professional goals came in a brief loan to the Dutch 2nd tier). Ebobisse, unlike Soto and Ferreira is also a strong aerial threat. In the end, Soto and Ferreira scored just one combined goal over four games.
Eryk Williamson: Another player who struggled in January mostly due to coming off an ankle injury at the end of the 2020 season but who could have brought more two-way ability to the team than all other midfielders on the roster, aside from maybe Yueill. Williamson had three goals and five assists in roughly 1400 minutes of work in 2021
Frankie Amaya: The gritty midfielder and former No. 1 over MLS Superdraft pick might not have earned the recognition playing for a poorly constructed FC Cincinnati team but he was certainly a player who brought two-way ability and fight.
Cole Bassett: Bassett would have been one of the key players on the U.S. U-20 team before it was cancelled. While young, the attacking midfielder had five goals and five assists in just 982 minutes of action for Colorado. That was a rate of production that surpassed the team’s other options who asked to provide goals and assists in the attacking midfield spots.
Keaton Parks: the New York City FC midfielder was never given much of a chance with this U-23 team and all he did was become a regular starter and important player for a very solid and complete NYCFC team. He now has over 3000 minutes for NYCFC which has been among the East’s best teams.
Caden Clark: This would have been a bold pick as Caden Clark, born in 2003, is still extremely young. But selecting him would have been betting on one of the most, if not the most, highly regarded American prospects of his birth year. He is a player who carried the Red Bulls into the playoffs down the stretch and scored a goal in the playoffs.
The bottom line is that there were real options to chose from which could have filled the holes on the roster and made it more balanced – and better offensively. Options from Europe are always questionable and clubs, particularly during a global pandemic, are less likely to release players. But these options above were certainly possible.
Playing out of the back
This team flirted with conceding avoidable goals the entire tournament, and in the final two games it caught up with them. Kreis said that the team insisted on playing out of the back, and “Route 1” style soccer was “not in the team’s DNA.” But what makes up a team’s DNA typically takes a long time to establish. This team was essentially new in 2021 after the COVID-19 shutdown and should have been amenable to any style.
An insistence on playing out of the back in crucial when the players are in preseason and naturally rusty is a recipe for disaster. When there are no attacking midfielders, the next outlet for the defenders or midfielders becomes tough to find. Having the offensive geared towards creating a long-string of passes up the field while the players are in preseason form and attacking midfielders are not present is unnecessarily hard and unnecessarily complicated.
The U.S. team had the athletic edge to win first and second balls after long passes and go from there. It might not have been the most attractive style, but it would have prevented goals, and probably would have yielded more chances. On a team which did not have enough creative players, scoring goals is harder, and giving up goals is more costly.
The insistence on playing this style proved to be costly and without any benefit.
If the U.S. team wants to take any positives from this, it isn’t easy, but its that the players on this roster are still surely going to be more successful than the players of the last U-23 cycles. A few will be in the full national team player pool soon and a few others might turn out to be “late bloomers-types.” Many others, however, will still have nice professional careers. Most players will still be successful at the club level when the next U-23 cycle starts.
This team won’t be remembered for poor individual players but more of a unbalanced roster selection, and controversial roster cuts. The preseason form was indeed a tough factor but still an obstacle that could have been overcome.
Besides that, this one will sting badly. It will go away for a bit and then return again this summer when the Olympics return and the U.S. team is no there. Come the fall, it will be a distant memory when World Cup qualifiers start and youth national teams hopefully resume at the more important U-17 and U-20 levels.
The next round of U-23 qualifying will only be in 2.5 or three years. The same issues of releases and timing will again be challenging. Hopefully, the lessons learned on roster construction and style will carry over on the next staff. Aside from a quicker turnaround, the better news is that the next qualifying cycle will be the last opportunity to fail before being able to participate as the U.S team hosts the tournament in 2028, two full decades after its last participation.