With Olympic qualifying in March, Kreis talks U-23 progress ahead of October camp in Miami
The United States U-23 is now assembled in Miami for its fourth camp of the cycle. With Olympic qualifying now less than six months away, ASN's Brian Sciaretta spoke with head coach Jason Kreis about the team's progress and how its building towards what he hopes will be a big year in 2020.
BY Brian Sciaretta PostedTHE UNITED STATES U-23 team opens camp in Miami this week and it is the fourth gathering of the cycle as it prepares for Olympic qualifying next March in Mexico. After two unsuccessful attempts, head coach Jason Kreis will be looking to take the team to its first Olympics since 2008.
October 07, 2019
October 07, 2019
ASN spent time recently with Jason Kreis to discuss his thoughts on how he sees his team at this point in the cycle and how the group is coming together.
BRIAN SCIARETTA FOR ASN: This is the fourth camp of this U.S. U-23 cycle. Qualification is coming in March. How is the progress and what do you want to get out of this camp in Miami?
JASON KREIS: I was actually going to say it was the third and in some ways I think it really is. The first camp, I took the job the job a couple of days before that camp started. I really didn’t have that much input on the squad that was there. So, we went with a lot of guys I think that weren't really in this pool.
But I've been very, very pleased with the progress we've gotten. The first several camps have been almost entirely about evaluation - not entirely but almost entirely. And there's also the other portion of development and understanding how we want to play. And so now we move into these three camps - I always looked at this from the beginning as trying to gain some consistency, some rhythm and true understanding of a style of play. September was good. October, I am hopeful for a lot of the same. We have some good consistency from who was with us in September to now October and we'll look for the same in November. It's based upon performance, obviously.
ASN: Do you hope to have your core group of guys set after this camp or the November camp? Do you want to know who you are going to rely on in March?
KREIS: We're already moving in that direction. We've already kind of ear-marked a couple of the guys that I think are going to be big performers for us and we're going to need to lean on. But we're going to continue to do that over this camp and the next camp in November. Hopefully it's by the end of that camp where we've got a real good understanding of who we are going to need to lean on. And the hope is to have a nice extended camp in January and really work those guys and get them prepared for qualification March.
ASN: This is kind of a two-part question. Right now you are seeing a lot of guys float between the U-23 team and the full national team. Those are obviously among the higher quality of players you have. Does it make it harder to have them missing? Also, with the final stages of the CONCACAF Nation's League now pushed to June, the full team will have only friendlies in March. Does that open the door towards your team being the priority for many of these players for qualifying in March as opposed to the full team?
KREIS: The first question about it being more challenging with players moving between the teams, I would say no. Where we're at right now and being that March is still quite a ways away, we're a little bit more in the evaluation process still than we are in the actual team building process or preparations for March actually. So, it's really nice to get to see more players.
And the thing that's really interesting is that no matter what the number they give me to work with, there are still a lot of guys that are extremely talented and I think for a lot of people can make strong arguments as to why are they not included as well? It's nice to be looking at different players each camp and also maintain some consistency with some of the guys. The communication between Gregg and myself has been really, really good. We see things the same way and we're working very cooperatively to try to sort out what's best for both teams.
ASN: Do you think that you'll be given deference in March to having your lion's share of players that are available for both teams - like Reggie Cannon, Miles Robinson, Jackson Yueill, and now Brenden Aaronson? Are those kinds of players possible?
KREIS: It's really an interesting topic because obviously if we were to take the absolute best age-eligible players we would be talking about Pulisic, McKennie and Tyler Adams - as well as that group that you just said. I think we figured he had six or seven U-23 age-eligible players with him. It's an ongoing discussion and I think it changes really based on how the players are doing in their clubs, how they're viewed by their clubs as to whether or not the U-23 would be something that even their clubs would allow. Everybody needs to remember is that that clubs don't have to release the players to the U-23s. I think people forget that often.
ASN: Along those lines, when you have a guy now like Miles Robinson coming down from from the from the full team (before heading back up again) where he earned his first cap last month. Djordje Mihailovic has played there before. I know he's not with your camp this time but Jeremy Ebobisse played there. Does that increase your expectations of them when they have had that kind of an experience when they come into camp with you? Do you expect more of them?
KREIS: No. I don't think expecting more is the right way to say it. The right way to say it is we want them to trickle down that information and that culture to the rest. We want them to come down and lead, of course, to take a more of a leadership role with our group. We've had really good contributions from guys that have been up and down with us. Jeremy Ebobisse in the very first camp - talking about what Gregg wants when having group discussions about tactics and what he was asked to do in January camp? Djordje as well.
ASN: Speaking of Jeremy Ebobisse. He is having a great season for Portland. Was he not released by Portland for this camp?
KREIS: They were a little hesitant to release him because they want to be extremely well prepared for their first playoff match. So, they were going to release him but only for three quarters of the camp and I just said no. I think it's better if we have guys who are going to be here the whole time.
ASN: Brenden Aaronson got called up to the full team. He performed very well the last two U-23 camps. What do you think about him being deserving of this opportunity and where you see him potentially fitting in when or if he comes back to the U-23s?
KREIS: I think it's terrific. This is what I mean when I say I think that's a real good collaborative effort between Gregg and myself because I was speaking to Gregg about how well this player has done for us and how much we really, really like him. I think that interested Gregg and he's got a little bit more interested in watching him. I think it's a player that gets a very deserved call-up. At the end of it all, it's extremely good for us as well to have players see that if they perform with us, that's another pathway into the full team.
ASN: Johnny Cardoso's name stands out. I mean he made his first team debut in Brazil for Internacional in Serie A. I know he's a 2001 so that puts him as U-20 eligible player. This is his first ever involvement with U.S. Soccer. What was the identification process like behind him? How was the process to connect with him and bring him into this team?
KREIS: Again, it was collaborative efforts. Gregg had been in contact with this player. He had found out about this player and let me know it. We looked at him and we looked at how can we get him in and start to see what he might be able to offer. That one completely came from Gregg. We looked at it said: absolutely let's get him in.
ASN: Johnny and David Ochoa are potential U-20 guys, does that perhaps open the door with you having to collaborate with Tab Ramos for some of those players? I mean because those players are eligible for the following Olympics as well. Are players that young still within the range you are looking at?
KREIS: For us, we're not looking at guys that are strictly U-23 age-eligible. I mean we need to look down the entire pipeline and answer the question: who can help us the most? If there are players who are younger that can help this team, they will definitely be considered. And we will speak with Tab about their availability. I spoke with Tab about a number of players that were in consideration to come in but didn't make the final roster.
ASN: On the topic of club releases, you've got a lot of European-based players now. What are the discussions like with those clubs? Looking down the road, do you think these clubs are going to be willing to release these players for qualifying if you want to name them to the roster? Or is this an ongoing process that could go either way for each of the players?
KREIS: In my experiences, I think we've had one call-up that has been rejected. And rejected isn't even the right word - it's basically like: "this players is just coming back from injury. He could be fit enough to play but we think it would make a whole lot more sense for him to kind of finish up his return to play protocol and really get some matches under his belt." So that was the only one where we got rejected. All of the other call ups that we've made for the European-based players have been 100 percent yes.
ASN: This camp features three players playing in the youth levels of big Dutch teams – which compete in the second tier. Chris Gloster and Alex Mendez were in the last U-23 camp. Now you have Richard Ledezma who has performed well for Jong PSV. How were your experiences with them so far and what are your thoughts about having Ledezma for the first time?
KREIS: He's somebody that was returning from injury during the entire [U-20] World Cup. He wasn't at his fittest or in his best form during that time. He’s player that wasn't starting regularly in that tournament.... but there was a reason for that. Looking at his club form right now he's a really, really interesting player. I'm really excited to have him in. We'll see what he looks like in the group.
Alex Mendez, for me, was one of the top performers for the U-20’s in the World Cup. He really sparked my eye. I enjoyed working with him in September. I'm hoping he takes another step forward. And Chris, I can't say that I thought he was really strong at the U-20 World Cup. I can tell you that in working with him, he's a really interesting player with a bright, bright future.
ASN: Central defense seems to be very competitive with a lot of players at this level. I mean it looks like it's going to be like an anchor of your team. Is that kind of how you see it right now?
KREIS: Yes. For me, that is the deepest possession in this group. It's really, really going to make some difficult decisions for us.
ASN: What about goalkeeper? Are you concerned? Matt played a little bit for the Union this year but mostly it's the USL or youth levels for these guys.
KREIS: I think for any coach it's going to be a concern when you're working with younger players because that's typically the position where younger players are afforded the least opportunities with first teams. It's concerning in that it's hard to make a proper evaluation. With the other players a lot of times it's easier, right? These guys are playing regularly for their first division team and their first division team is doing well. So, this is an easy decision.
But with goalkeepers, we have to bring him in, evaluate him, and really make some judgment calls without a lot of matches. So, it'll be a difficult process for us. But at the end, I think there are some guys here that can contribute and they're just in unfortunate situations in their first teams where they're not getting a lot of minutes.
ASN: Hassani Dotson is an interesting player in your pool. He was drafted by Minnesota in the second round in January. He's had a great season where he's shown the ability to play several positions. Now he's a strong candidate to win the Rookie of the Year. His best position is probably the No. 6 - which is a bit thin throughout the national team player pools. When you called him up in September, it was the first time he's ever been called up at any level. Have you seen the upward trajectory many of us have seen while watching him?
KREIS: I think this player speaks to doing well in your club team to garnish recognition, right? I don't believe this is a player that was on U.S. Soccer's radar, or come up through the developmental system, or was on youth national teams. This is a player that started to play for Minnesota and Minnesota is having a good year. So, you marry those two things together and he jumps up on our radar. I really don't know anything about him until about a third of the way through the season - maybe close to halfway.
We're on scouting phone calls and we're starting to talk about this player. And I'm like: "OK, I'd better start looking." I've been really, really impressed with his contributions for Minnesota and was extremely impressed with his performance for the week down in Chula Vista. And you got it exactly right. I mean this is a really, really good pro. He's really interested in learning the game. He studies it hard. It's going to be a benefit to anybody when he can play multiple positions.
ASN: How concerned are you about the long MLS offseason? It's much longer than it used to be and that means you will be heading into qualifying with a major portion of your roster in the beginning of the season following several months off.
KREIS: It just puts more of an emphasis on what we're doing in January. And ultimately, for me, the whole situation really relies upon the clubs cooperating with and supporting us because we're going to need to be asking for those clubs to allow the players come in with us early, potentially miss a chunk of their preseason because they start really early next year. Then we really kind of need those players for a chunk of time in March before the actual qualification tournament.
ASN: And when you look at the last couple U-23 teams that actually made the Olympics, it was it really was an important springboard that helped many players transition from the youth national teams to the full national team. When you look at this group you see a bunch of guys that could be at that next level within the years ahead?
KREIS: Yes, for sure, for sure. I think there's quite a few high-potential players here - really high potential players and different, I think, than where we've been before. I mean, we've got some really interesting and creative attacking central midfield-type players. And a lot of central defenders who, at a very young age, are playing first team soccer. And that's not a typical position to have that happen either. The future looks bright to me.
ASN: Last month when the U.S. team was in New Jersey, the players met with the media. A lot of the top young players like Weston McKennie and Christian Pulisic were asked about playing in the Olympics and they kind of smiled and said they'd love to do it. I know it's comes down to their clubs voluntarily releasing them but when do you start talking to Gregg about that? Or is that caliber of players completely off the table?
KREIS: We have those discussions. They're ongoing discussions about the possibility of even thinking about having them to help us qualify in March. That's really the two big events - qualification in March and then the actual Olympics itself. We’re trying to navigate through that and see what the possibilities are. We continue discussing that.
ASN: So many of these guys have played together in the past with the U.S. U-20s at the last two U-20 World Cups. There are always late bloomers like Dotson or late discoveries like Cardoso, but do you feel like you had a lot of momentum at your back when you started this cycle? Do you feel like you were continuing a process that you inherited with all of these players?
KREIS: It has been interesting for me to see difficulties they faced. A lot of them mentioned, of course, U-20 qualifications. So to see those guys interact, and the chemistry that exists between quite a few of those players, I think is a really, really positive thing for us. It puts us in a good spot. As well as the fact that they've been under these pressures before. It's not just the chemistry issue but it's also the experience that these players have gained collectively and individually. So both those things are big benefits for us. And I think, ultimately, it's a really big positive to mention about Tab Ramos and the work he's done over the past eight years.
ASN: What are your thoughts about playing in Mexico? It's a very difficult environment for teams to play and can be quite hostile, even at the youth levels. As a coach, what's the mindset of having these guys prepared for that element of it?
KREIS: I think it's a great challenge for us. I think it's actually going to be something that the players are raised to. I like it, actually. We need to do all we can to prepare them. When we talk about the January camp or the early camp starting before qualification, we need to get down to Mexico and we need to experience what it's like. It's altitude, a little bit, as well in Guadalajara. So we need to consider all those things as we prepare. But ultimately I think it's a great challenge for the guys and I think it's something that you can get the guys to rise to - take them out of their comfort zone a little bit and not feel like this is going to be an easy process to try to maneuver here in the U.S.