Toulon U-23 Tournament Roster Analysis
The Toulon tournament, played out over the next two weeks, is a fascinating and unique beast in international football.
First off, it's a U-23 tournament the year before the Olympics (Normally it's U-20), the only real thing of the sort. It's also short matches, with 40 minute halves, played with an insane one day off between them, which might actually be an advantage for the notoriously-fit US. It has a long, storied history, dating back to 1974 in its current form, and it's served as a stage for coming out parties for young starlets including James Rodriguez, Hector Herrera, Sebastian Giovinco, Ruí Costa, Hugo Lloris, Javier Mascherano, Claudio Taffarel, Alan Shearer, and some guy named Thierry Henry.
As always, I'll give you my analysis of the roster. The most important thing to keep in mind is that the selection of this roster is deeply constrained. It's constrained by the fact these aren't FIFA dates, and MLS clubs are therefore not obligated to release their players. Secondly, the U-20 team is Down Under for the World Cup of their level, so none of those boys are candidates either. Finally, there are some senior teamers like DeAndre Yedlin and John Brooks who are already playing an important role in major European sides and might be "above" showing up for a youth tournament like this with nothing at stake. Therefore, the selection that survives those constraints can tell us quite a lot about the smaller playing pool to which it applies. Also keep in mind that the final Olympic team will include 3 overage players so the group here is really just fighting for 20 spots, not 23.
Oh and one more reminder. I'm projecting these guys onto a potential Olympic team that doesn't yet exist, since we haven't yet qualified. Those qualifiers take place in October, and in case you've forgotten, we failed to qualify for London 2012 so don't take it for granted. But for my purposes, I'm assuming we make it and projecting the squad towards that point, a year in the future, rather than the qualifiers (which occur outside of FIFA dates and therefore might have a strange roster). All four group games (and the final, should we make it) will be on BeIN sports. Our group includes Costa Rica, France, the Netherlands, and Qatar.
Goalkeepers (3): Cody Cropper (Unattached, released by Southampton), Charlie Horton (Unattached, released by Cardiff City), Tyler Miller (Zweibrücken)
Ah the land of the free agents. Cody Cropper is the obvious number 1 in this group, and his real competition is actually Zack Steffen, who is currently with the U-20s. Cropper is a really solid performer, but lacks a particularly high ceiling, so I'm unsurprised Southampton have let him go. I think he is more likely to land in the UK than the US next season. Either way, he's a really solid guy for this level and I think he'd be above average amongst the starting goalkeepers on teams that qualify. That being said, I still wouldn't be completely stunned if Herzog ultimately went with a senior keeper when the Olympics roll around.
The backups are awesome. Horton and Miller, the 3rd and 4th options at this level, are both the kind of guys you'd expect to be in the mix in European clubs, although neither at that top level. I just don't think they stand a chance at moving past Steffen and Cropper. Don't sleep on Ethan Horvath for that 3rd spot either, though; I'd rate him at roughly their level. The depth, therefore, is excellent, but there isn't quite that star-power we're accustomed to from American keepers.
Defenders (7): Juan Pablo Ocegueda (Alebrijes de Oaxaca), Boyd Okwuonu (Real Salt Lake), Shane O’Neill (Colorado Rapids), William Packwood (Unattached, Released by Birmingham City), Jalen Robinson (D.C. United), Sam Strong (UC Santa Barbara), Tyler Turner, (Orlando City SC)
This is the group that will least resemble its final product next summer in the Olympics. DeAndre Yedlin and John Brooks meet the age requirements so that they don't require over-age slots, but are already established senior-team guys, so they'll be there. Perhaps more importantly, the real star-power in the US system in defense is actually at the U-20 level, with can't-miss prospects Cameron Carter-Vickers, Matt Miazga, and Erik Palmer-Brown. I wouldn't be surprised at least two of those three made the Olympic squad too. That means that with 4 or 5 slots spoken for from the final 8 or so, the Toulon group is competing for the deeper slots on the roster, and the selections reflect that.
Despite that disclaimer, there are still some guys who can play. Shane O'Neill has been tipped for a potential senior-team slot in the future by pundits, having already made 50 MLS appearances by the age of 21, but he's put in some really grim performances for club and country lately. Be it injury, form, or bad luck, he needs to get out of his rut. If he does, he's got the inside track on what I project to be one remaining slot at center-back for the Olympic squad. If he doesn't, it's possible he switches affiiliation to the country of his birth, Ireland, as the US senior team begins to look out of reach.
His primary competition for that last slot will be Will Packwood, who has looked at times brilliant and at times dire through spells at various stops in the 2nd through 4th tiers of English football, punctuated by a major injury and several minor ones. He has prototype size, English academy pedigree, and moments of the spectacular. As a free agent, hopefully he can find a club that can offer more playing time so that he can play his way closer to where his potential is. If he arrives at it (and I suspect that the project might be too long to complete in just one year), his upside is even higher than O'Neill's.
Beyond those two, it's a bit more hit-or-miss. I actually kindof like Ocegueda, who has been capped repeatedly at this level, but without anything spectacular to show for it. At the very least, he's getting some playing time in the Mexican second tier. Although he's only a decent prospect, the Yanks' thin pool at fullback make him a somewhat likley call-up for the Olympic team. Okwuonu, Robinson, and Turner are all solid players who don't feature much for the first-team on their MLS sides, and who could therefore really use this showcase. The original roster was announced at 19 men, and Turner was annoucned late to complete the 20. He and Alashe's teams squared off on Sunday (Turner didn't play) but the game caused both of them to arrive late at camp, which may be the explanation for the delayed announcement.
Strong is the only other non-goalkeeper college player in the US National Team picture right now, and I still haven't seen any tape on him because, you know, he's in college. But there has to be something there for him to get his second call up at this level.
Midfielders (5): Fatai Alashe (San Jose Earthquakes), Benji Joya (Santos Laguna), Daniel Metzger (New York Red Bulls II), Marc Pelosi (Liverpool), Dillon Serna (Colorado Rapids)
Pelosi is an interesting one, he of German birth, Italian name, Bay Area childhood, and English club. He's already had a few major injuries in his young career, so it's nice to see him back in action. It's not every day that an outfield player is highly recruited into a top Premier League academy, after all. I have no idea what position in which either his club or country envisages him, be it left back, left wing, or central midfield, but the US Soccer release putting him in midfield seems to preliminarily rule out one of those options. He's a talented, left-footed kid but he needs to find a way to stay healthy long enough to build his game and show coaches what he can offer. If that happens, I think he's a strong contender to make the Olympic team.
The other lock from this group, although an odd inclusion in it, is Fatai Alashe. The defensive midfielder is the only athletic "enforcer" in midfield that the US has at this level, and he's had a truly spectacular rookie season in MLS so far. While his passing isn't elite, he's managed to mark stud no. 10s Clint Dempsey, Kaká, Lee Ngyuen, Federico Higuaín, Javier Morales, and Pedro Morales out of games. It's even engendered the hashtag #FataIsland to describe where these stars get marooned for the game. The reason I'm surprised he was called into this roster is that he's an automatic starter for his club side, which is in the middle of its season, and under no obligation to release him. As a Quakes beat reporter, I can tell you that there's a significant drop-off until the next option. Either way, this is a great chance for the Herzog to continue to develop him into an international player given how recently he's risen to prominence.
Anyone who follows my work is probably tired of me gushing about how much I love Benji Joya's passing range, vision, and technique, but limited club playing time and a quiet game against Mexico have dampened others' expectations of him. This tournament could be his chance to really make a claim on an Olympic spot. Daniel Metzger still hasn't played meaningfully at the MLS level, so I haven't seen him personally, but he keeps on getting selected so he probably has some talent. I'd imagine he's farther outside the Olympic picture than the previous three.
Last but not least is Dillon Serna, the enigmatic Colorado Rapids player. For some reason, his club side (which has had a rough season) doesn't see fit to play him much, but every time he gets major minutes he catches my eye. He's somewhere between a fullback and a wide midfielder, capable of playing from either flank, but since the US Soccer release has him as a midfielder, we should consider him a winger for this tournament's purposes. I think he has a good shot at the Olympic team, and he has a bit of upside beyond that, but I'd consider that less likely.
Forwards (5):Julian Green (Bayern Munich; Tampa, Fla.); Alonso Hernandez (C.F. Monterrey; El Paso, Tex.), Jerome Kiesewetter (Stuttgart; Berlin, Germany), Alfred Koroma Shams (Southlake Carol, Texas), Jordan Morris (Stanford; Mercer Island, Wash.)
Finally, Julian Green is freed from his season East of Eden. First sent out on loan to Hamburger SV (which finished in a relegation spot), then demoted to its youth team, he's done little to build upon his triumphant debut for the US in the World Cup last summer. In essence, he's switched in just one year from being an overvalued commodity to an undervalued one, b ut the truth is he remains what he was: a talented prospect with a high upside but certainly not a "sure thing." Trust Jürgen Klinsmann's mentorship to help him with his professionalism and mentality. Spending time with the US youth teams is, in some ways, slumming it for Green, and I hope that he uses the opportunity to humbly rebuild his career. If he does, he'll be a star in the Olympic team and a potential star for the senior team down the road.
The other star power in this group comes from Jordan Morris, the Stanford University sophomore who has repeatedly turned down opportunities to go professional and scored his first goal for the full senior team last month. Blessed with speed to burn and a pure goal-scorers mentality when it comes to finishing, he's in some ways a very raw prospect but he's a lock for the Olympic team and could be one of the leaders of the group.
Alfred Koroma Shams is an intruiging character, born in Sierra Leone, bounced around various youth programs and college programs, apparently signing for the Austin Aztex back in March (I couldn't find any evidence he's played for them), but throughout it all he's remained a mainstay in the US youth setups. He's a speculative project at this point, we'll see if he makes a name for himself in Toulon. He has that diamond-in-the-rough level of potential, but don't count on it manifesting just yet.
Hernandez and Kiesewetter both play for good foreign clubs and have made multiple appearances at this level, so are no slouches and certainly better depth than the US has ever had at this level. That being said, they're a cut behind Green and Morris (not to mention absent players like Mario Rodriguez) and they'll be fighting for those very last few slots in the Olympic Squad.