U23 Roster Analysis: Looking for Their Own "Dos a Cero"
When the US failed to so much as qualify for the 2012 Olympics in London, it's clear that those inside the walls of US Soccer were just as horrified as those of us outside them.
The Olympics, primarily a U23 tournament that also allows three senior players in the final phase, had seemed like a perfect showcase for a federation on the rise that had the resources to make it a priority. Three years later, a permanent squad at that age group (which no other tournament in international football utilizes) was established, and Andi Herzog, one of Klinsmann's most trusted advisors, was placed at its helm.
The group looks better, and the talent pool at that age is as deep as it's been in our nation's history, but CONCACAF Olympic qualifying this October still looms large. The US will have the advantage of playing on their home soil, but there's a lot more parity and randomness at youth levels. Another slight wildcard is that the FIFA international dates don't start until the middle of the tourrnament, so top players won't necessarily be available until the semifinal phase. The good news is both finalists of the tournament advance, and the third place finisher will still have shot via playoff with Colombia, so there is some margin for error.
That means the US should be aiming for a final date with Mexico, the other continental powerhouse. Our permanent rivalry will renew itself in Los Angeles this Wednesday, April 22, in a bit of "friendly" action. Similar to the senior team matchup that just occurred, this roster is based more in North America than the European friendlies earlier in the spring, so there is a bit of turnover. I've placed an asterix next to players who have been called up more than once in the three call-ups so far this cycle. Also like the senior squad, two Europe-based players got the call despite the distance, here being Southampton's Cody Cropper and Borussia Mönchengladbach's Mario Rodriguez.
Just like the senior squad, I'll comment on the call-ups to the roster position group by position group. Analysis will be geared towards what the selection says about the bigger picture looking towards Rio, not necessarily how it will match up with El Tri tomorrow. Non-MLS clubs will be followed by the league they're in.
Goalkeepers (2): Cody Cropper* (Southampton - English Premier League), Jon Kempin (San Antonio Scorpions - NASL)
Cropper has been a regular in the Jürgen Klinsmann youth setup, and was the choice at the U20 World Cup two years ago as well as last fall's friendly against Brazil. Although he's down the depth chart at his club he's still a young player in one of the top leagues on earth. That extensive experience at the youth international level and Premier League reserves makes for an unusually seasoned prospect for a young keeper. He's pretty big, athletic, and fundamentally sound too, but his reputation beyond these shores seems to be that while his floor might be high his ceiling may not be much higher. He's very solid for now but the US could definitely do better for Rio.
Jon Kempin is someone completely off my radar, but he apparently has made some MLS starts for parent club Sporting KC, and has represented the US at the youth level on a few occasions. His call up seems to fit a pattern of kicking the tires on a wide selection of young keepers for the youth groups since 2011.
That is good evidence that Klinsmann/Herzog don't feel like they've found their man at the youth level, or at least their second or third man on the depth chart. There are a lot of names at this age level that could be considered decent prospects, such as Cardiff City's Charlie Horton and Freiburg's Zack Steffen, but no one has yet staked a claim as "the guy." There are at least a half dozen others scattered around Europe and in North America who could potentially make the team, but Steffen and Cropper seem like the safest bets so far. I wouldn't be surprised if others beyond those named here get worked out before Rio rolls around. I also wouldn't be surprised if one of the three over-age slots was utilized here if none of the kids demonstrate they're up to the task, especially given how valuable an experienced keeper can be to the entirety of the defense.
Defenders (8): Christian Dean* (Vancouver Whitecaps), Juan Pablo Ocegueda* (Alejibres de Oaxaca - Ascenso MX), Boyd Okwuonu (Real Salt Lake), Shane O'Neill* (Colorado Rapids), Dillon Serna (Colorado Rapids), Oscar Sorto* (LA Galaxy), Sam Strong (UC Santa Barbara - NCAA), Walker Zimmerman (FC Dallas)
Something similar applies to this group, as you can see by the fact more players were called in per spot on the field here than anywhere else, even though quite a few are repeats. The elephant in the room is that two of the established senior-team stars in the U23 age bracket (DeAndre Yedlin and John Brooks) will walk right into the Olympic team but will not likely be asked to spend too much time with the youth groupings before then. All of this, for me, indicates that Klinsi/Herzog are happy with their top guys but are still searching for quality depth.
Now to the guys who actually were called in. Shane O'Neill is on the fringe of the US senior team picture already, but for this age group, he's a centerpiece. He's a starter in MLS, has a fair amount of experience at the youth international level, and has a budding reputation as a prospect with some upside. Christian Dean has also been repeatedly called up to this level, but without the same level of influence at the club level yet. I haven't seen him play yet but he fits the physical profile and clearly has Jürgen's eye. Ocegueda and Sorto fit into a similar mold, but haven't been called up quite as regularly. I don't have any familiarity with Sam Strong but given Klinsmann's recent work with college players, my guess is he has a good scouting network on them. Zimmerman and Okwuonu are both decent MLS players but I don't think of them in the same breath as the rest of the guys in this group, probably just Herzog giving them a trot out to be certain. Serna also is getting his first recent call up, and along with Ocegueda and Sorto, is one of the few true full-backs in this age group for the Stars and Stripes. That, combined with the fact that he plays regularly at the MLS level, could make him an important asset.
As for major youth players not on the roster, there are two based in Europe: center-backs Will Packwood and Cameron Carter-Vickers. Packwood is a physical prototype for the position and has played extensively at the youth levels for the US, but has yet to really break out and is on the older side for this group. Klinsmann picked him just a few months ago, though, so don't bet against that breakout. Carter-Vickers, on the other hand, is a truly rare talent. I've had a chance to watch him a few times for the youth set up at Tottenham Hotspur, including a spectacular and unusual U21 game where he had to mark all-world striker Radamel Falcao. Carter-Vickers not only kept him scoreless, he kept him quiet too. The most insane thing of all? He just turned 17. I think he's a no-brainer for the Olympic squad, and lest I get ahead of myself, likely to be an influential senior-teamer in the future too.
There are also a couple of hot names based at home, notably Matt Miazga and Erik Palmer-Brown. Again center-backs (notice a theme?), both have been talked up for years as big-time prospects and both have been scouted by European clubs. Both, particularly Miazga, are starting to see regular minutes for their MLS sides, and could easily blow by all the other prospects based stateside if they fulfill their potential. Miazga has already been tapped once at this age group, and has a good shot of making the final team, while Palmer-Brown is just 17 and might run out of developmental time before Rio.
Midfielders (5): Fatai Alashe* (San Jose Earthquakes), Luis Gil* (Real Salt Lake), Alejandro Guido (Club Tijuana - Liga MX), Benji Joya* (Santos Laguna - Liga MX), Daniel Metzger (New York Red Bulls II)
While this group is fairly small and short on household names, I get the feeling that Klinsmann likes the guys he has here (particularly the three called up multiple times). While they may or may not be a solution in and of themselves, there are some big-time names that weren't selected and this group merely has to serve as a compliment. I think they'll do that with aplomb.
Fatai Alashe has gone from decent four-year college player to can't-miss youth international prospect in just a few months. While sometimes that's indication of overhyping, his athleticism will let him fit in anywhere, and his reading of the game is advanced for a 21 year old. He has his limitations going forward but as a pure defensive midfield prospect, he's the kind of talent that has all ordinarily reserved veterans and coaches at the Quakes going out of their way to call him "special" and marking him for future great things.
Last year, when I first saw a kid in the #7 uniform of the US U20s booting insane through-ball lobs and spraying passes everywhere, looking very much like the center of the US nervous system, I had to look him up to figure out who in the hell it was. That was Benji Joya. For me, he stood out well beyond anyone else at the U20 level, and that group includes some fairly eye-catching names (I'll get to some of them in just a minute). Now I'm no professional scout, and I know he neither plays regularly for Santos Laguna nor convinced any MLS team to buy his rights outright, so perhaps I'm overreacting. But Klinsi clearly likes the kid too, so I'm really hoping that I get to claim I was early on this particular bandwagon.
Luis Gil is a bit of an infuriating one in the sense that he's made all the lists of top US prospects for years now, and has played in MLS for what seems like an eternity, but he's yet to become an established starter there or push on from his seeming plateau. Herzog is clearly willing to give him an opportunity to do so, and it'll be worth it if he does. Gil even has several senior team caps to his name, and last time he was called up to this level, he thrived, notching 3 assists against Bosnia. Guido and Metzger are lower-profile than the other names floating around this group, and seem also to fit the bill as guys worth taking a look at but probably farther on the periphery.
Now to the conspicuous absences. 18-year-old Gedion Zelalem, of Arsenal, is rated as one of the top prospects in all of the Premier League, let alone storied Arsenal. Senior team players have already described him in shockingly bold terms, claiming his passing vision, technique, and creativity are of that rare, once-in-a-generation sort that all clubs and nations on earth would die for. That being said, he's had almost no senior team minutes and while he is a US citizen, there are some FIFA hurdles still to mount if he's ever going to suit up for the US. If he does, he's dead certain to be named to the Olympic team.
There are also two center-of-the-park, creative-and-technical players who are already suiting up with the U20s, and who I alluded to before in comparison to Joya: Emerson Hyndman, of Fulham, and San Jose's Tommy Thompson. They cut a similar image to Zelalem as undersized technical wizards, if perhaps of less talent, and face the same battle to find a way to impose themselves admist a game with bigger, stronger, more athletic bodies flying around them. However, they both possess really exceptional potential if they can figure that much out. Will Trapp is much more defensively minded than the rest of the omissions, and is already a solid and reliable force in MLS with Columbus Crew. He got called up in the spring, and I feel like Klinsi has already seen everything he needs to see from him. For Trapp, unlike the three other guys I mentioned, what you see is more what you get, but that's not an insult: he could be a keystone at the pivot in the Olympics.
Forwards (5): Jordan Morris* (Stanford - NCAA), Alfred Shams* (Unattached - Last with Austin Azteks), Alonso Hernandez* (CF Monterrey - Liga MX), Mario Rodriguez* (Borussia Mönchengladbach - Bundesliga), Jose Villareal (LA Galaxy)
Obviously the highlight name here is Jordan Morris, man of the easy-to-love story: a college sophmore who scores the winning goal against Mexico's senior team with mature, clinical poise, and then returns to his dorm room for the rest of spring quarter. The hype came faster than I was expecting, so don't take this as any doubt of his ability, but I think it may be a bit overwrought. He has the frame and raw physical tools to be a striker at the international level, and impressive levels of poise and finishing ability. However, he's spectacularly raw in terms of his technique that isn't related directly to finishing, has more or less no idea how to position himself on the pitch at the highest level yet, and has yet to figure out to work best with his teammates. Just to clarify, those are criticisms that may slow him at the senior level; the U23 level is one he could well dominate at.
The rest of the group is a bit unproven and uncertain, leaving it the biggest question mark in my book. Herzog has called a fairly wide array of names in his short time on the job, and here we have four coming back for repeats, obviously indicating some amount of afinity. However, none of those callbacks are A-list prospects, with the possible exception of Villareal. Shams and Rodriguez aren't playing senior team football for any club, for example, and Hernandez isn't exactly a centerpiece at Monterrey either. Rodriguez did curl in a nice goal against Bosnia earlier this year though if you missed it. If there is a guy amongst this group that you'd want to bet on, it's probably Villareal, who is already well regarded by scouts, has played above age group in youth internationals, and has a fair bit of senior team experience for LA Galaxy, which is a quality club.
The real problem here is that unlike the other groups, there aren't studs waiting in the wings that will swoop in when we need them. Über-prospect Julian Green has a World Cup under his belt and undeniable talent, but he's far from a sure thing to pan out and he's had a nightmare this season at Hamburg. I simply don't think we can count on his progressing. Where we do have a hot hand developing, however, is in Utrecht's Rubio Rubin. While the Eredivisie is famously free-scoring, he's distinguished himself as a starter in a top 7 European league at just 19 years old.
From here on, the prospects are all of the speculative variety. Jordan Allen just got a youth call up and caught my eye in the RSL/San Jose match the other week, although I don't know how much of a real winger he is, and he's still a project. Lynden Gooch is also in a Premier League reserve squad (Sunderland) but I think people may be fixating on who he plays for more than how he plays, although he certainly has some potential. Ben Spencer was leaned on heavily to lead the line in CONCACAF U20 World Cup qualifying, but I wasn't particularly wowed by him. Romain Gall, on the other hand, was the clear standout of that tournament, and could also grow into the Olympic team, although he has yet to make an impact at the MLS level. People continue to tell me Paul Arriola is going to be somebody but I haven't yet seen it with my own eyes, and he hasn't played much for Tijuana.
One thing to note here is that like most youth teams, the squad isn't deep in true #9s beyond Morris, but that's a fairly fixable problem tactically and developmentally. Aside from Spencer, there is also Omar Salgado, who has been called up to the U23s before, who also fits the role. Of course, there's Jozy Altidore, should Herzog look in his direction for an over-age player. You really only need one guy to lead the line, anyway. As such, I think this forwards group will have just one or two real contributors with weaker depth behind them, presenting a bit of a tactical challenge for Herzog, but nothing too difficult to overcome.
Game Info: Wednesday April 22, 8pm Pacific, Los Angeles, on Unimás