US Olympic Qualifying Roster Analysis: Forwards
US Soccer announced last Friday Andi Herzog's initial 20-man call-up for CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying, set to be played between October 1st and October 13th of this year.
Qualifying, like the Olympics itself, is a U-23 tournament and therefore represents a generation of American youth that is just one step away from contributing to the senior Men's National Team. In this series, I'll try to help the casual observer make sense of the roster as-is, the complicated roster rules governing both this tournament and the Olympics itself, and therefore what it all indicates for the future.
As for qualifying, the group stage is prior to the official FIFA international dates in October, meaning that there are no mandatory releases from managers, and there are a few conspicuous absences of established European first-team players for that reason. Once the international window starts, CONCACAF allows a limited amount of roster adjustments for the elimination stages of the tournament.
The other thing to keep in mind is that if the US should qualify for the Olympics proper (which is not a given; they failed to do so in 2012), the roster rules change yet again, this time quite dramatically. While most major international tournaments have 23-man rosters, the Olympics allows just 18. More importantly, the U-23 requirement is softened and three over-age players are allowed to supplement the younger players. As such, at most 15 of the current 20 call-ups will make the final roster, although with the quality of some of the absences, it may be even less than that.
Forwards (4): Alonso Hernandez (FC Juarez), Jerome Kiesewetter (VfB Stuttgart), Jordan Morris (Stanford University), Maki Tall (FC Sion)
Any lack of intrigue in the other positional groups is more than made up for with this one. Both who is here and who isn't says a lot about the position as a whole in the US system, and the status of each individual player within it.
Jordan Morris, for example, was called into this team rather than the senior team for the Mexico matchup, indicating both the importance US Soccer is placing on these qualifiers as well as the likely distance between Morris and the biggest stage. That fits with my observations: I've watched the 21-year-old live on a few occasions, including against collegians at Stanford, and his game has a decidedly raw element to it. A striker with as much pace, bravery, and finishing ability as he has should be able to impose himself in greater measure at that level, but he still finds himself dependent on good service and finds less space than you'd like. Then again, being a regular in the senior team isn't half bad for an amateur.
Hernandez, Kiesewetter, and Tall are all prospects I like, but none of the three have broken through in a major way. Kiesewetter has made his Bundesliga debut, but is still primarily a reserve. Hernandez is currently playing in Mexico's second division. Tall looked like he might break out at the U-20 World Cup, but the potential fireworks were cut short by injury. Despite spending very little time on the pitch he earned a transfer to the Swiss first tier based on the performance. He has the athleticism and mentality to be a star up top, but despite his name, doesn't possess a particularly imposing frame. He still hasn't broken through at any first-team level, but he has also yet to turn 20, giving him more time to make a name for himself than Kiesewetter and Hernandez. All three could plausibly play wide as well as up top with Kiesewetter, in particular, a more natural wide option.
One of the two most noteworthy omissions is a simple enough story: FC Utrecht refused to release Rubio Rubin outside of the FIFA dates since he's alredy an essential first team player. Rubin is a star in the making, turning in a dominant, imposing performance at the U-20 World Cup and ensconsing himself firmly in Holland's top tier, the Eredivisie. He has that uncompromising obsession with goalscoring that all great strikers need, paired with explosive quickness, great technique, and more than enough fiestiness to make up for a smaller frame. The stylistic comparison I'd opt for is Luis Suarez, who was himself in the Eredivisie at Rubin's age, although I'm not attempting to heap those sorts of expectations on the teenager. He's not quite an out-and-out number 9, but he'd be an ideal partner underneath Morris at this level.
The other notable omission had nothing to do with club commitments, and the resonance of the choice could not be louder. Just over a year ago, Julian Green was a Bayern Munich wünderkind with a Champions League debut and a peach of a World Cup goal to his name at just 19. After a nightmare season with a Hamburg side that went through repeated managerial changes and only barely escaped relegation, in which he featured nearly not at all, the one-time future of US soccer has hit a serious skid in his career. Currently plying his trade for the Bayern Munich reserves, who play in that nation's fourth tier, he's clearly fallen out of favor in the national team setup, since he didn't get a sniff his time around. That doesn't mean his time with the US is over, but it's a clear shot across the bow from Jürgen Klinsmann: nothing will be given without first being earned.
Then there are the head-scratchers. For me, Mario Rodriguez (Borussia Monchengladbach) has advantage on both Alonso Hernandez and Maki Tall in terms of both present ability and long-term potential. I've loved the 21-year-old's game every time I've seen him, as a big, athletic, physical, and fearless number 9 who can also find the back of the net. If anything, he was the more fearsome half of a partnership with Morris against Mexico's U-23s earlier this year. His goal against Bosnia in the spring was a peach. Nonetheless, he's not on this roster despite only being a reserve at Borussia Monchengladbach, so it's unclear why he didn't get a nod. Paul Arriola (Tijuana) was a standout at the U-20 World Cup with a passionate, athletic sort of game that we don't always see north of the border, but he may be a bit young, a bit undersized, and a bit lacking in clinicality to get a call here. Finally, Jose Villareal (LA Galaxy) missed out on the squad primarily due to fitness, since he just returned from a long term injury. Had he been healthy, he'd be a no-brainer of a call-up, already a regular in a quality Galaxy team and a mainstay of the USYNT system. He also possesses the sort of versatility that Herzog will crave for this particular tournament.
As for mid-tournament shifts, I could imagine a lot of reshuffling once Rubin gets free of his club commitments, let alone a healthier Villareal or an out-of-the-darkness Green or Rodriguez. For me, the initial call-up is by far the weakest group on paper, and Herzog shouldn't hestitate to change it up if things aren't working. Down the road, the Olympics would seem to be begging for another forward to help improve Herzog's tactical options, and I can think of no better combination of versatility, savvy, and leadership than Clint Dempsey. Jozy Altidore would serve a similar function, and give the U-23s a true target man that they lack from their own ranks.
Goalkeepers (3): Charlie Horton (Leeds United), Ethan Horvath (Molde FK), Zack Steffen (SC Freiburg)
Defenders (5): Cameron Carter-Vickers (Tottenham Hotspur), Matt Miazga (NY Red Bulls), Boyd Okwuonu* (Real Salt Lake), Dillon Serna (Colorado Rapids), Will Packwood (Unattached)
Midfielders (8): Fatai Alashe (San Jose Earthquakes), Gboly Ariyibi (Chesterfield), Luis Gil (Real Salt Lake), Emerson Hyndman (Fulham), Marc Pelosi (San Jose Earthquakes), Matt Polster (Chicago Fire), Wil Trapp (Columbus Crew SC), Gedion Zelalem (Glasgow Rangers)
Forwards (4): Alonso Hernandez (C.D. Juarez), Jerome Kiesewetter (VfB Stuttgart), Jordan Morris (Stanford University), Maki Tall (FC Sion)
*Note: Eric Miller (Montreal Impact) was a late scratch, supposedly due to injury, though by all appearances it was a club permission issue. Boyd Okwuonu replaced him the day before the first game of the tournament.