USYNT Roster Analysis: Olympic Playoffs
It's been a while since we've seen this particular group in action. Welcome back! Your reward: a do-or-die two-legger with Colombia.
While a lot of US fans would consider a failure to qualify for the Olympics between 2008 and 2020 (at the earliest) a true catastrophe for the program, it's clear that US Men's National Team Manager Jürgen Klinsmann isn't willing to prioritize it over the first phase of World Cup qualifying, since he left established senior-teamers DeAndre Yedlin and John Brooks off the roster. Only time will tell if that gamble will be rewarded against a Colombian side that, while almost exclusively drawn from its domestic league, is nonetheless a dangerous threat against a listing U-23 US group.
Below are my notes on what the call-up signals about those who are on the roster, those who aren't, and the state of the program. At the bottom, I've included links to my roster analyses of this group for the current cycle so that you can see how the roster evolved (and whether or not I know what I'm talking about).
Goalkeepers (3): Ethan Horvath (Molde FK), Cody Cropper (Milton Keynes Dons), Zack Steffen (SC Freiburg)
Horvath is the established #1 at Norwegian club Molde, which made a surprising run to the Europa League knockout phases. That makes him far and away the most seasoned keeper from the generation after Bill Hamid's despite being just 20 years old. He's big and athletic, too, so he could be just starting his trajectory up the European club hierarchy. Given experience and form, my guess is he gets the gloves against the cafeteros jóvenes.
Steffen still hasn't played any high-level soccer, but he's a pet favorite of mine for future potential. He's agile, explosive, light on his feet, and composed. He looked absolutely tremendous at the U-20 World Cup, and Freiburg wasted no time snatching him up from the NCAA ranks, giving him starts on their reserve team. He's farther away from the finished product than the others, but might have the highest ceiling too. Cropper was the locked-on starter for much of this current U-23 cycle, but lacks a bit of the athleticism of the other two and may well not have the same upside. That being said, he's got the size and pedigree in the English Championship (where he's made a handful of appearances for the Dons this year) to be a solid option as a reserve.
This group is quality, and young even by U-23 standards. The three selectees each represent different phases of development, which covers both present and future considerations. The program is in good hands going forward between the posts, as it usually is for the US. No notable omissions here except Charlie Horton, who is still trying to find some traction in the English second flight.
Defense (8): Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Matt Miazga (Chelsea FC), Eric Miller (Colorado Rapids), Tim Parker (Vancouver Whitecaps), Desevio Payne (FC Gronigen), Shane O'Neill (Cambridge United), Brandon Vincent (Chicago Fire), Walker Zimmerman (FC Dallas)
This is the group worst hit by those missing not by choice (the senior call-ups and the recently-injured Cameron Carter-Vickers), but also the one whose prognosis has improved the most since a thin, shaky, and uncertain 2015.
Left-back, previously a bit of a black hole for the side, is now manned by newcomer Brandon Vincent and Eric Miller, both of whom trained with the senior team in January. Miller has developed into a serious MLS left-back, looking good on both sides of play. Right-back welcomes the return of Desevio Payne, one of the U-20 standouts, who missed a chunk of the last few call-ups due to injury. Acosta, who is predominantly a defensive midfielder, will likely compete wtih Payne for the spot. Both are on the smaller side but athletic and technically savvy, particularly Payne.
The center-backs are led by Matt Miaza, whose exceptional 2015 campaign for the New York Red Bulls at the age of just 20 led to a winter transfer to English giants Chelsea. His huge frame, competitiveness, and solidity in the tackle and on the ball portend a future mainstay in the senior team. The loss of Carter-Vickers and Brooks significantly dents the star power available to partner Miazga. Tim Parker, Shane O'Neill, and Walker Zimmerman are all solid options of MLS starting quality and prototype physical frames, but simply aren't in the same league. They'll be solid, but not difference-makers, and one of the three will be called upon to start.
This group will give a fair amount of important depth to the senior side in time, but only Miazga is likely to emerge as a star. This particular call-up has enough talent to get the job done, but the organization over the last year has been so poor at times that I'm skeptical Herzog will be able to drill them into a tight unit in just a matter of days. The omission of Yedlin/Brooks will look bad if he can't. The only omission of note from those recently involved in the U-23s is Will Packwood, whose career has hit a major stall since getting released from Birmingham in mid-2015.
Midfielders (9): Fatai Alashe (San Jose Earthquakes), Paul Arriola (Club Tijuana), Luis Gil (Queretaro), Julian Green (Bayern Münich), Emerson Hyndman (Fulham FC), Jerome Kiesewetter (VfB Stuttgart), Matt Polster (Chicago Fire), Dillon Serna (Colorado Rapids), Wil Trapp (Columbus Crew)
Midfield is the group with the most intruiging prospects in the US system, but also the most worrying question marks, and some of the more eyebrow-raising omissions.
During 2015 it looked as if Alashe was the only true defensive midfielder in the age category, but Wil Trapp and Matt Polster each saw his form and fitness perk up, leaving the Stars and Stripes well stocked at the pivot. Better yet, none of the three are carbon copies of each other: Alashe is a sideline-to-sideline athletic enforcer, Polster is a pure defensive stopper, and Trapp is a deep-lying creator. That should relieve pressure from that unproven back line and open up the more creative midfielders to stick to what they do best, even in the absence of Marc Pelosi, who is out with a long term knee issue. Just missing out, in all likelihood, is Toronto FC's Marky Delgado.
This generation of attacking midfielders is potentially tantilizing, but kind of a mess at the moment. Emerson Hyndman is a gem and one of the few passing true #8s I can remember coming through the US system, but due to a contract dispute with his team he hasn't seen much of the field lately. Luis Gil was once the golden child of American Soccer as a pure creator, but his development stalled completely at RSL. Now he's in the good graces at a very good Queretaro side, playing regularly, but it's still to be seen if he can grow any further. Julian Green, he of that World Cup goal and a million fantasies of what he might be like in 2018, hasn't appeared to make any progress whatsoever since the dramatic 2013 debut for Bayern in the Champions League. That doesn't even consider the omitted Gedion Zelalem, yet another great hope for the red white and blue, who has spent a fairly ineffectual year on loan with Scottish second-division side Rangers. Although I've heard word that he may have a fitness issue, I'd be surprised if Herzog thought he would merit a call-up even if healthy based on his performances since declaring playing allegiance to the US. Notice a theme here? This is a group that has more to prove than any other.
As for true wide men, for the first time this cycle it appears Herzog has found a few. Paul Arriola, a long time USYNT favorite, gets his first call up at this age group after a few starts for Tijuana's first team and a solid performance in the U-20 World Cup. He's young, short, and a bit unrefined in terms of end-product, but he's quick, comfortable on the ball, and incredibly hard working. Dilllon Serna still has yet to find himself a permanent positional home, but he fits the mold of a do-it-all wide midfielder more than an attacking winger. Kiesewetter, on the other hand, is a goal-scoring right winger with a lot of directness and danger about him. US fans will remember him fondly from his work in the Olympic Qualifying tournament.
An interesting omission comes in the form of Christian Pulisic, the 17 year old with one foot solidly in the Borussia Dortmund first team, but I think the online reaction might be a bit outsized: the kid is a huge talent with a bright future, but I don't know if he's my first choice for a do-or-die playoff in South America. Moreover, Dortmund is under no obligation to release him for U-23 duty, and it's entirely possible they didn't. If just one of he, Hyndman, Zelalem, Green, or Gil pan out, the US will have its star of the future, but going into this March double-header, I'm worried. If they don't, the US will have to rely on deeper prospects like Tommy Thompson, Lynden Gooch, Russell Canouse, and others to fill their place, but not for some time further.
Forwards (3): Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders), Mario Rodriguez (Borussia Mönchengladbach), Khiry Shelton (NYC FC)
Be still my beating heart, Mario Rodriguez is back amongst us! I loved the kid from his starring role against Mexico last spring and a wondergoal against Bosnia, but he hadn't featured since. He's a bigger, physical, more traditional number 9 that serves as an excellent compliment to what Morris brings. Rodriguez still hasn't broken through to the first team at 'Gladbach, but he's a staple of their reserves, and I see him being a productive top-flight forward someday, although not necessarily a star.
Morris, of course, has graduated from "Stanford Messi" to "Seattle Messi" by signing the biggest homegrown player contract in MLS history. He's the player in this group I've seen in person the most, and by the looks of it, he's the real deal: pacy, lethal in the finish, and a spectacularly hard worker. Professional seasoning is the only thing that's left between him and his potential. Shelton is just as fast, but less physical or refined, and more of a winger at the current time. Shelton could grow into a serious star, but right now he's probably behind the other two.
The only "omission" of note is the listing of Jerome Kiesewetter as a midfielder rather than a forward, which indicates to me a desire to play him wide right instead of up top. The other names left off the list (Maki Tall, Alonso Hernandez, etc) are still in the "speculative" stage as prospects. What that leaves for the present is a group that will definitely be up to the challenge of scoring if the midfield can get them any sort of service. Looking towards the future, the group definitely lacks for quantity but with striker it only takes one star to make the difference (see: Tottenham Hotspur), and Morris may well be that guy.
Previous Roster Analyses, U-23s:
May 2015 - Full Team
April 2015 - Full Team