After a full year of waiting, the moment of truth is finally approaching for the United States and their attempt to qualify for the Men’s Olympic Soccer tournament for the first time since 2008. Jason Kreis’ side kicks off Group A with an absolutely crucial matchup with rivals Costa Rica.
Can the U.S. exorcise their Olympic qualifying demons or will they once again be left out of another high-profile tournament on the world stage? Here are a few things to watch for when the Americans open up group play on Thursday.
While calling any opening match in a traditional group format a must-win would be a tad disingenuous, the USA must certainly not lose against Costa Rica in the opener if they want to advance to the all-or-nothing semifinal round. Early prognostication puts Mexico as favorites in the group with the U.S. and Costa Rica vying for the runner-up position in the group. Any control over their own fate would be lost with an opening loss to Los Ticos in the opener. A draw would leave things wide open with two match remaining. While a victory would leave the U.S. sitting very pretty heading into their matchup with the Dominican Republic at the weekend.
It’s true that the USA’s struggles in the competition haven’t cropped up until that final do-or-die match in the past. However, when all three of the top teams in Concacaf are put in the same group, things tend to get complicated. So much will be riding on this opening result for the American’s chances at qualification.
On the other hand, Costa Rica will be just as desperate to qualify as the U.S. is, if not more so, after having not qualified since 2004.
It’s clear for all to see that this group brought in by Kreis isn’t close to being the best possible roster of eligible players. Most positions boast experienced and talented players who have proven track records in Major League Soccer. However, the biggest position of concern is clearly centerback for this group. With names like Chris Richards, Cameron Carter-Vickers, Mark McKenzie, and Erik Palmer-Brown — just to name a few — unavailable for this tournament, the questions at the back for this roster are plentiful. Kreis was dealt an even bigger blow to his centerback depth chart when Atlanta United refused to release Miles Robinson for this tournament, as well.
So, who’s left to shoulder the responsibility of keeping ball out of the net? Justen Glad, Henry Kessler, and Maurcio Pineda are the three natural centerbacks selected for the roster. Yes, that’s it. Unless you’re a dedicated MLS nerd, it’s highly unlikely you know much about Kessler or Pineda. Meanwhile, Glad is an experienced youth international having played in a U-17 World Cup, but has seen his form suffer from inconsistency throughout much of his pro career.
This group definitely doesn’t inspire confidence on paper, but the U.S. will need whoever the starting pairing ends up being to have a strong tournament and lock things down at the back. If they can survive four games by doing their jobs without making any game-altering mistakes, it should give the team a very good chance of qualification.
Keep an eye on who Kreis settles on for his CB pairing and if that tandem stays intact for the duration of the tournament.
Players making plays
The centerbacks are the one glaring weak spot for this team, but the lack of purely creative attacking midfielders is also noticeable. Djordje Mihailovic is the really the only natural attacking midfielder on the roster. Although it should be noted that both Sebastian Saucedo and Uly Llanez are both listed as midfielders when they are usually deployed as wingers. It’s something to keep an eye on when Kreis names his first lineup of the tournament. Who will he hand the keys to and rely on to unlock the Costa Rican defense?
The talent is there for the U.S. side, but how all the pieces will fit remains to be seen. Will Uly and/or Saucedo drop into the middle to create? Will there even be any attacking midfielders used? The roster is chock-full of box-to-box types, much like the senior team. Will all the creativity be pushed towards the wings? We’ve seen Gregg Berhalter rely heavily on wingers and attacking fullbacks to create chances at the senior level. Will we see the same type of philosophy in this tournament? It’s one of the biggest things to watch for heading in.
Taking a peek at the opposition’s roster and some names immediately jump out, especially if you’re an MLS observer. Nashville SC’s Randall Leal is a tricky winger that will be an obvious and immediate threat. There’s also Columbus Crew’s Luis Diaz who you may be aware of. However, it’s an 18-year-old playing his professional soccer in the Belgian second division that will have the American back line worrying.
Manfred Ugalde is Costa Rica’s next great striker hope. The youngster has already made one appearance for the senior national team and was named Concacaf’s Best Young Player in 2019. With 11 goals in 18 appearances during his debut season for Lommel SK, he’ll likely be a huge threat for the U.S. to deal with. They will have to neutralize his effectiveness and keep him away from the danger areas.