One global pandemic plus one long year later, the Concacaf Men’s Olympic Qualifying Championship tournament will officially kick off today, March 18, for the U-23 USMNT when they take on Costa Rica in balmy Guadalajara, Mexico.
The 20-player roster (17 field players and 3 goalkeepers) includes two Colorado Rapids: fullback Sammy Vines and the fleet-footed winger Jonathan Lewis. Both have been mainstays in recent U.S. senior and U-23 camps and figure to earn plenty of minutes during the must-win tournament that will send the top two winners to the Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
Cole Bassett and Auston Trusty did not make the final 20-player roster. Bassett returned to Rapids’ preseason camp late last week and Trusty will be joining them on March 18. Trusty’s delayed arrival was a result of being kept as a first alternate for the USMNT.
Team USA has not played in an Olympic stadium in 12 years
The last Colorado Rapids products that represented the Yanks in a Concacaf Olympic qualifying tournament were Eric Miller, Dillon Serna, and Shane O’Neill in 2015-2016. Miller and Serna were both on the Rapids first team, while O’Neill, a graduate of the Rapids Development Academy, was a member of Cambridge United in England. They finished third in the 2015 Concacaf tournament and advanced to the 2016 Concacaf/CONMBEL play-in. The U.S. valiantly went down in defeat to a strong Colombia side in a two-game series and ultimately missed the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games.
Four years before that, the young Americans were stunned in overtime by a mighty El Salvador side in Nashville, Tennessee, and was eliminated from the Olympics in London.
The last successful Olympic qualifying run for the U-23 USMNT came in 2008. Then-19-year-old Freddy Adu and Sacha Kljestan scored in the USA’s 3-0 victory against Canada to earn a berth to play in the Beijing Olympics.
The USA has qualified for the most Olympic Games of any nation in Concacaf with 14 appearances and has played in four of seven Olympics since the under-23 rule was put in place in 1992.
The trek to Japan starts in earnest for Team USA
Assigned to Concacaf’s Group A, they will open play against Costa Rica, followed by the Dominican Republic on the 21st, and then face off with arch-rival Mexico on March 24. Group B consists of Canada, Haiti, Honduras, and El Salvador.
The top two teams from each group advance to the must-win semifinals. The winners will qualify to play in the tournament final and move on to the Olympics.
The tournament was originally scheduled to kick-off last March. The 2020 version of the Team USA had just arrived in Mexico. That roster included Lewis, but not Vines. Then the global pandemic reared its head the tournament was postponed indefinitely. USMNT programming slowly resumed last October with official call-ups. The senior team held evaluation camps in November and December. In January, the U-23 and senior USMNT trained together in Florida.
U-23 head coach Jason Kreis and senior side coach Gregg Berhalter mixed and matched players during the camps and finally paired the team down to 20 players last week, who now have all the pressure of the USA soccer fans weighing on their shoulders.
Per Concacaf Olympic qualifying rules, the U.S. team roster consists of nationals born in 1997 or later. The rules carried over from 2020, so several players on the U.S. team are actually 24 years old. Should the Yanks advance to the Summer Games games, three overage players are also eligible to play.
During a media availability that took place after the roster announcement, Kreis said of his team, “We’ve got fullbacks that can play center back, we’ve got rightbacks that can play on the left, we’ve got an attacking midfielder, a number 8-minded player in Hassani Dotson who’s played both right back and left back for Minnesota... we’ve got wingers that have played inside,” he added. “So we feel like we’ve got enough versatility with this group that we should be able to put our best foot forward, no doubt.”
“I feel we have a lot of guys that, in my humble opinion, are more 8s than they are necessarily 10s or 6s,” said Kreis. “And in the way that we are playing right now in the national teams’ programs, it’s really good. We aren’t going to necessarily have a player that has a free role to sit in a number 10 spot. We need central midfielders that can do it all. And I feel like with this pool of guys that we’ve selected, they can all do it all.
In their most recent matches, both the U-23s and senior team have started with a 4-3-3 formation. “I don’t see us defending with one shield, I see us defending with three,” said Kreis. “That’s what we really like about this defensive system is that we’ve got three guys in those positions that are going to be asked to be extremely mobile, to give us both sides of the ball and to move across the field together to cover all the spaces.”
His mention of mobility plays into the strengths of Sam Vines. The Colorado Springs native leveraged the year off by staking his claim as a dogged starter with the Rapids’ first team. Vines impressed up and down the pitch and his play vaulted him into Kreis’ frequent call-ups. He then earned the title team’s best leftback, if not the star of Team USA’s future backline.
During an interview last month with American Soccer News, Vines spoke of the coaches’ expectations: “Berhalter wants the outside backs to be aggressive and on the front foot as often as we can. So, we try and press higher up the field and he wants the outside backs to be on the front foot and help with the press and make sure they don’t get out. You always have to have good positioning on the field. Offensively, he likes us to get forward and join the attack as much as possible. Switch up plays, and he always wants us running behind the lines as often as we can. It’s a very aggressive mindset for us but I think most outside backs like that.”
As Vines has taken advantage of every opportunity afforded him, so has Jonathan Lewis. Two months ago, the 23-year-old spoke with the Burgundy Wave and shared his vision for joining the national team. “I just need to keep proving myself,” he said. “I think for me, the U-23s are a great stepping stone to prove myself, and that I am ready to play in the senior team, and also to just have eyes on myself and the team. Again, it is a big opportunity to play in the Olympics qualifiers and possibly the Olympics with some of the best young players in the world. It provides me with opportunities to showcase myself to the world.”
And showcase Lewis did. He has earned playing time, goals, and assists, plus the praise of his fellow national team players and coaches since his first call-up. Like Vines, Lewis hasn’t looked back since his first camp.
Let’s hope that his knack for showcasing his offensive talents continues throughout this hyper-competitive tournament; and that both Lewis and Vines help these young and multi-talented Yanks win this international contest to punch their respective tickets to the Summer Games.
How to Watch
Match Date/Time: Thursday, March 18, 2021 at 3:30 p.m. MT
Venue: Estadio Jalisco — Guadalajara, Mexico
TV Information: FS1 and TUDN
CONCACAF U.S. MEN’S OLYMPIC QUALIFYING CHAMPIONSHIP ROSTER BY POSITION (AFFILIATION; HOMETOWN):
DEFENDERS (6): Julian Araujo (LA Galaxy; Lompoc, Calif.), Justen Glad (Real Salt Lake; Tucson, Ariz.), Aaron Herrera (Real Salt Lake; Las Cruces, N.M.), Henry Kessler (New England Revolution; New York, N.Y.), Mauricio Pineda (Chicago Fire FC; Bolingbrook, Ill.), Sam Vines (Colorado Rapids; Colorado Springs, Colo.)
MIDFIELDERS (7): Johnny Cardoso (Internacional/BRA; Denville, N.J.), Hassani Dotson (Minnesota United FC; Federal Way, Wash.), Ulysses Llanez (Heerenveen/NED; Lynwood, Calif.), Djordje Mihailovic (CF Montreal/CAN; Lemont, Ill.), Andrés Perea (Orlando City SC; Medellín, Colombia), Sebastian Saucedo (UNAM Pumas/MEX; Park City, Utah), Jackson Yueill (San Jose Earthquakes; Bloomington, Minn.)
FORWARDS (4): Jesús Ferreira (FC Dallas; McKinney, Texas), Jonathan Lewis (Colorado Rapids; Plantation, Fla.), Benji Michel (Orlando City SC; Orlando, Fla.), Sebastian Soto (Norwich City/ENG; San Diego, Calif.)