Herzog confident in U.S. U-23 MNT heading into CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying
The U.S. U-23 Men’s National Team will open its 2016 CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying run this Thursday against Canada at Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kan.
The U-23s will then face Cuba and Panama to complete Group A play. The top two teams in the group will advance to play the first and second finishers in Group B (Mexico, Honduras, Haiti, Costa Rica) for the right to play in the qualification final and, by extension, the 2016 Olympics. The third-place finisher will travel to Rio de Janeiro to play Columbia in a one-game playoff for the region’s final qualification spot.
To help this U.S. team qualify for those 2016 Olympic Games, head coach Andreas Herzog has assembled a roster full of players with ample professional and national team experience. Names like Matt Miazga (New York Red Bulls), Will Trapp (Columbus Crew), Gedion Zelalem (Rangers), and Jordan Morris (Stanford and U.S. Men’s National Team) stand out even among an already very talented collection of young players.
But this roster will also face enormous internal expectations. In 2012, the U-23s under head coach Caleb Porter failed to even make it out of the group stage and could only watch with envy as rivals Mexico went on to win gold at the London Games.
“Here in the U.S., I expect my team to have good control of the game, dictate the rhythm of the game especially in midfield, create some chances,” Herzog told the media in a conference call on Wednesday. “We have quality players; we have pace and speed up front so I expect a lot…I think right from the beginning we should have a very good team and we are able to deal with different tactical situations on the field.”
While this group may possess more talent than that 2012 team, Herzog knows that qualifying out of CONCACAF – even at home – is never easy.
“Every game is going to be a real battle because CONCACAF teams know how to defend and they play very hard and aggressive,” he said. “So it’s for us important to keep the ball to create a lot of chances and show right from the beginning that we are [the] favorite in this tournament.”
In order to do this, Herzog has assembled a roster rich in central midfield talent. Fatai Alashe, Matt Polster, and Will Trapp have all featured extensively for their MLS clubs this season. Emerson Hyndman of Fulham may also play a critical central linking role in Herzog’s line-up.
However, while this roster possesses a strong spine in both defense and in midfield, it does appear to lack width.
“In the last camps, we had a lot of very good players in central midfield. We don’t have a lot of wide players [and] that’s the same in this roster,” Herzog acknowledged.
“But,” he added, “we found a way to create strength through the midfield and with our passing game and with our technical game. At the end, we have two, three players who can play wide if we need to have more width in the game. So we can deal with every situation.”
While wide midfielders are in short supply on this roster, the team lacks even more width in defense. Colorado Rapids midfielder Dillon Serna is listed as a defender on this roster and even started in defense in a recent friendly against Qatar’s U-23s.
“[Herzog] knows I’m not naturally a defender, but he’s shown his trust in me this whole year,” Serna recently told MLSsoccer.com. “It is a little bit different. [Herzog] likes to see me getting forward, so that’s something I bring to the team playing left back.”
Serna’s defensive deficiencies will require strong leadership and communication from the U-23 center backs. Fortunately for Herzog, his options in central defense – Matt Miazga, Cameron Carter-Vickers, and Will Packwood – are all experienced players and, in the case of Miazga and Carter-Vickers, players who have paired together before at the U-20 World Cup.
“I think [Miazga is] one of the most talented center backs in the U.S. and hopefully he will have a great qualification and he has a future in the Men’s National Team in the next couple of months, not years, but in the next couple of months,” Herzog said. “I expect a lot of him to be a key player and very vocal in the back line.”
In the attack, the U.S. may lean heavily on Arsenal’s Gedion Zelalem, currently on loan to Rangers F.C. of the Scottish Championship, the second tier of Scottish soccer. Zelalem was one of the key players in Tab Ramos’s U-20 team at this summer’s World Cup and his current form with Rangers has impressed U.S. technical staff.
Leading the forward line is a name familiar to fans of the U.S. Men’s National Team, Stanford’s Jordan Morris. Morris, who has scored two goals for the Cardinal so far this season and who scored against Mexico in a Men’s National Team friendly in April, is expected to carry the offensive burden up top with U-23 teammate Maki Tall.
Ultimately, whether the U.S. can dictate the tempo against regional opposition on home soil is of secondary concern to the task of qualifying for the Olympics.
“For every athlete, the Olympics is something special,” Herzog said. “For every soccer player, a big tournament like the World Cup or Olympic Games is huge, so we’re all excited for the chance to qualify…That’s a big stage for our young players to show the rest of the world that the U.S. has very talented young players and hopefully they will show it afterwards with the Men’s National Team.”