Breaking down the U.S. under-23 prospects

By Paul Kennedy

With the 2013 and 2015 Under-20 World Cups out of the way, the USA will begin in earnest the process of preparing for Olympic qualifying that will take place Oct. 1-13 in four U.S. cities.

The good news is that the U.S. U-23s are farther along than they were four years when they failed to qualify for the London Olympics, though it should be noted qualifying is five months earlier this time than 2012 when it was held in March.

Andi Herzog was named U-23 head coach in January, giving him nine months to prepare for qualifying. (The U-23s also went to the Bahamas and Brazil last fall.) By contrast, Caleb Porter was named under-23 head coach for the last cycle in October 2011 and didn't hold his first camp until the next month, just four months before qualifying.

Herzog will be able to pick from players who participated in two U-20 World Cups, in contrast to Porter, whose younger group failed to qualify for the 2011 Under-20 World Cup, ending a streak of seven straight appearances in the finals. Tab Ramos' 2013 team finished second to Mexico in qualifying but exited after the first round at the world championship in Turkey and his 2015 team finished with a 3-1-1 record and lost to Serbia on penalty kicks in Sunday's quarterfinals.

The 2015 team not only had greater success at the U-20 World Cup than the 2013 team, but its players were much farther along in their pro careers. Ramos used only pro players at the Under-20 World Cup in New Zealand, and most have already broken into their first teams, notably Rubio Rubin and Emerson Hyndman, who have both been capped for the senior national team.

On the other hand, the continuing lack of progress of the older group is one of the issues that Herzog will face in picking his team for qualifying. Of the 21 players who went to Turkey two years ago, just two could be described as close to automatic picks at their clubs -- Luis Gil and Wil Trapp -- and Trapp has been sidelined for much of the Crew SC season with concussion issues.

One factor that will impact Herzog's choices is timing. Olympic qualifying starts on Oct. 1, four days before the October FIFA window opens. As it is, clubs are not required to release their players for anything but senior matches. Herzog will have to convince FC Utrecht and Fulham, as an example, to release Rubio and Hyndman for qualifying and let them skip their weekend club matches for the first two qualifiers Oct. 1 and 3 in Kansas City.

The other factor is that the USA will have to play their 2017 Confederations Cup playoff match against the 2015 Gold Cup champion in October if it doesn't win this summer's tournament. Current senior national team players with U-23 eligibility are John Brooks, DeAndre Yedlin and Jordan Morris. All are integral parts of the national team, as they showed in the recent matches against the Netherlands and Germany. In any event, Brooks would be the least likely to take part in qualifying.

Here's a look at how the U-23s shape up now:

GOALKEEPERS. Cody Cropper, currently without a club after being released by Southampton, has been starting for the U-23s, but it is hard to see how he'll keep his job with the arrival of Zack Steffen, who enjoyed one of the best performances ever by an American keeper at the Under-20 World Cup. Steffen signed with German club Freiburg out of the University of Maryland at the beginning of the year but a host of big European clubs are rumored to interested in him. He's cool, confident -- and a great shot-blocker, as he showed in stopping a penalty kick to preserve the win over Colombia and two penalty kicks with the shootout on the line against Serbia.

DEFENDERS. Once again, the arrival of two center backs, Matt Miazga and Cameron Carter-Vickers, who both played very well in New Zealand, changes the picture on the backline. Herzog's other options in the middle are Walter Zimmerman and Shane O'Neill, who both play in MLS, and Will Packwood, who is unemployed after being released by Birmingham City. Just a year and half ago, O'Neill looked like a star of future, getting called into the pre-World Cup January camp, but he's played just three games for the Colorado Rapids this season.

The depth isn't there on the outside, where Herzog has been using MLS players Boyd Okwuonu, Dillon Serna and Oscar Sorto as well as Mexican-based Juan Pablo Ocegueda. Probably the most promising player is the 20-year-old Sorto, who has been starting recently for the injury-hit LA Galaxy. Serna is in the same boat as O'Neill at Colorado. He's started just one game this season after being a regular in 2014. From the U-20s, Desevio Payne and Kellyn Acosta might yet looks. Payne played better than Acosta in New Zealand, but Acosta, whom Ramos is very high on, was starting for FC Dallas, albeit in midfield, before heading Down Under.

MIDFIELDERS. Benji Joya, who captained the U-23s in Toulon and recently moved to Necaxa on loan from Santos, Gil and Trapp are the returning core in midfield from the 2013 U-20 group. Julian Green, who will have to get his club situation straightened out after a disastrous loan spell from Bayern Munich to Hamburg, was dropped from the senior team to the U-23s, for whom he's a likely player for qualifying. Jose Villarreal, another 2013 U-20 holdover who is back with the Galaxy after an equally miserable loan experience in Mexico, can play on the outside or up front. One of the few players who has parlayed success in MLS to break into the U-23 picture is San Jose Earthquakes rookie Fatai Alashe, a serious option centrally.

From the 2015 U-20s, Paul Arriola, who put aside a difficult season at Tijuana to perform impressively in New Zealand, and Hyndman will likely get first crack at breaking into the U-23s. Given his upside, Gedion Zelalem might also get called in but it is hard to imagine him cracking the starting lineup by October.

FORWARDS. The go-to player on the U-23s will be the talismanic Morris -- the lone collegian on the team. Indeed, qualifying and the prospect of playing in the Olympics make it easier for him to postpone any decision about his pro career. He'll likely return to Stanford and play with the Cardinal in the fall when not on U-23 -- or senior national team -- duty.

Rubio is likely to pair up top with Morris, though Herzog likes German-based Mario Rodriguez, who starred in the 3-0 win over Mexico in April. Other attacking options: German-American Jerome Kiesewetter, who has been promoted to VfB Stuttgart's first team and played well in Toulon, Alonso Hernandez, who is moving on loan from Monterrey to the new second division team in Juarez, and Villarreal.

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