Questions abound, but Herzog confident about U.S. U-23s

Four years after their bid to qualify for the London Olympics ended in an epic collapse, the U.S. U-23s begin their quest to qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics on Thursday when they host Canada, the same team that beat them in 2012.

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Questions abound about the U-23s, loaded with central players but thin on options out wide. International commitments and FIFA rules that don't require clubs to release players for Olympic qualifying have also tied the hands of head coach Andi Herzog, who remains confident that the USA will qualify this time.

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

GOALKEEPERS. Cody Cropper, the starting goalkeeper on the 2013 under-20 World Cup team and Herzog's No. 1 throughout most of the buildup to qualifying, is out with a knee injury.

Fortunately, goalkeeper is a position at which the Herzog has plenty of depth, and he will need it as the presumed starter, Ethan Horvath, won't be available until after the first two qualifiers. He's starting for Norwegian club Molde, which hosts Ajax in the Europa League on Thursday and Tromso in the Tippeligaen on Sunday.

Third in line is Zack Steffen. All he's done this year is backstop the USA at the Under-20 World Cup, where he saved a penalty kick to preserve the 1-0 win over Colombia in the round of 16 and twice made saves with the game on the line in the quarterfinal shootout before the USA fell to Serbia.

The third keeper is Charlie Horton, who started for the USA when it beat England to take third place at the Toulon Tournament in June and signed with Leeds United, where he plays for its under-21 team. Leeds manager Uwe Roesler signed him on the recommendation of fellow German Juergen Klinsmann and Herzog, both of whom he knows from his playing career.

DEFENDERS. Center back is one position about which the senior national team has loads of question marks heading into the USA-Mexico game. On the U-23s, it is one of the positions of strength with the partnership of Matt Miazga and Cameron Carter-Vickers, reunited after their run at the Under-20 World Cup.

In a conference with media on Wednesday, Herzog was full of praise for Miazga, who is one of the reasons the New York Red Bulls have been at the top of the MLS standings all year. The U-23 coach said it was not a matter of if but when Miazga, who is also eligible to play for Poland, is called into the senior team.

“He has a future in the men’s national team in the next couple of months -- not years,” Herzog said. “That is what he has to prove. He is playing a big part in one of the best teams in the league for the New York Red Bulls."

Herzog added he expected a lot out of Miazga in qualifying.

“Even though he is two years younger than most of the other players, his physical play, his back, his power and for his power, he is very mobile, that is what I like,” Herzog said. “He is very good with his feet. He is one of the most talented centerbacks in the U.S. and hopefully he will have a great qualification.”

Herzog is also high on Carter-Vickers, the son of a former NBA player who is only 17 but is already the captain of Tottenham's U-21s in England, where he grew up.

“Carter-Vickers is very young but is already very impressive with his style of play and personality," said Herzog. "Matt Miazga is a regular starter for New York so I don’t have any problems with younger players. I have a lot of confidence in them.”

Things are not so clear at outside back. The only outside backs picked were the Montreal Impact's Eric Miller on the right side and the Colorado Rapids' Dillon Serna at left back, though the latter doesn't play that position for Rapids.

But the end of Wednesday -- the deadline for roster changes -- Miller was off the team, stating in a since-deleted tweet that he was absolutely gutted to be "recalled" (his italics) by Montreal because of an "injury" (again his italics). In Miller's place is Real Salt Lake's Boyd Okwuonu, who has played just 118 minutes in his first MLS season out of North Carolina.

The only other defender listed on the roster is Will Packwood, who has been without a team since being released by Birmingham City last spring.

MIDFIELDERS. The situation in midfield is similar to that of the backline: loaded in the middle, thin on the outside. Wil Trapp, Fatai Alashe, Marc Pelosi and Matt Polster are all starting in MLS, though Alashe has been playing at center back in recent weeks for San Jose and Polster has been played several positions for Chicago.

The fifth MLS player in midfield is Luis Gil, the first of the U-23s to be capped for senior national team in 2014, but his stock has dropped considerably after being in and out of the Real Salt Lake lineup the last two seasons.

From this year's U-20s are Emerson Hyndman and Gedion Zelalem, both players who played centrally in New Zealand. The lone wing player is the team's outsider, 20-year-old Gboly Ariyibi, who plays for third-level Chesterfield in England, where he's spent most of his life. He is the lone player from the '95 age group without previous competitive international experience but nailed a roster spot after scoring on a volley against Qatar in the second of two friendlies in September.

“In the last camps, we had a lot of very good players in central midfield," said Herzog. "We don’t have a lot of wide players, and that’s the same in this roster. But we found a way to create strength through the midfield and with our passing game and with our technical game."

Herzog does not seem concerned about the lack of wide players, most notably Julian Green, who dropped from the 2014 World Cup team to the U-23s to out of the picture in the space of a year,

"At the end," he added, "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.”

FORWARDS. The U-23s are “I expect my team to have good control of the game, dictate the rhythm of the game especially in midfield, create some chances,” he said. “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.” also thin up front. Rubio Rubin, who starred with the U-20s in New Zealand and debuted with the senior national team in 2014, was not released by FC Utrecht even though his playing time has been reduced at the Dutch first division club.

The primary threat is Jordan Morris, a junior at Stanford University. The lone collegian scored against Mexico in the 2-0 win in San Antonio last year and followed that up a week later with a goal in the U-23s' 3-0 win over Mexico.

Herzog's other options up front are all playing in lower divisions abroad: Alonso Hernandez, with new FC Juarez in the Mexican second division, Jerome Kiesewetter with VfB Stuttgart II and Maki Tall at FC Sion II, third level teams in Germany and Switzerland, respectively.

Despite the USA's limitations, Herzog, the former Austrian international brought in by Klinsmann to be his No. 2 with the national team, is confident his U-23s can get the job done.

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