Road to Tokyo: A look at 2021 U-23 men's prospects

A lot has changed in the U.S. under-23 men's national team picture since the 20 players called into Concacaf qualifying dispersed at the start of the pandemic in March 2020.

As many as half the squad that Coach Jason Kreis will take to Concacaf qualifying could be different from the U-23s he assembled in Guadalajara.

Players like Reggie Cannon, Mark McKenzie and Brenden Aaronson have or are expected to move to Europe on transfers. Ulysses Llanez has moved on loan from Wolfsburg, where he was playing with its U-19s last March, to Dutch club Heerenveen on loan, while Richy Ledezma broke into PSV's first team in the fall before suffering a serious knee injury that will sideline him for the rest of the season.

Since the Olympics and Olympic qualifying are age-group competitions, clubs are not required to release players, complicating the process of bringing in foreign-based players. Erik Palmer-Brown (Austrian Wien) and Sebastian Saucedo (UNAM) were both playing for their first teams when they earned call-ups for Olympic qualifying -- and they are still at the same clubs in 2021 -- so they remain options. But there's no chance that the USA's big names -- Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, Sergino Dest, Gio Reyna -- will be released.

The good news: Other players have emerged in MLS in the last year, ranging from 23-year-old Eryk Williamson to 17-year-old Caden Clark. And FIFA's decision to cancel the 2021 U-20 World Cup will likely move some players born in 2001 or later, like Clark, into consideration for the U-23s.

Here's a look at 35 MLS players who should be under consideration for call-ups when the U-23s gather in January for training.

Goalkeepers:
Matt Freese (Philadelphia Union)
*David Ochoa (Real Salt Lake)
*JT Marcinkowski (San Jose Earthquakes)
*Invited to December 2020 national team camp.
2020 qualifying roster: Freese, Marcinkowski, Ochoa.

Marcinkowski won the Quakes' starting job in goal late in the 2020 MLS season but was not called into the December camp until Ochoa was ruled out with a quad strain. Ochoa, who was eligible for the U-20s, is considered the most promising U-23 keeper but was bothered by a thumb injury that limited to five appearances with Real Monarchs and one with RSL (on the final day of the MLS season) in 2020.

Defenders:
*Julian Araujo (LA Galaxy)
George Bello (Atlanta United)
*Kyle Duncan (NY Red Bulls)
*Marco Farfan (LAFC)
Justen Glad (Real Salt Lake)
Aaron Herrera (Real Salt Lake)
Aboubacar Keita (Columbus Crew)
Henry Kessler (New England Revolution)
*Mauricio Pineda (Chicago Fire)
Miles Robinson (Atlanta United)
*Sam Vines (Colorado Rapids)
*Invited to December 2020 national team camp.
2020 qualifying roster: Reggie Cannon, Glad, Chris Gloster, Herrera, Mark McKenzie, Erik Palmer-Brown.

Araujo, Duncan and Farfan all made their senior debuts against El Salvador. Araujo and Vines are locks for the starting spots on the outside. The situation in the middle is not as certain. Robinson wasn't released for qualifying last March and failed to replicate his 2019 season with Atlanta United. Glad has attended the last three January camps without making his senior debut. Kessler and Pineda both earned starting job as rookies. (Gloster's stock at PSV has fallen and he might be called into the January camp, pending the resolution of a 2021 home.)



Midfielders:
*Frankie Amaya (FC Cincinnati)
*Cole Bassett (Colorado Rapids)
Gianluca Busio (Sporting KC)
Caden Clark (New York Red Bulls)
Cade Cowell (San Jose Earthquakes)
Hassani Dotson (Minnesota United)
Keaton Parks (NYCFC)
*Andres Perea (Orlando City)
Aidan Morris (Columbus Crew)
James Sands (NYCFC)
Tanner Tessmann (FC Dallas)
Eryk Williamson (Portland Timbers)
*Jackson Yueill (San Jose Earthquakes)
*Invited to December 2020 national team camp.
2020 qualifying roster: Brenden Aaronson, Dotson, Richy Ledezma, Mihailovic, Paxton Pomykal, Yueill.

Yueill is the most experienced player with eight caps and will start as the No. 6. Amaya (COVID-19 positive upon arrival in Ft. Lauderdale) and Williamson (ankle injury in Timbers' playoff game) would have taken part in the December camp if they had been healthy. Perea needs to file a switch of association to play for the USA after representing Colombia at the 2017 U-17 World Cup and 2019 U-20 World Cup. Dotson's versatility makes him an attractive option. Bassett, Busio, Clark, Cowell, Morris and Tessmann were all eligible for the 2021 U-20 World Cup. (Cowell and Clark are eligible for the 2023 U-20 World Cup.)

Forwards:
*Efrain Alvarez (LA Galaxy)
*Daryl Dike (Orlando City)
Jeremy Ebobisse (Portland Timbers)
Jesus Ferreira (FC Dallas)
Jonathan Lewis (Colorado Rapids)
Brooks Lennon (Real Salt Lake)
*Djordje Mihailovic (Montreal Impact)
Ricardo Pepi (FC Dallas)
*Invited to December 2020 national team camp.
2020 qualifying roster: Ebobisse, Ferreira, Lewis, Ulysses Llanez, Sebastian Saucedo.

Will Alvarez make the jump and return to the U.S. fold? Giving him the keys to the U-23s would be a big step toward integrating him into the senior team. (Another Mexican-American forward eligible to play for the USA is El Paso-born Santiago Munoz, Alvarez's teammate on Mexico's 2019 U-17 World Cup team, though his ties to the U.S. program aren't as strong.) Dike was injured in the December camp, ruling him out of the El Salvador game. Concussion issues kept Ebobisse out of the camp. (Ayo Akinola started for USA against El Salvador but will attend Canada's January camp.) With Llanez likely unavailable, the situation on the wings is an area of concern.

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