Welcome news for U.S. men's Olympic quest: U-20 qualifying will also offer ticket to Paris

On Thursday, Concacaf announced a dramatic shift of how it will qualify teams for the Olympics – and in doing so it has eliminated the traditional U-23 qualifying tournament and will instead have Olympic qualification run in conjunction with the U-20 World Cup qualifying tournament.

The format is simple.

The typical U-20 World Cup qualifying tournament will take place next summer at a location still to be determined. It will be the same format from previous tournaments but, being a full year out from the U-20 World Cup, it will much earlier in the cycle.

Concacaf wants to have it in the summer so that it is easier getting key players released. Under FIFA rules, clubs are never required to release players for youth national team activity so by having it during the summer, it increases the chances European teams will be willing to grant voluntary releases. (Concacaf had planned to do this in 2020 for qualifying for the 2021 U-20 World Cup.)

The wrinkle now is that that they're scrapping the Concacaf Olympic qualifying tournament. This U-20 World Cup qualifying tournament will now also serve that purpose, similar to what Conmebol does.

There will now be one single U-20 tournament with the 2023 U-20 age limits (2003 birth year and younger). After group play, the usual four semifinalists will qualify for the 2023 U-20 World Cup.

Now, in addition to that, the two semifinal winners will qualify for the 2024 Olympics in Paris.

This is now a massively important event that will determine the qualification for the two most important men’s youth tournaments available to U.S. Soccer.

A boost to the United States

This development is a huge benefit to U.S. Soccer – which badly wants to return to the Olympics for the first time since 2008.

The weird aspect of it is that the 2001 and 2002 born players will be eligible for the Olympics, which will be at the U-23 level featuring players 2001-born and younger, but not eligible for the qualifying tournament which is 2003-born players and younger. Plus, it will now take place two years before the Olympics – which is an eternity in youth soccer.

Keeping the tournament younger and playing it in the summer benefits the U.S. tremendously.

The key point is that the United States is far more successful at the U-20 level than the U-23 level. The U.S. U-20 team has qualified for 11 of last 12 World Cups. On the other hand, the U.S. U-23s have qualified for just one out of last five Olympics.

It is true that Concacaf has two more spots available for the U-20 World Cup than for the Olympics, but the U.S. U-20 team has been dominant. It won the last two Concacaf U-20 championships and in the most recent tournament in 2018, it won the title with a combined score of 46-2.

To now have Olympic qualifying run through the U-20 level puts qualifying in the hands at a level where the U.S. team has thrived.

There are many reasons why the U-23 level has been problematic for U.S. Soccer. For one, at the U-23 level there are numerous conflicts. Players typically have a tough time getting released because they're now older and are key first team players – the best are also frequently too busy with the full national team.

Over the past 15-20 years for U.S. Soccer, the U-23 level has devolved to where coaches often must scramble into creating makeshift teams. This is worse now because even MLS teams have become reluctant to let players go. Last March, Atlanta United refused to release Miles Robinson and George Bello to take part in Olympic qualifying. U-23 rosters have tended to be a mix of whoever the coach can get.

Holding the tournament in the summer also means MLS players will be in mid-season form as opposed to just starting their seasons, as was the case with the last three U-23 teams that failed to qualify for the Olympics, all being ousted in March.

The U-20 team has historically been a much easier team to run. The players are younger, often still domestically based, and are often released not just for qualifying but also for regular camps. As a result, the team is typically more prepared.

Not having the 2001 or 2002-born players involved makes it easier because the U.S. team isn't likely to get their best 2001s or 2002s released. These players include Gio Reyna, Joe Scally, Gianluca Busio, George Bello, Cole Bassett, Matthew Hoppe – who are critical pieces for their clubs, which are reluctant to let the go voluntarily.

On the other hand, U.S. Soccer is far more likely to get the best 2003s and 2004s at this stage of their career for a summer tournament.

A strong age group for the United States

On top of this format being beneficial to the United States, it also takes advantage of the country’s very strong age group heading into the upcoming U-20 cycle.

Up to recently, only a few players were earning first-team minutes at the start of a U-20 cycle. This cycle looks far different.

Two years ahead of the next U-20 World Cup, the U.S. team can create a starting lineup of players who aren’t just starters but who are impact players at the first-team level.

The 18-year-old Ricardo Pepi proved a valuable starter for World Cup qualifiers for the full team. Kevin Paredes has had a big season for D.C. United. San Jose’s Cade Cowell, the New York Red Bulls Caden Clark, and FC Dallas defender Justin Che have earned accolades for impressive play this season. Chicago’s Gabriel Slonina became the youngest goalkeeper to ever start an MLS game this season. Others such as Moses Nyeman, Paxten Aaronson, Jack McGlynn, and the 2004-born Quinn Sullivan have all shown a lot promise.

This is by far the most advanced a U.S. U-20 player pool as been at the start of a cycle. That bodes well for a cycle which is now twice as important.

Need to get going ASAP

Nine months is not a lot of time in international soccer. Camps are infrequent and short. U.S. Soccer will have to act quicky and decide on a U-20 coach. Then there will need to be camps as often as possible, probably starting with the planned tournament in Mexico in November.

The benefits are huge.

If the U.S. team can return to the World Cup in 2022 and back it up with positive youth involvement, it will go a long way towards keeping the momentum in player development that has taken place the past five years.

Olympics soccer might not mean a lot to European nations, but they’re important to others, including the United States. It gives American players a rare chance to play tournaments outside of Concacaf. Plus, it generates a great deal of public enthusiasm.

After the 2022 World Cup, the U.S. team will be looking for competitions ahead of co-hosting the 2026 tournament where it won’t have to qualify. The 2024 Olympics would be a great way to build up the program ahead of that.

Qualifying for Paris will still be a challenge, but this past week’s news was big welcome development.

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