CARSON, Calif. — The United States Under-23 team forms every four years in time for Olympic qualifiers, but most of the team in camp this week in California has prior international experience. Nine players represented the U.S. in the 2013 Under-20 World Cup, and two already have senior caps.
“We’re still in the process where we have to get the whole group together because we always have different players,” head coach Andreas Herzog told SI.com on Monday. “I think right now, we have a good group together.”
Cody Cropper, Luis Gil, Alonso Hernandez, Benji Joya, Juan Pablo Ocegueda, Shane O'Neill, Mario Rodriguez, Oscar Sorto and Jose Villarreal all played for Tab Ramos’s U-20s in 2013. Gil and Jordan Morris, who scored against Mexico a week ago, have played for Klinsmann’s senior team, and a smattering of others have trained with the team.
While the U.S. has failed to qualify for two of the last three Olympics, that doesn’t mean this particular group is short on confidence or experience.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to really show, as a group, what we can do coming off of, in my eyes, a very good [Under-] 20s cycle,” said Cropper, who should be the team’s starting goalkeeper in the friendly against Mexico on Wednesday (11 p.m. ET, UniMás) and the October qualifying tournament.
Every player Herzog has called in plays professionally besides Stanford’s Morris and incoming Santa Barbara freshman Sam Strong. As such, the atmosphere in camp approaches that of a senior camp, especially with one of Klinsmann’s assistants at the senior level, Herzog, in charge.
“I can see his vision of what he wants from the team. Obviously, he was a great player as well, so that’s a plus for us,” said Gil, who has captained the squad since Herzog took over as the permanent head coach in January. “Being in with Jurgen helps, having that senior experience.”
The Mexico friendly concludes the team’s fifth camp in the last two years in preparation for the Olympics. Other results so far include a 5-2 win over Bosnia-Herzegovina and 1-0 loss to Denmark last month, as well as a 3-0 loss to Brazil and a 5-1 win over the Bahamas senior team in 2014.
The players and Herzog are still adjusting to one another as they approach the qualifying tournament in six months.
The U.S. will host the tournament, as it did four years ago when a last-minute draw with El Salvador knocked the Americans out of contention for London 2012.
“We have to understand that we have to be mature in those games and that we have to qualify off the back end of the last cycle, unfortunately not qualifying. For us as a country, we can’t not qualify for tournaments like that,” Cropper said emphatically. “We have to mature and we have to qualify.”
Here are a few other items ahead of Wednesday's friendly:
Cropper patient with lack of senior national team time
As Klinsmann continues to experiment at all positions, even calling in Mexican-American William Yarbrough in goal for a couple of March appearances, Cropper said he understands why he hasn’t played in a senior match yet.
“If I’m not playing at a club level, I can’t expect that,” he said. “That’s even a higher level than the Premier League. If I’m not playing in the Premier League, how can I go into the international level?”
Cropper, 22, is yet to make a first-team appearance for Southampton in three years. He played primarily for the Saints’ Under-21 team in his first season with the club, but he hasn’t played ahead of club captain Kelvin Davis and England international Fraser Forster under Dutch manager Ronald Koeman.
Cropper said his focus has been on absorbing the experience of training with such established professionals every day, even if he doesn’t get to play. The Maple Grove, Minnesota, native had a close-up view of the club’s ascent since earning two successive promotions in 2011 and 2012.
“Those are experiences that you really can’t duplicate,” he said. “Playing with a team and training with a team on a daily basis that is where they are because of how they do things is one of a kind.”
At the same time, Cropper is in the final year of his contract, and he said the time has come for him to play more games.
“At this age, you need to be playing games to grow and to mature, and for myself with next summer, the Olympics coming, personally, I need to be playing,” he said. “I know I need to be playing, and that’s something that I have to ultimately decide for myself and see where I am.”
Gil feels on course with professional progression
Getting first-team action isn’t a problem for Gil, and even after a rocky 2014 season, he sees his professional progression as being on course.
“I’ve still got a lot of things to work on, and I want to work on [them]. I want to get better,” he said. “It’s just all about patience. You progress little by little, and I feel like that’s the best thing for me right now.”
Since making his debut as a 17-year-old for Real Salt Lake in 2010, Gil, now 21, has emerged as one of the U.S.’s potential future playmakers. He still works as something of an understudy to Javier Morales, meaning he frequently plays out of position or comes off the bench.
His contract is also up at the end of the current season, but he said U.S. staff hasn’t pushed him toward any particular move in an effort to get more playing time.
“That’s kind of up to me,” Gil said. “It will be interesting. At the same time, I’m just focused on RSL right now, since I am still with them.”
Herzog operating with diamond midfield
The U-23s opened training Sunday with an incomplete group of players, but with everybody arriving by the next day, Herzog put the team through two sessions on Monday.
The morning session remained open to the media long enough to see the team working into the same 4-4-2 system with a diamond midfield that Klinsmann has used with the senior team of late.
Most of the coaching points during the tactical talk centered on basics of the system: how it automatically creates triangles everywhere on the field and allows the team to stay connected in both attacking and defensive phases. The team presumably progressed to more complex constructions in the afternoon session, the entirety of which remained closed to the media.
The Mexico friendly at the end of the four-day camp should provide a good litmus test against a top CONCACAF opponent. The U-23s’ next opportunity to play together before October is so far unannounced.