Congested U.S. senior, U-23, U-20 slate creates roster balance puzzle
CARSON, Calif. — The United States will play three international competitions this year among the Under-20, Under-23 and senior men’s national teams. That creates an intriguing problem of balancing squads when some players are eligible to play for multiple teams.
The Olympic hopefuls begin the annual Toulon Tournament in France in late May, when they take on France, the Netherlands, Costa Rica and Qatar. The U-20 World Cup starts three days later; the U.S.’s group includes Myanmar, Ukraine and host New Zealand.
July brings the Gold Cup, followed by Olympic qualifiers in October. This all happens within a six-month span, along with plenty of friendlies and training camps to prepare for each.
“It’s important in the whole federation that everyone, even from the Under-15 to the men’s national team, that we always stay in touch, that we know exactly what everyone is doing and about every single player,” U-23 head coach and senior assistant Andreas Herzog told SI.com this week. “It’s a big country … so sometimes, it’s a little bit challenging.”
Herzog’s U-23s defeated Mexico, 3-0, at the StubHub Center on Wednesday. The Americans closed out the team’s second camp together since Herzog became its coach in January on an emphatic note, following the senior team’s 2-0 win over the same opponent a week prior.
Upstart Stanford forward Jordan Morris scored in both games, although he was the only player held over from one camp to the next. He and seven others who suited up for the U-23s have comprised part of at least one senior camp so far this year.
At the same time, Tab Ramos took his U-20s to Austria for a weeklong training camp and matches against Qatar on Tuesday, a 2-2 draw, and Croatia on Friday. Their World Cup marks the first of the major competitions this year, meaning they get priority on player selection for now.
“Because Tab Ramos plays the next one at the World Cup … he has the majority of the interest [as to which players he calls in],” Herzog said. “We have to find the right balance between all the three teams.”
In a unique time period in March, Ramos, Herzog and senior manager Jurgen Klinsmann, who oversees the entire program as technical director, all held concurrent camps in Europe.
The senior team lost to Denmark and drew Switzerland, while the U-23s defeated Bosnia-Herzegovina and lost to Denmark, and the U-20s lost to England. Further complicating matters was Major League Soccer’s schedule, which didn’t take that international window into account.
“We don’t all get the players we need at times, and it’s not easy on the clubs because MLS doesn’t stop for the FIFA dates, and we’re at times asking for a bunch of players from the same team,” Ramos told the U.S. Soccer website. “We try not to deplete any one club at one time, so the conversations between Jurgen, Andi and me as he passes down the information have to be very clear.”
For Herzog, that uncertainty in players’ availability means being prepared for multiple scenarios.
The Olympic team could feature any of John Brooks, Julian Green, DeAndre Yedlin, Emerson Hyndman and Rubio Rubín—or none of them.
“We have to have a lot of different plans because I don’t know if I will get them at the Olympics,” Herzog said after the U-23 match against Mexico. “Of course, they would help us. No doubt about it.”
Training in the same area last month also allowed player movement among teams. Utrecht forward Rubín played in both senior matches, sandwiching an appearance as captain of the U-20s. Morris, the first college player to earn a senior cap since Ante Razov in 1995, left the U-23s for Klinsmann’s team after an injury to Aron Jóhannsson.
“All the coaches are connected. We talk about every talent coming through the ranks, and we try to find even more talent,” Klinsmann said on U.S. Soccer's website. “It’s always important that as coaches, we send the same messages over and over again.”
That extends beyond the three oldest teams in the system.
The U-14 team held a camp at the same time as the U-23s this week at StubHub, and the teams mingled at lunchtime Monday. Building a cohesive blueprint from the youngest to oldest team on the field is important, but Klinsmann and his staff also emphasize the off-field portion, as well as hoping the older players will support their younger counterparts.
“They want a very close-knit community, and they want players in and out of different age groups and growing with each other,” said U-23 goalkeeper Cody Cropper, who periodically plays with the senior team although he has yet to earn a cap. “It’s a massive thing for us to see players like that and to train with them and to work with them on a daily basis.”
The key, and one major reason for Klinsmann’s incessant experimentation with his player pool at the start of a new World Cup cycle, is striking a balance between testing players at the highest level and ensuring their environment gives them a chance to succeed.
Reaching and striving are encouraged—but over-reaching and falling flat can kill a player’s confidence and set them back in their development. Most seem willing to try anything the coaches ask of them, though.
“That’s what I feel like a lot of players need, is to be pushed a little bit. Get them out of their comfort zone, whether it’s playing up a couple years or even with the men’s team,” said U-23 captain and Real Salt Lake midfielder Luis Gil, who has two senior caps. “It’s a good thing to have that vision with coaches [that] try and push their players on, and I feel it’s just going to be the best for the players.”
The players now get a respite from national-team duty until late May. In the meantime, U.S. staff takes to the road to watch the multitude of Americans playing around the world, whether they’ve been called up in the past or remain unknown to the majority of observers at home.
Those in charge will eventually sit down to figure out which situation suits which players. Until then, the players continue their daily routines, one eye constantly one their cell phones, waiting to be summoned by the coaches who, like Big Brother, are always watching.