SANDY, Utah – With three wins on 13 goals and just two conceded, the United States breezed through the group stage of 2016 Olympic qualifying in a way U.S. teams rarely do. Under-23 coach Andreas Herzog’s lofty expectations, laid out in a pre-tournament conference call with reporters, have been almost entirely fulfilled.
“I expect my team to have good control of the game, dictate the rhythm of the game—especially in midfield—[and] create some chances,” Herzog said on Sept. 30. “We have some quality players. We have pace and speed up front, so I expect a lot.”
The U.S. followed a relatively narrow 3-1 win over Canada with 6-1 and 4-0 victories over Cuba and Panama, respectively, to set up a semifinal against Honduras on Saturday for an automatic spot at Rio 2016. Mexico beat Los Catrachos 2-1 on Wednesday and will take on Canada in the other must-win game before the winners meet in the final for, essentially, bragging rights. The semifinal losers, meanwhile, play for the chance to face Colombia in an intercontinental playoff for one final spot in the Olympics.
Forwards Jordan Morris and Jerome Kiesewetter have led the way for the U.S. with a tournament-leading three goals apiece. They and captain Luis Gil added two assists each in a dominant group stage showing.
“We’re a very confident group,” midfielder Emerson Hyndman said before training on Thursday. “We’ve started games well, and I think that’s very important, especially in CONCACAF. We’ve put goals away early. I think in the past, that’s kind of haunted us a little bit. I think once we’ve done that, it just kind of carried on through the game. We got more momentum, and I think that’s really what’s helped us.”
Herzog’s U-23s have broken a troubling pattern for U.S. teams of all levels, especially with Jurgen Klinsmann’s mandate to turn the culture into one of proactive, attacking football. In CONCACAF competitions, the U.S. often struggles to impose its will on the game, leading to results such as the senior team’s shocking semifinal exit against Jamaica during this past summer’s Gold Cup.
But after the U-23s failed to qualify for the Olympics last cycle, the current crop seems set to break that habit. Six players from the U.S.’s quarterfinalist team at the 2015 U-20 World Cup joined the older group for qualifiers. Hyndman already has one senior cap, while Herzog tabbed center back Matt Miazga as another who could have a future at that level “in the next couple of months, not years.”
Miazga shrugged off Herzog’s comments, saying he just wants to focus on each game in turn.
“If you talk to most guys, if not all of them, they have the same dream as me and that’s to be at that level one day and play for the full team,” he said. “I’m just going to keep working on playing good and becoming better as a player and contributing to the team, and hopefully one day, the reward is good and that happens.”
Ahead of the U.S.’s playoff against Mexico for the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup berth on Saturday, Klinsmann hinted that he would be looking to bring younger players into the fold soon, especially if the U.S. loses. That clear pathway to full international experience is an aspect to which the U-20 and U-23 players have responded well.
“You see the U-20 guys who just played in a World Cup and then they come in here and have the chance to qualify for the Olympics,” Morris said. “I think there are a lot of players on this team that will play on the full team in the future, so it’s cool to kind of have that progression in your mind and know that there’s something that you’re working towards.”
Hyndman said: “Being so closely connected, those coaches, I think it really helps us to think if we make an impression here, then it’ll be noted up top.”
Qualifying for the Olympics would be a large stride toward senior action, while failing to make it past the final hurdle could rule them out. Of the players on the squad that couldn’t get out of the group stage in 2012 Olympic qualifiers, only Mix Diskerud played for the U.S. at the 2014 World Cup.
Successful qualification in 2008, on the other hand, included Brad Guzan, Michael Bradley, Maurice Edu, Benny Feilhaber, Stuart Holden and Jozy Altidore who would go on to play in the world’s biggest tournament. In much the same way, the older players will know that Klinsmann views the Confederations Cup as important preparation for the World Cup held a year later in the same stadiums.
“If we don't qualify for the Olympics, we lose another generation of young players,” Klinsmann told ESPN. “Not qualifying for the Confederations Cup, you lose a huge advantage to prepare for Russia 2018. The older players have a lot at stake because there might come a cut after that. Are we holding on to them through the next year of World Cup qualifiers, or is this the time now to start fresh? It's going to be a huge decision-making moment.”
The pressure has never been greater on the senior players to produce. The talent in the youth teams as far down as the U-14s is some of the best in the nation’s soccer history. A number of the Olympic roster hopefuls could wind up on that Confederations Cup team if the U.S. qualifies, and this weekend’s performances for both them and the senior men could eventually dictate just how much of a role they play.
“Our job is to qualify,” Herzog said. “I think that’s a big stage for our young players to show the rest of the world that the U.S. has very talented young players, and hopefully, they will show it afterwards in the men’s national team. The most important thing is to get out of the youth national team, always, a couple of players that can make the next step to the men’s national team, that they have a bigger roster and they can rely on a lot of very talented players.”