On Saturday, United States Under-23 national team head coach Andi Herzog named the 23 players that will be tasked with a tough home-and-away playoff against Colombia in one final effort to get to Rio 2016. The team includes eleven of the players involved in the team's third-place finish in Olympic qualifying, nine players with senior caps, and seven from the 2015 U-20 World Cup team that narrowly defeated Colombia, 1-0, in the round of 16.
“The perfect result is, we win these two games against Colombia, and then we go to Rio,” Herzog said in a U.S. Soccer Q&A. “We have now two or three days to train our group, and then we will do our best to have a really good game, and especially a really good result, in Colombia.”
The U-23s will join the senior team in Florida, where the two squads will train at the same place early in the week before splitting up for their respective games. The senior men will make their way to Central America and then Columbus for World Cup qualifiers against Guatemala, while the U-23s head to Barranquilla and then Dallas for their two-game series against Colombia.
As Herzog said, a win is always preferable, but it’s not always a realistic expectation. Even if it’s a one-goal loss with an away goal, a tenable result in the first leg on Friday in South America will be vital if the U.S. is to have any chance in the return fixture four days later.
“It’s not going to be easy,” Herzog said. “Colombia have a good team, of course. It’s different than the group that qualified for this playoff because … their U-23s didn’t play in qualification like we did, so they have a couple of new players that we have not seen play together.”
Despite FIFA not mandating the release of players for the U-23 games, even during the international window, Herzog said he had no trouble putting together the squad he wanted. His main competition, then, was Jurgen Klinsmann’s senior team, which is also expected to name its roster for the upcoming qualifiers this weekend.
“Everything was fine,” Herzog said. “The clubs, especially in MLS, did a good job supporting us because everyone knows that we have two very important games ahead of us.”
The U.S. now has to move on from the disappointment of losing 2-0 to Honduras in the CONCACAF semifinal that would have ensured automatic qualification. It was one bad result in a tournament of otherwise positive scorelines, but it set up what should be an even more difficult series against CONMEBOL’s runner-up.
“We had a really bad game against Honduras, and it’s all about what we have to do better because now, it’s perform or we’re out,” Herzog said. “We have to have two really good games with a lot of personality on the field that can deal with very tough, physical opponents. We have to be prepared for everything, and that’s where we struggled against Honduras a lot.”
Here’s a closer look at the squad for the do-or-die playoff series:
Cody Cropper (MK Dons), Ethan Horvath (Molde), Zack Steffen (Freiburg)
The goalkeeping position doesn’t offer many surprises. Both Horvath and Steffen saw time in the CONCACAF tournament in October, with Steffen getting the first two games before Horvath was released by Molde for the last group match and knockout round.
Horvath seems to be the obvious starter here, as he’s the only one playing regularly for the first team at his club. His performances over the past year have been exceptional, as Molde won its Europa League group before falling in the round of 32 to Sevilla.
With his club situation finally settled, Cropper can also look to get back on track with the national team. Before leaving Southampton, he was periodically called into the senior team, but a move to newly promoted MK Dons in the English Championship should give him a better chance for playing time for both club and country.
Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Matt Miazga (Chelsea), Eric Miller (Colorado Rapids), Tim Parker (Vancouver Whitecaps), Desevio Payne (FC Groningen), Shane O’Neill (Cambridge United), Brandon Vincent (Chicago Fire), Walker Zimmerman (FC Dallas)
The defense will undoubtedly come under a lot of pressure over 180 minutes against Colombia, and Miazga will anchor it. The recent Chelsea transfer is the only central defender with a senior cap and extensive youth international experience. Finding a suitable partner for him has to be Herzog’s primary defensive concern.
An injury to Cameron Carter-Vickers, one of the U.S.’s big hopes for the future, kept him out of the roster at the last minute and prevented a reprisal of his central partnership with Miazga. DeAndre Yedlin and John Brooks are also missing, which could indicate that they will be included in Klinsmann’s squad for the senior team matches against Guatemala.
In wide areas, this U.S. selection has plenty of athleticism. Acosta should start on the left, and it could be rookie Vincent, who joined the senior team in the middle of the 2016 MLS Combine, who takes over on the right.
Fatai Alashe (San Jose Earthquakes), Paul Arriola (Club Tijuana), Luis Gil (Querétaro), Julian Green (Bayern Munich), Emerson Hyndman (Fulham), Jerome Kiesewetter (Stuttgart), Matt Polster (Chicago Fire), Dillon Serna (Colorado Rapids), Wil Trapp (Columbus Crew)
Trapp and Gil, who have both captained the U-23s in their qualifying efforts so far, will hold down the middle of midfield. Polster is listed as a midfielder on this squad after being used as a fullback in qualifiers. He could provide another option alongside Trapp if the U.S. plays with two holding midfielders.
That doesn’t necessarily mean Polster will be used there, of course, and he could provide some depth and a little more experience in a wide defensive position. Hyndman, more of a playmaker, and Alashe, more of a defensive-minded player, could also play in central midfield.
Again, the wide options offer plenty of athleticism and danger moving forward. Green played for Bayern Munich’s senior team for the first time in over two years in December, starting and playing 62 minutes while alternating between the right and left wings in a comfortable Champions League win over Dinamo Zagreb.
Serna established himself as a starter on the left for the U-20s and U-23s last year, whether in defense or midfield. He’ll have plenty of competition from Kiesewetter and Arriola to start on the wing, though.
Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders), Mario Rodriguez (Borussia Mönchengladbach), Khiry Shelton (New York City FC)
Only three forwards are listed on this roster, suggesting a one-forward system, but many of the attacking players on the squad have some versatility. Kiesewetter, listed in midfield, partnered Morris up top in the qualifying tournament, but he played on the right for the senior team in its January camp friendlies against Iceland and Canada.
Morris himself runs on the right wing for the Seattle Sounders, albeit in a more tucked-in role, and Shelton can also play on the wing. In reality, Herzog has plenty of tools at his disposal to play a more defensive or more attacking style as necessary.
With the nature of home-and-away series, he could select a very different lineup from the first game to the second game, especially depending on what kind of result the U.S. can take away from the first leg on foreign soil.
Herzog said he also would have liked to call in Rubio Rubín, who scored the winner against Colombia in the U-20 World Cup, but he is still recovering from the effects of foot surgery in October 2015. The stress fracture took longer to heal than expected, as he is just now training again despite being initially expected to return in January.
“I called him and his club, and the decision was that because he had such a long injury and he’s just making his way back to the team that it’s better for him to stay in the Netherlands with Utrecht,” Herzog said. “I’m OK with it because I know he’s not in his best shape after such a long injury.”