CARSON, Calif. — Andreas Herzog recognizes the challenge facing him as he coaches the United States under-23 national team toward Olympic qualifying in October. Only one result can begin the process of reversing a troubling trend -- the U.S. hasn't played in two of the last three Olympic tournaments.
“We have to do our job here in CONCACAF, and we have to qualify,” Herzog told SI.com before training at the StubHub Center on Monday. “That’s why we play Mexico, for sure the best opponent we can face here.”
The second U-23 camp in two months culminates with a friendly on Wednesday against El Tri (11 p.m. ET, UniMás). The U.S. defeated Bosnia-Herzegovina, 5-2, and lost to Denmark, 1-0, in a late March camp in Europe.
Creating more camps at the U-23 age group is part of technical director and senior national team manager Jurgen Klinsmann’s renewed emphasis on the U.S.’s pyramid of player development. To support younger players as they navigate toward the senior team, he appointed assistant coach Herzog and scout Matthias Hamann to the U-23s.
Herzog’s only other extended head coaching experience came leading his native Austria through the 2011 UEFA European Under-21 Championship cycle. The team’s chances ended in the final group match of qualifying, on an 89th-minute goal from Scotland’s Christopher Maguire.
“I know this age group already, what kind of problems they have, what kind of challenges I will face,” Herzog, 46, said. “They just start now their professional career, and a few guys are still in college, so it’s a completely different situation [from the senior team].”
Still, the squads he assembled in Europe last month and this week in California have plenty of experience, due in part to Klinsmann’s emphasis on integrating younger players in with the senior group. Ten of them took part in the 2013 Under-20 World Cup, and another who was a late cut from that team, 20-year-old Stanford sophomore forward Jordan Morris, scored in his first senior start last week against Mexico.
While Morris, midfielder Wil Trapp and U-23 captain Luis Gil are the only players to have also earned senior caps, six others have taken part in at least one camp with the team: goalkeepers Cody Cropper and Jon Kempin, defenders Christian Dean, Shane O’Neill and Oscar Sorto, and midfielder Dillon Serna.
Besides the obvious goal of qualifying, Herzog wants to eventually move as many of his players onto the senior team as possible.
“For the future, for me, it’s the most interesting thing, how many players I can help a little bit or support to break through,” he said. “In 10 years, if I watch a game and four or five players of my team now will play in a World Cup … that would be nice, too.”
From Herzog’s three years in charge of the Austria U-21s, goalkeeper Heinz Linder, forward Andreas Weimann and adaptable Bayern Munich star David Alaba have recent senior caps.
Herzog used Alaba — who, at age 17, became the youngest player to play competitively for Bayern — as an example of a player those at this age group can strive to be like, but with a word of warning. Klinsmann’s staff regularly pushes players to compete at the highest level possible, which usually means moving to Europe, but Herzog said it’s never as simple as that.
“It’s always based on their individual character. I had the same situation in Austria, and at this time, everyone thought he has to go to a big league, to a big club in Europe, but if you don’t get the chance to break into the first team, it doesn’t help a lot,” he said. “Everyone thinks he’s the next Alaba, but that’s not the truth.”
Alaba might be a stretch, but the U.S. would likely settle for a senior-team regular making his way through the ranks at this point.
The team that failed to qualify for London 2012 after a last-second draw with El Salvador reads like a list of players that should be in the prime of their national team careers but haven’t shown their full potential. Bill Hamid, Brek Shea, Joe Corona, Terrence Boyd and Mix Diskerud receive the most frequent call-ups, and only Diskerud made the 2014 World Cup squad.
Others either haven’t stuck at the highest level — such as Freddy Adu and Sean Johnson — or haven’t found a way to even break into a training camp. Herzog, along with assistants Hamann and U-15 head coach John Hackworth, are tasked with bridging the gap between teams.
“Especially [having coaches] working with the men’s national team and then with the younger group, I think it’s a good support for Jurgen, too,” Herzog said. “He gets a lot of information [about] our young players who will be the next national team players.”
Having Herzog and Hamann based in Europe also makes scouting players across the world for all U.S. teams easier. Their constant travels result in multiple foreign-based players being called in to accompany those from North American clubs, even if not every trip is a success.
Herzog recounted a journey to the London area to watch midfielder Danny Williams on March 10.
They realized U.S. U-20 forward Boxi Yomba would be playing with Atlético Madrid’s U-19s in a UEFA Youth League match against Chelsea a driveable distance away. However, when they arrived at the match, they found out Yomba did not even travel to England.
“Sometimes, we travel through Europe and suddenly, we see a player we were not expecting, and sometimes, you go to some games, and the players are not starting,” Herzog said of his life on the road. “That’s part of the game.”
It’s a tiresome part, but one that’s vital to Klinsmann and his staff’s campaign to always be watching American players, no matter where they play. Constant phone calls and visits ensure everyone, including the younger players whose matches aren’t on television to be scrutinized from afar, stay on top of their game.
That desire to have their players striving for improvement and staying hungry for opportunities pervades the U.S. coaching philosophy. It might come most often and most loudly from Klinsmann, but Herzog echoes his boss’ sentiment.
“It’s their daily job: they have to improve from day to day,” Herzog said. “It’s always the inner drive you have to have, and that’s what I expect, honestly. If I see one guy not really ambitious, it’s wasting time, and I’ll take the next one.”