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USA, Mexico Both Name Efrain Álvarez to Preliminary Olympic Qualifying Squads

The USA’s delayed journey to Tokyo, and back to the men’s Olympic soccer tournament after a 13-year absence, began Tuesday with the release of the preliminary rosters for next month’s qualifying tournament in Mexico. The U.S. list featured several players based in Europe whose availability is uncertain, as well as one player, LA Galaxy midfielder Efrain Álvarez, who appears on Mexico’s squad as well. That tug of war will be resolved on March 8, when the 20-man final rosters are due.

The eight-team qualifying tournament will take place March 18-30 in Guadalajara. The USA will face Costa Rica, Dominican Republic and Mexico in the first round. The top two finishers in each four-team group will move on to the semis, and the two winners will qualify.

USA coach Jason Kreis named 48 players to his preliminary roster, which includes nine men based outside MLS. The Olympics are a U-23 event and therefore don’t count as an official FIFA senior competition. That means clubs aren’t required to release invited players. While MLS teams will be in preseason and availability shouldn’t be an issue, European clubs in mid-season have little incentive to cooperate. While Kreis and U.S. Soccer officials will have been in contact with those clubs to inform of them of their plans and negotiate, it's unlikely all nine men will be released. Securing the services of someone like Brenden Aaronson for example—he’s already made an impact at Red Bull Salzburg—would be a coup.

Another unsure thing on the roster is Álvarez, the 18-year-old Los Angeles native who excelled for Mexico at the 2019 FIFA U-17 World Cup. He had played for the USA at the U-15 level, then switched. In November, U.S. senior coach Gregg Berhalter, in an attempt to woo Álvarez, called him up ahead of a friendly against El Salvador. Although ineligible to play without sealing a permanent switch, Álvarez was able to train with the Americans.

“I think it’s smart for a player to see what’s out there and see whats available,” Berhalter said at the time. “To me this is isn’t an unusual process and again, all we’re looking to do is to create a good environment for players that they want to play in.”

Álvarez’s appearance on two rosters is slightly unusual, however. He’ll have to make up his mind in the coming weeks. That decision won’t necessarily cap-tie him permanently, however. He could play for Mexico in the Olympics, a junior tournament, and still request FIFA for a one-time change in association.

“I guess you could take it one of two ways,” Berhalter said of Álvarez. “You could say he played for us and then he played for Mexico, and we're going to hold that against him and we’re never going to call him in again, and we’ll let that be that. But that’s not the way we look at it. You’re talking about extremely young players. You’re talking about players with cultural ties to other countries where emotion’s involved, and I can understand a player making a decision like that one time in his career.

“For us, again, all it is about is saying, ‘There is an open door.’”

Here’s the USA’s roster:

GOALKEEPERS: Drake Callender (Inter Miami), Matt Freese (Philadelphia Union), Jonathan Klinsmann (LA Galaxy), JT Marcinkowski (San Jose Earthquakes), David Ochoa (Real Salt Lake), Brady Scott (Austin FC).

DEFENDERS: Julian Araujo (LA Galaxy), George Bello (Atlanta United), Kyle Duncan (New York Red Bulls), Marco Farfan (Los Angeles FC), Justen Glad (Real Salt Lake), Chris Gloster (PSV Eindhoven), Aaron Herrera (Real Salt Lake), Aboubacar Keita (Columbus Crew), Henry Kessler (New England Revolution), Mauricio Pineda (Chicago Fire), Donovan Pines (D.C. United), Bryan Reynolds (AS Roma), Miles Robinson (Atlanta United), James Sands (New York City FC), Auston Trusty (Colorado Rapids), Sam Vines (Colorado Rapids).

MIDFIELDERS: Brenden Aaronson (Red Bull Salzburg), Efrain Álvarez (LA Galaxy), Frankie Amaya (FC Cincinnati), Cole Bassett (Colorado Rapids), Gianluca Busio (Sporting Kansas City), Caden Clark (New York Red Bulls), Johnny Cardoso (SC Internacional), Hassani Dotson (Minnesota United), Brooks Lennon (Atlanta United), Djordje Mihailovic (CF Montreal), Keaton Parks (New York City FC), Andrés Perea (Orlando City), Brandon Servania (St. Pölten), Tanner Tessmann (FC Dallas), Eryk Williamson (Portland Timbers), Jackson Yueill (San Jose Earthquakes).

FORWARDS: Cade Cowell (San Jose Earthquakes), Konrad de la Fuente (Barcelona), Jeremy Ebobisse (Portland Timbers), Jesus Ferreira (FC Dallas), Jonathan Lewis (Colorado Rapids), Ulysses Llanez (Heerenveen), Benji Michel (Orlando City), Ricardo Pepi (FC Dallas), Sebastian Saucedo (UNAM Pumas), Sebastian Soto (Norwich City).