U.S. U-23 coach Jason Kreis and U.S. Soccer were able to secure the release of only four players based outside of MLS for this month’s Olympic qualifying tournament, which will take place in Guadalajara from March 18-30.
Kreis on Monday unveiled a list of 28 players who have convened in Mexico for training camp. Twenty will make the cut for competition, which kicks off with a group-stage game against Costa Rica at the Estadio Jalisco. Among those who didn’t progress from the preliminary team sheet released last week was coveted L.A. Galaxy midfielder Efrain Álvarez, the focus of a tug-of-war between the USA and Mexico.
Álvarez represented his native USA as a U-15 player, but then switched to Mexico and starred at the 2019 FIFA U-17 World Cup. He remained eligible for both countries, however, and was named by both federations on their preliminary Olympic roster.
“Efrain’s a player that we were working with and talking with about making, as we said from the beginning, a very, very difficult personal decision. He decided to not make that decision yet," Kreis said Monday. "He’s decided that he wasn’t ready to [commit] to one team or another, which puts us in a very hopeful position. Again, we continue to let Efrain know that we support him, that we would like him to be a part of the U.S. men’s national team programs. But ultimately we understand that this is a very personal and deep decision. We want to respect that.”
So the focus shifts to those who will represent the U.S. in Mexico, led by several players who’ve already appeared for the senior squad, including San Jose Earthquakes midfielder Jackson Yueill, FC Dallas forward Jesús Ferreira and Colorado Rapids defender Sam Vines, among others.
The Olympics are not a senior FIFA competition and therefore, clubs aren’t obligated to release players. MLS clubs are just kicking off preseason, so domestic buy-in isn’t as much of an issue. Getting foreign clubs to send a player abroad for several weeks, often during the meat of their seasons, however, is a tall order. In the end only four were willing.
Brazil’s SC International just finished up its postponed 2020 league campaign, finishing second behind Flamengo, and was willing to part with reserve midfielder Johnny Cardoso. Forwards Sebastian Saucedo (Mexico’s UNAM Pumas), Ulysses Llanez (Netherlands’s Heerenveen) and Sebastian Soto (England’s Norwich City) don’t feature regularly and were considered expendable by their clubs.
There were nine players based outside of MLS on Kreis’s preliminary list.
“It’s always difficult with the European clubs because of their season, because of the extended travel that it takes for the players to get there and back, but also because the tournament is essentially a 12-day to two-week process, and then we need some time with the players to prepare them before that,” Kreis said last month. “So it’s a long time for the clubs to release their players, and we understand that it’s a difficult prospect for a lot of them.”
There can be complications with MLS clubs as well. For example, Kreis originally planned to bring three Atlanta United players to Mexico: center back Miles Robinson, left back George Bello and forward Brooks Lennon. Over the weekend, however, Atlanta pulled back those players in order to make sure they remained with the club while it prepared for the Concacaf Champions League.
Concacaf’s Olympic qualifying tournament features eight teams sorted into two groups of four. The USA also will face Dominican Republic and Mexico in the group stage. The top two finishers advance to the semifinals, from which the two survivors will qualify for this summer’s Olympics in Japan. The Americans have missed the past two Olympic tournaments, last qualifying for the Beijing games in 2008.
Here’s Kreis’s training camp roster:
GOALKEEPERS: Matt Freese (Philadelphia Union), Jonathan Klinsmann (L.A. Galaxy), J.T. Marcinkowski (San Jose Earthquakes), David Ochoa (Real Salt Lake)
DEFENDERS: Julian Araujo (L.A. Galaxy), Marco Farfan (Los Angeles FC), Justen Glad (Real Salt Lake), Aaron Herrera (Real Salt Lake), Henry Kessler (New England Revolution), Mauricio Pineda (Chicago Fire), Austin Trusty (Colorado Rapids), Sam Vines (Colorado Rapids)
MIDFIELDERS: Frankie Amaya (FC Cincinnati), Cole Bassett (Colorado Rapids), Johnny Cardoso (SC Internacional), Hassani Dotson (Minnesota United), Andrés Perea (Orlando City), Tanner Tessmann (FC Dallas), Eryk Williamson (Portland Timbers), Jackson Yueill (San Jose Earthquakes)
FORWARDS: Jesús Ferreira (FC Dallas), Jonathan Lewis (Colorado Rapids), Ulysses Llanez (Heerenveen), Benji Michel (Orlando City), Djordje Mihailovic (CF Montreal), Ricardo Pepi (FC Dallas), Sebastian Saucedo (UNAM Pumas), Sebastian Soto (Norwich City)