Daryl Dike, 21, scored a pair of goals and continues to look the part at center forward. Matthew Hoppe, 20, impressed in his debut with both his work rate and play in the final third. James Sands, 21, helped marshal a three-man back line (albeit one not put under much pressure). Gianluca Busio, 19, manned the midfield and set pieces with burgeoning confidence. The 24-but-Olympic-age-eligible Eryk Williamson and Miles Robinson also put forth positive contributions. It was a triumph for many of the U.S.’s top rising players—ones who unfortunately won’t be getting the chance to test themselves on the Olympic stage.
The U.S. men, and it’s no secret, failed to qualify for a third straight Olympics, limiting the opportunities this summer for U.S. players to the June Nations League final four and the current Gold Cup. It’s a shame, because the field of teams in Japan is teeming with talent both young and old and would be a great proving ground—certainly more of one than a Gold Cup group game vs. non-FIFA-member Martinique. The Euros and Copa América may have been the dominant tournaments this summer, but the Olympic competition could be sneakily entertaining, too. Brazil, the defending gold medal winner, features a squad good enough to top the podium again, while Spain is bringing six players from its Euro semifinalist squad to Tokyo.
Some of the world’s top talents, like France’s Kylian Mbappé and Egypt’s Mohamed Salah, did not get their reported wishes to participate in the tournament granted (clubs are not obligated to release players for the Olympics), but with rosters expanded to 22 players for both the men’s and women’s competitions and with the over-age stipulation that allows teams to bring up to three players who aren’t age eligible, thus turning this from strictly a youth tournament into something of a hybrid, there are a slew of intriguing names and faces on offer.
With the men’s tournament kicking off July 22, here are five of the most fascinating players who will be featuring:
Dani Alves, Brazil
What do you get for the guy who has won just about everything? One of the few things he hasn’t won, naturally. Alves’s all-time trophy count is higher than his age number, which would be impressive for just about any player. The fact that he is 38 years old makes that fact simply astounding. Yet here he is as one of Brazil’s over-age selections, looking to add Olympic gold to his list of accomplishments.
Brazil’s forward corps is impressive, with Richarlison, Gabriel Martinelli, Matheus Cunha and Malcom among those leading the charge, but much like Neymar was to Brazil’s triumph in 2016, Alves has the potential to be the face for this otherwise young group.
It’s fair to question whether bringing Pedri is the wise move. At 18, he has young legs, but at a certain point even those legs will need rest. Coming off a season in which he made 52 appearances in all competitions for Barcelona and then went straight into Spain’s team at the Euros, where he won best young player honors, this is pushing it, and his club manager, Ronald Koeman, agrees.
“For a football player, two top-tier competitions in the same summer is too much. Pep Guardiola has already said this, and I agree with him,” Koeman said recently. “He played almost every game in the domestic season and has played just about every minute in the European Championship. To have a four-day break and then fly to Japan to play in the Olympics is not ideal. It’s too much.”
Yet the Spanish federation’s insistence won out, and so to Japan he goes. Provided he still has some gas in the tank, Pedri is the most eye-catching element on a Spain squad that has plenty others, such as Dani Olmo, Marco Asensio, Mikel Oyarzabal and Dani Ceballos, and should challenge for a first gold since winning it as host in 1992.
André-Pierre Gignac, France
Gignac nearly won the Euro 2016 title for France, with his late shot in regulation clanging off the post before Portugal eventually won in extra time. He last played for his country in a November 2016 World Cup qualifying match before going on to achieve legendary status at Tigres UANL in Liga MX.
Now 35 and as part of France’s over-age crew (along with new Tigres teammate Florian Thauvin), Gignac could play a significant role in potentially salvaging something for his country after a disappointing exit in the Euro 2020 round of 16. In a fun twist, Gignac and France face Mexico in the opening match of group play, where the irony is that France features two Tigres players, while Mexico has none.
Diego Lainez, Mexico
Guillermo Ochoa’s suiting up in goal will certainly seize plenty of attention, but this could be the 21-year-old Lainez’s stage to shine. He’s the only player on Mexico’s roster not based domestically, and the U.S. can attest to the Real Betis rising talent’s abilities. His goal off the bench in the Concacaf Nations League final appeared to put Mexico in the driver’s seat before Weston McKennie matched it shortly after. Regardless, his skill is undeniable, and the Olympics could be the vehicle to deliver that message to the world.
Amad Diallo, Ivory Coast
Côte d’Ivoire’s selection of over-age players is among the most noteworthy in the competition (AC Milan’s Franck Kessié, Manchester United’s Eric Bailly, Sivasspor's Max Gradel), but Diallo, the 19-year-old Man United winger, is the one to watch. He flashed glimpses of his potential in his first few months with the Red Devils and could be primed for a bigger role in the near future, Jadon Sancho’s pending arrival notwithstanding. If he can prove his chops in a brutal group with Brazil and Germany, he'll certainly attract some more attention and reward Ole Gunnar Solksjaer for giving the green light to release him for the competition.
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