USA target Rio as Olympic qualification begins in CONCACAF

Gedion Zelalem will lead USA's 20-player roster that boasts players from across the player development spectrum.

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. —

Memories of four years ago inevitably seep into the discussion ahead of the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Championship. There are no holdovers from the comprehensive failure of the United States Under-23 team to qualify for London on home soil, but the residue still lingers. There is a desire to set things right this time. There is a need to atone for the missteps of others and respond with an assured march toward one of the two guaranteed berths this time around.

There are no excuses available for a second consecutive failure and a detour on this road to Rio next year. United States coach and technical director Jurgen Klinsmann dispatched trusted assistant Andreas Herzog to oversee the efforts. The reasonable draw includes Group A matches against Canada (live, Thursday, 9 p.m. ET at Kansas City, Kan.), Cuba (live, Saturday, 5 p.m. ET at Kansas City, Kan.) and Panama (live, Oct. 6, 9:30 p.m. ET at Commerce City, Colo.) for one of two available spots in the semifinals. If everything proceeds according to plan, then the Under-23s face the same task as their senior team counterparts: A one-off match — in this case, a semifinal — against Costa Rica, Haiti, Honduras or Mexico on Oct. 10 to determine their fate.

In order to reach that stage, the Americans must approach their duties with more care and more direction than their predecessors did three years. Those qualifying efforts spiraled out of hand through a lack of chemistry, a muddled tactical plan and a surplus of confidence. The setback resounded as the years progressed: The highly touted 20-man squad contributed just three field players (Joe Corona, Mix Diskerud and Brek Shea) regularly included in Klinsmann’s senior team squads.

Klinsmann and U.S. Soccer addressed those issues in the buildup to this tournament. The federation scheduled 11 matches to establish a firmer foundation. Herzog experimented freely with the players at his disposal — cobbled together from clubs willing to release their players and stitched together to mask gaping holes among the potential candidates — and tried to sift through his choices the best he could.

Similar principles applied to the construction of the roster. The start of this Olympic qualifying tournament occurs outside the FIFA international window in October. Clubs are under no obligation to release players. The back-and-forth negotiations yielded many of the desired players, though the absences of anticipated linchpins Shane O’Neill and Rubio Rubin and the late withdrawal of Eric Miller reduced the options available in thin areas.

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The final 20-player roster boasts players from across the player development spectrum. Several players — including key fixtures Matt Miazga and Wil Trapp — feature regularly for MLS clubs. A handful of others — namely goalkeeper Ethan Horvath and midfielder Gedion Zelalem — receive regular match practice overseas. Jordan Morris combines his duties at Stanford with frequent callups to the senior team. The rest — with the exception of the unattached Will Packwood — ply their trade in reserve and youth teams.

Those realities reflect the insufficient player development structures currently in place and underscore the difficulties of piecing together a team in this age group. Squad building is mostly about making due with the options available and sorting out some way to paper over the inevitable cracks.

Herzog is expected to lean heavily on the strength of his midfield to drive the qualifying efforts forward. It is the one department where he boasts a surplus of options. Trapp looms as the constant fulcrum in possession, but there is room to mix and match with Fatai Alashe, Luis Gil, Emerson Hyndman, Marc Pelosi, Matt Polster and Zelalem all capable of playing centrally.

The glut of options in that department naturally leaves frailties elsewhere. Alashe and Polster might need to operate in defense given the paper-thin ranks behind Miazga and Cameron Carter-Vickers in the middle and the paucity of natural fullbacks. Morris is the standout forward option by some distance with the alternatives largely unproven at this level in Rubin’s absence.

All of those factors place considerable emphasis on dictating the terms of the match and wielding possession to offer protection to the defense. Morris’ pace over the top provides an enticing outlet to stretch the game vertically, but he needs supply from the run of play, too. The vulnerabilities make it particularly important to keep the proper shape when possession is lost and reduce the opportunities for opposing sides to break quickly on the counter. It is a lesson worth heeding given Canada’s strength in midfield and Panama’s ability to lean on the fleet Abdiel Arroyo to lead the break.

There is no room to take the opposition lightly. This American squad is favored to secure one of the two available berths in Brazil, but there are no guarantees. It is a lesson all too familiar from the travails of three years ago. It is on this entirely different group to heed that cautionary tale and respond accordingly to succeed over the next two weeks.