JAMIE HILL - Monday, December 10, 2012
In the hope of glimpsing a sign of a brighter future, U.S. soccer fans have long devoted extensive time and attention to youth national teams.
Of these squads laden with the unknown and the unproven, none are higher-profile than the under-23 Olympic team. It's no surprise. The U-23 team is playing to compete in an extremely well-known international competition and its roster is usually populated with a handful of players who have already broken into the full national team, with several more serious prospects besides.
The other unique attribute of the U-23 team is that it lies dormant for years at a time; the four-year gap between Olympics means that there's always at least two years of quiet before preparations for the next Olympiad begin anew.
A team that plays so sporadically, but to great fanfare will have predictable flaws as a view into the future of the senior national team. These problems are centered around the arbitrary age cutoffs of youth soccer. In the qualifying competition for the 2012 Olympic Games, players born in 1989 enjoyed a great advantage as the oldest players in the pool. This cohort had a three-year developmental advantage over players unluckily born in 1992.
For example, a player like Omar Gonzalez never played for the US U-23 team despite being a well-regarded prospect during his entire youth career. This is because he was born in late 1988, terrible timing relative to an Olympic cycle. He was too old for the 2012 Olympics; during the 2008 Olympics, he was preparing for his junior season at the University of Maryland. If the Olympics happened to fall in 2010 after his MLS Rookie of the Year season, is there any doubt he would have been an undisputed member of the starting eleven?
Timing is everything, and it's worth keeping this in mind as we evaluate our youth teams. That's why I propose a youth national team thought experiment: what would a hypothetical 2013 Olympic qualifying team look like? The rules:
Twenty players, including two goalkeepers
All players must be born in 1990 or later
Adjusting the eligibility dates by one year will exclude some key players from the pool. Affected members of the actual Olympic qualifying team include Sean Johnson, Ike Opara, Jorge Villafaņa, Michael Stephens, Freddy Adu, and Tony Taylor. It also affects players who were unavailable due to injury or club commitments like Jozy Altidore, Danny Williams, and Dilly Duka. Still others like Will Bruin and Andrew Wooten were simply passed over at the time.
Given the nature of the pool, the roster has been selected with a 4-2-3-1 formation in mind - a consideration to the strength and depth of attacking midfielders available.
The Fake 2013 Olympic Team
It's a three-way race for two places. In my book, Bill Hamid and Ryan Meara come out on top, although one could certainly make an argument for Zac MacMath. All three have seized starting roles in MLS, but have also had shaky moments. MacMath was thrust into the limelight when Faryd Mondragon decided to return to his native Colombia and was the least consistent of the three. (As the youngest of the trio, MacMath would be in pole position for the #1 shirt on the Fake 2014 Olympic Team.)
Newly committed to the US program, Timmy Chandler is an easy choice at right back, although the US does not lack for depth at this position. Matt Hedges impressed for Dallas during his rookie year, while Amobi Okugo was a revelation after switching from defensive midfield to center back. The pool of left backs is shallow, but Philadelphia's Sheanon Williams showed he was able to slot into the position capably in 2012. As depth, John Anthony Brooks pipped Tommy Meyer as third CB, while Kofi Sarkodie's emergence for MLS Cup finalists Houston Dynamo earns him a place on the team as well.
In the past year, the emergence of several defenders at home and abroad as well as the continued development of others means that the options from which to choose today are more numerous and more confidence-inducing than what was available in early 2012.
In 2012, the US started a rusty MLS reservist in Ike Opara and an out-of-position Perry Kitchen. A player with the profile of Meyer, who had a solid rookie season for the league champions, would have easily slotted into the starting lineup.
Also in contention for selection would be MLS right backs Ray Gaddis and Zarek Valentin and Tijuana's reserve left back Greg Garza.
In the center of the park, Danny Williams and Michael Stephens depart the pool. Unlike in defense, there were few newcomers to the scene in 2012, which means the US lacks depth in this area. Fortunately, Perry Kitchen came into his own at defensive midfield for D.C. United, while Mix Diskerud had a solid year for Norwegian giants Rosenborg. On the downside, incumbents Alfredo Morales and Jared Jeffrey have made little progress in advancing their club careers; both are still mired in the reserves for their German clubs, but remain on the roster for depth.
Despite the loss of Freddy Adu and Dilly Duka, the US has a pleasingly wide array of good attacking midfield options among its current U-23 pool. Joe Corona recently lifted the Apertura crown with Club Tijuana. Nick DeLeon was the runner-up in MLS Rookie of the Year voting. Josh Gatt and Joseph Gyau are blazingly fast wing options who have advanced their careers in 2012. Brek Shea did not have the 2012 he was hoping for, but is still a strong candidate, particularly considering he was rarely playing at 100% in the past season.
Players like Tony Cascio, Kelyn Rowe and Luis Gil are worthy candidates, but there is only so much room in a 20-man roster. Danny Cruz is a hard-working player, but is crowded out by other candidates; his work-rate is better suited to a 4-4-2.
Terrence Boyd headlines the forwards, having already scored a bundle of goals for his new club Rapid Vienna. With speedy and creative options surging forward from the midfield, a big center forward will be valuable, although Boyd's hold-up play still needs work. He'll be joined by Jack McInerney, who had a breakout 2012 season in Philadelphia and whose play holds some similarities to a center forward despite his lack of size. Teal Bunbury's speed would give the team a different tactical option off the bench, but his ACL tear renders him unavailable. That makes it easy to choose Juan Agudelo, who makes the team despite a generally unproductive 2012.
Bobby Wood's thus-far successful return from injury means that he has re-entered discussion, but it is too soon for him to leapfrog the other options.
GK Bill Hamid (D.C. United)
GK Ryan Meara (New York Red Bulls)
DF John Anthony Brooks (Hertha Berlin)
DF Timothy Chandler (FC Nürnberg)
DF Matt Hedges (FC Dallas)
DF Amobi Okugo (Philadelphia Union)
DF Kofi Sarkodie (Houston Dynamo)
DF Sheanon Williams (Philadelphia Union)
MF Joe Corona (Club Tijuana)
MF Nick DeLeon (D.C. United)
MF Mix Diskerud (Rosenborg BK)
MF Josh Gatt (Molde FK)
MF Joseph Gyau (St. Pauli)
MF Jared Jeffrey (Mainz 05)
MF Perry Kitchen (D.C. United)
MF Alfredo Morales (Hertha Berlin)
MF Brek Shea (FC Dallas)
FW Juan Agudelo (Chivas USA)
FW Terrence Boyd (Rapid Vienna)
FW Jack McInerney (Philadelphia Union)