The United States U-23 men’s national team kick off their Olympic qualifying tournament today, taking on Costa Rica at 4:30 PM central time. The match will be nationally televised on FS1.
In this format, the top two teams in each group will advance to the semifinals. With Mexico and the Dominican Republic filling out the group, qualification won’t be automatic for the Yanks. Costa Rica has proven to be a Concacaf contender at the senior level, and their U-23 side is stocked with first-team talent.
The Ticos will be lead by a familiar face for Nashville fans. Randall Leal, wearing the number 10 shirt for his national team, is a core piece of the senior team, and just so happens to squeeze in under the age limit. He’ll be a focal point of their attack, and on his day can cause the best defenses to struggle.
The vast majority of the squad comes from Costa Rica’s domestic league, with Alanjuelense leading the list of call-ups. The fullback spots almost pick themselves, with Yurguin Roman the clear first choice on the left, and Ian Smith the only natural fit on the right.
In midfield again, there are two clear standouts, with Bernald Alfaro and Jefferson Brenes the two most experienced and talented fits in the double pivot. Alvaro will pull the strings with his impressive passing range, while Brenes covers plenty of ground and will do a lot of the dirty work.
Ahead of them, the right comes down to a competition between Columbus Crew’s Luis Diaz and Saprissa’s Jimmy Marin. There’s not necessarily and out-and-out 10 in the squad, though. That’s where things get interesting. Randall Leal has played centrally before, and did quite well there for Nashville in spells this season. He could drift centrally and allow Diaz and Marin to play on the wings, or Adrian Martinez could drop back and play underneath the striker.
Up top, there’s not much of a competition. Manfred Ugalde, currently plying his trade in Belgium, is the best forward on the roster, and one of the best in the Costa Rican pool.
This Costa Rican squad is scrappy and hard to play against, but also has the technical and tactical ability to really play. They’ll cause plenty of problems for whoever they’re playing.
Like Costa Rica, this U-23 side features several players who would feature for the full national team.
San Jose goalkeeper JT Marcinkowski was part of the last round of senior camps, but is apparently carrying a minor knock and could be surpassed by Philadelphia’s Matt Freese.
On defense, the back four almost picks itself. Colorado’s Sam Vines is one of the most talented left-backs in MLS, and is probably in contention for the starting job with the full national team. On the opposite flank, LA Galaxy’s Julian Araujo is a really exciting young fullback with reported international interest. He takes plenty of risks on both sides of the ball, but is an accomplished crosser already.
In defense, Justin Glad of Real Salt Lake and New England’s Henry Kessler seem like the first choice options. Chicago’s Mauricio Pineda has really come into the picture recently, and the midfielder-turned-defender is an astute passer of the ball for a center-back. He provides a different option than either Kessler or Glad, and could intrigue head coach Jason Kreis enough to earn a start.
In midfield, San Jose’s Jackson Yueill is a lock. He’s a regular with the senior team under Gregg Berhalter and was handed the captain’s armband for the tournament.
Around Yueill is where things get tricky. Johnny Cardosa is in great form for Internacional in Brazil, but a pairing of Yueill and Johnny just doesn’t seem to offer enough going forward. Orlando City’s Andres Perea recently committed to the US from Colombia, and offers a bit more two-way bite in the number 8 role. Rounding out midfield, Montreal’s Djordje Mihailović is the clear first-choice in the psuedo-10 role, if Kreis opts for more creativity in place of another box-to-box option.
On the wings, Colorado’s Jonathan Lewis is another on the fringes of the senior team who should be towards the top of the depth chart. Opposite him, Sebastian Saucedo, a rotational option at Pumas in Liga MX, is a highly-talented player who could sneak ahead of Orlando’s Benji Michel.
Up front, Jesús Ferreira is coming off an exceptional performance in his last time wearing a US shirt, scoring twice and assisting three more against Trinidad & Togabo in February. Norwich’s Sebastian Soto is another exciting option, and whoever gets the start will come down to performances in training camp over the last several weeks.
While both teams are talented, this US team has more depth and more quality in the starting lineup. It’ll be close, but the US takes this one 2-1.