On Monday, March 9, U.S. U-23 Men's National Team head coach Jason Kreis spoke to the media to discuss the USA’s roster for the upcoming 2020 Concacaf Men’s Olympic Qualifying Championship to be played in Guadalajara, Mexico from March 20-April 1.
Jason Kreis: “The group is now officially in Guadalajara, Mexico. The coaching staff has been here together for a couple of days, really putting a lot of thought and effort into preparing a training program that we think will get our guys headed in the exact right direction to put our best forward towards qualification here in our first official match coming up on March 20 (against Costa Rica) and a friendly match coming up on the 13th (against Haiti). So, we think we're in a good spot. We think we're prepared, and we think we're ready to roll.”
Since it's unclear which players you may have asked for and clubs didn't release, which ones are projected to be hurt, and which ones just weren't selected?
JK: “I'm not going to talk about individual players, but I think it's important to state the fact. You know, the fact is that of course there's clubs around the world and in MLS that denied the request for the players. But we always knew that was going to happen. It's happened in every single window and every single trip that we've put together, the five prior trips, we've had clubs that have declined releases for players. But that is what it is.
“We are extremely happy with our squad we've assembled. We think that we've got some real quality. We think we've got some real depth, we've got versatility and we have the necessary experience to accomplish our objectives. So, we're very, very focused on the group that we have and we're not thinking about the players that weren't able to be selected.”
How much did the Concacaf Champions League kind of impact your decision making and how big an issue was that for you?
JK: “Yeah, decision making from my point of view, it didn't affect it at all. I mean, decision making from the clubs’ point of view, I think it's had a heavy, heavy influence on their decisions.”
As you see the goalkeeper battle shaking out, some guys have varying levels of experience; how do you see that developing?
JK: “It's a really interesting one, and I think it's probably going to be one of our most difficult decisions is going to be to decide who’s going to be the starting goalkeeper for this qualification tournament. I really think all three of the goalkeepers have some sets of skills that are quite nice. All three of them have some deficiencies. I think it's very typical though. I mean we're talking about young goalkeepers and everybody knows that young goalkeepers can oftentimes struggle with making some mistakes and can struggle with some leadership and communication. We sort of know that area to, to know what it is. There are varying levels of experience to those players.
I think if you just looked at the number of matches played, whether it's USL and MLS, there's probably one that's played a few more than the others and he happens to be the youngest one. So, it’s a difficult decision, and I would tell you that we haven't made it yet.”
We've talked about some MLS teams denying call ups, but how unusual do you think it is in terms of having some European-based guys too, or guys from abroad I should say, who have been able to augment the roster a bit?
JK: “Again, speaking from my own personal experience, I don't think it's unusual. For the five camps that we've done over 2019, the European clubs were very good about releasing the players in the FIFA window. I think now, you know, being that one of the games and arguably you could say the second game both kind of lie outside the FIFA window, it changed the calculus a little bit. But, again for the most part, I think that the European clubs want to be cooperative and they want to showcase their players at different levels.”
How concerned are you that the tournament goes ahead as scheduled given the Coronavirus outbreak that we've seen impact a number of sporting events around the world?
JK: “For the first question, our Chief Medical Officer, Dr. George Chiampas in Chicago has been in close contact with our medical staff here. Actually tonight, the medical staff was going to be presenting to the entire staff as well as the players to give us some education around best practices for illness prevention. Of course, I want to have this tournament. I want to go to the Olympics in the summer. So, you know, I'm hopeful that all of this takes care of itself and that we don't have to have cancellations because, you know, we see this as a tremendous opportunity and something that we're extremely excited about. We were hopeful that everything continues as, as planned.”
Ulysses Llanez is on the squad. You hadn't worked with him before the USMNT’s January camp. How big a role do you see him playing in this group?
JK: “You’re absolutely correct. I had watched him in some video, but I'd never had the chance to work with him before the January camp. I think it was an absolute ideal situation for the player as well as for me to see him in that group and see how well he did and see him adjust to the concepts and understand what we were looking for as well as to put the work in defensively. He basically made our roster through being in the January camp. So, we see a player there that we feel could really, really help us in a number of different areas.
As far as the defense goes, in past cycles, we've seen situations where there wasn't a lot of experience in the defensive unit and your group has a ton of experience all across the board in terms of first team game time. How important is that going to be for you to get through this tournament?
JK: “First and foremost I think when you think about young central defenders, you want to jump right into the same category as young goalkeepers, and I think the expectations or sort of the norm would be that those players aren't getting a lot of first team matches. We have a different situation here. We have a plethora of central defenders that are getting a lot of first team matches as well as our outside backs in the same situation. I really feel like it's one of the strongest and deepest areas of this team, and I'm really pleased about that.”
Sebastian Saucedo has really taken off since he's moved to UNAM Pumas, he's really playing well and getting regular playing time. What have you thought of his development and were you surprised Pumas actually let him go considering he had become a part of their first team setup?
JK: “Sebastian Saucedo has done a really nice job of integrating into a new league and to a new team in a hurry. I spoke with him and he's taken some real learning steps over the past couple of months. He's performing extremely well, and I plan to have him be a big part of this qualification process. And then the last question about being surprised [about Saucedo’s release]. No, I'm not, I’ve been in communication with the club, essentially they said he was a player that wouldn't be able to join us until after next weekend because that was going to be a policy for all of the Under-23 Mexican players. So, it seems to be a policy that the Mexican league has worked out with the Mexico Federation that they would release all the players except it can't be up until after the matches on the 14th.”
What are your impressions of Jackson Yueill’s upside? As somebody who has developed so many players in MLS, you've probably seen this all along, but what's his potential for the Under-23s and then beyond that?
JK: “Jackson's a really interesting player for me especially because he was actually one of the few players that was in my very first camp with the Under-23s last March in Spain. At that time, I had him playing in more of an advanced attacking midfield role and felt like he struggled a little bit with it. But then to see him go back to San Jose and really take off and be in constant communication with Gregg and the full team staff about what was happening in the league and scouting those games and then getting him an opportunity to come in in June to be a part of that group right before the Gold Cup… I feel like Jackson's career has really, really taken a mega, mega step forward here in the past 12 months to the point where now I think he arguably could be considered a little bit more of a mainstay in the full team.
“I see his potential as top notch. He certainly has a lot to learn and take on from a mental and tactical and physical standpoint, but he's a player that I could see have an extremely good MLS career and potentially a move to Europe at some point.”
Since finishing fourth in the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, the United States has only made an Olympic tournament in 2008 in Beijing. When you go back and look at that team with Michael [Bradley] and Jozy [Altidore] and Marvell Wynne, and there's so many players who are fantastic, does it make you think, maybe we underestimate the importance of the Olympics as far as what it does for our country, for the Federation and its future. From that perspective, how important is it getting to Tokyo?
JK: “I think it's incredibly important. And it's not really about what I think to be honest. What's really important is what U.S. Soccer thinks, and U.S. Soccer thinks it's very important for us to qualify for this Olympics. They have looked at these past couple of cycles and look at that as a failure. So, it's something that we want to correct, and we want to correct it together. I'm really pleased about that and really, really look at this as a tremendous opportunity. I think that this is a huge opportunity that stands in front of us and it's a chance for us to have positive rhetoric around something on the men's side of U.S. Soccer right now. So, we're looking at this as an awesome experience and an awesome opportunity and we hope that we can really have a positive performance here and qualify for the Olympics.”
You went to see Erik Palmer-Brown in Austria recently. What did you see? What have you seen from him so far? How do you see his role in this group?
JK: “Erik is a player that's been playing… last year, he played in the first division in Holland, this year, he’s playing first division in Austria. The guy was included in the starting lineup almost every single weekend in both of those leagues. So, another player that's playing at a very high level, playing amongst men and handling his own strokes. He's a guy that we look at and say, ‘we can bring him in here, he'll have some really nice experience’. And then you add onto that the fact that he's been involved in a lot of Concacaf qualification processes with Youth National Teams, and he becomes a very valuable piece for us.”
Richie Ledezma is one of the few guys from abroad that's on this roster, where do you see him making an impact and how do you see his role with this group?
JK: “Another guy, when I come in and talk about versatility, this is a player that you think could play inside and can also play outside. I think even if we stretched it, he could play as a false nine. He’s a player that brings some really nice qualities to us. What we're going to really love about him is his aggressive mindset in and around the goal, in and around the final third. He’s is a player that likes to play the ball forward and then going forward to support, to create goal scoring chances and to make his own goals. So, an exciting prospect for sure.”
You’ve been quite busy not only piecing together this roster, but also with your Inter Miami duties. How’s that challenge been for you to juggle both and have to take on both challenges over the last few months?
JK: “It's been difficult. It's been challenging. I don't think there's the right word. I think it's been an awesome challenge for me. The truth of the matter is that since March of last year, until really February of this year, it was an okay situation because I didn't really have a hundred percent active role with Inter Miami where I felt like if I left it, there would have to be somebody to cover my position. That all changed in February. February 15, we started the preseason for Fort Lauderdale CF. And so then was the first time that I actually had an active role that needed to be covered when I left. So that's when it became probably the most challenging and the juggling through all of that was the most difficult, but I should also mention a big thank you to Inter Miami for allowing me to do both roles and for allowing me the flexibility to leave and take care of this Under-23 group when I needed to.”
I was hoping you could expand a little bit more about bringing a positive rhetoric to the men's side [of U.S. Soccer]. The Olympic failure as you called it, is something that obviously stung the program, but expand on the idea of there being a very intertwined feed between the Men's team and this crucial step of the U-23 side.
JK: “I just look at it that there's been a lot of doubting in the past. I don't know, let's call it two years [we’ve been thinking] about where the men's side of the youth national team, where the men's side of the full national team… where are we going with all of this? And I look at this group of young players – I have really since the very beginning – and I'm extremely excited about what the future holds for the National Teams of the USA. I'm looking at this and I’ll just say this is a tremendous opportunity for us to really put a flag down and say we are moving in a positive direction. It may or may not be happening as fast as everybody wants it to, but I think we have kind of got a real plan in place and we've got some real terrific leadership in place that's leading us to a very good spot. I see this as just an opportunity for us to champion a little bit of the rhetoric right now.”
Paxton Pomykal is coming out of a kind of serious injury. Is there a plan for him to get to a hundred percent fitness towards the beginning of the tournament and where do you see him on the field?
JK: “Paxton is a player that came to the January camp initially, and he was a player that I hadn't had the chance to work with in Under-23 camp before that. So, I was really looking forward to seeing him up close and working with him and understanding what he was all about. Unfortunately, his injury situation wasn't recovering as fast as we all wanted it to, so he went home after a short spell there and basically no training sessions.
“He is a player that I've watched in the Under-20 World Cup last year and was really impressed with and obviously watched his contributions in Dallas over the past several years. I've been a fan of his, and it was really doubtful as to whether or not he would make this group because of the injury situation, but to see him come on last week and again this week and have positive contributions for the team, really, really positive contributions for the team, and to speak with Luchi Gonzalez there in FC Dallas about where he's at in his trajectory of recovery. We feel this is a player that could really help us here.
“Again, another player that can play several roles: he can play an eight for us, he could play a 10 for us, he could play wide for us. That's really what we need. Ultimately it should be stated that we’re only allowed 17 field players here, so it's really, really nice when you've got guys, and I think really necessary to have players, that can play multiple positions.”
In talking to these clubs about the players who weren't released, have they made any indication that those players are absolutely unavailable should you qualify for the Olympics or have they left it open-ended where we'll have that discussion again if the time comes?
JK: “I think that should be clear. I mean we are only focused on qualification, so none of those conversations have happened yet, and I don't even want to think about any of that stuff until we get our job done here.”
One of the players carried over that has recently made his name for the senior team is Reggie Cannon and Gregg Berhalter said that he was on the leadership council and a big part of the leadership with the senior team. With such a crucial, important task ahead of you, like you've mentioned just qualifying for the first time since 2008, where do you see the leadership coming from in this group?
JK: “I think was great that I was able to be in the January camp and really kind of have a better understanding of what some of the guys are like off the field, what they might be like in a locker room and how they interact with their teammates. With Reggie, I was surprised to see what a leader he is within that group. He’s a leader. I feel like he leads both with his actions – cause he's extremely competitive at every training session – as well as with his words, he's a communicator and he really cares about his teammates.
“We're very happy to have Reggie in our group. He will be one of the players that we'll lean on for leadership. We'll look to other players like Jackson [Yueill], you'll see Djordje Mihailovic, Justen Glad. These are guys that are a little bit more on the older side of the group and all of them have some terrific leadership capabilities.”