2020 Olympics: Inside Jason Kreis' plan to qualify the U.S. men for the first time in 12 years

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United States under-23 national team coach Jason Kreis is hoping to qualify the Americans for an Olympics for the first time since 2008. (Jose Breton/Getty)
United States under-23 national team coach Jason Kreis is hoping to qualify the Americans for an Olympics for the first time since 2008. (Jose Breton/Getty)

Jason Kreis is well aware of the challenge he faces in getting his United States under-23 mean’s national team to this summer’s Olympics in Tokyo.

After all, the U.S. has not taken part in the Summer Games since way back in 2008, where a team led by future World Cup players such as Michael Bradley and Stuart Holden failed to make it past the group stage in Beijing.

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“The way I view it is that it makes my job easier,” Kreis told Yahoo Sports in a phone interview, amid three-plus weeks of working with many of his players during the senior team’s annual January training camp. “We know that this isn’t easy. We know that there's been failure before. So we should have a little extra energy, a little extra something to prove. I like that situation for us.”

Kreis will get a preview of March’s all-important CONCACAF qualifying tournament opener against Costa Rica on Saturday in Carson, California, where a senior team heavy on U-23 players will meet a similarly young Ticos side in a friendly. No fewer than 13 of the 22 players remaining on USMNT boss Gregg Berhalter’s January camp roster are eligible for the March squad.

To hear Kreis tell it, the experience of working alongside established senior internationals such as Paul Arriola, Sebastian Lletget and Aaron Long this month has been vital preparation for the games that count.

Still, the path to Tokyo 2020 promises to be anything but smooth. The qualifying tournament was held on American soil the last two Olympic cycles, and the 2012 and 2016 teams still failed. This year’s event is in Guadalajara, Mexico.

In addition to the first match against Costa Rica, the U.S. also plays the hosts and Dominican Republic in Group A. Only the top two nations will advance to the do-or-die semifinals, meaning one of CONCACAF’s three traditional powers will miss out.

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Looked at another way, however, the draw isn’t that bad. Should the U.S. survive the first round, they’d avoid the big boys in the semis, with a win over Canada, El Salvador, Haiti or Honduras enough to send them to Japan.

“Going into the draw I was thinking that it would be nice to be in Mexico's group,” said Kreis, who pointed out that the U.S. would get an extra day of rest if they reach the decisive match.

The bigger question concerns the makeup of his roster. Some of the most prominent American players — Christian Pulisic, Westin McKennie, Tyler Adams, Josh Sargent and Sergino Dest — almost certainly won’t be released by their European clubs, which are only required to let players join senior national teams. Complicating matters is the fact that the first game of the tournament falls three days before FIFA’s March fixture window opens.

Still, U.S. Soccer will attempt to convince the employers of Euro-based youngsters who have yet to break into their clubs’ first teams — think Bayern Munich’s Chris Richards, Ajax’s Alex Mendez and PSV Eindhoven’s Richie Ledezma — to let them go.

Kreis expects the majority of the MLS players currently in camp to be involved in March. But he also confirmed that domestic teams have been less cooperative than in the past.

“I think that’s fair to say for sure,” Kreis said. “We’re hopeful that the MLS teams understand that we're still growing our sport. And part of growing our sport is having our national teams do well.”

If they do manage to end 12 years of Olympic futility come March, then Kreis, Berhalter and new USMNT general manager Brian McBride will try to sell the likes of Pulisic’s Chelsea and Adams’ RB Leipzig on the value having their Americans on a global stage, in an event watched by tens of millions of Americans and many more about the world.

“I believe that the guys we’re talking about are going to want to represent their country in the Olympics,” Kreis said. “First, we have to get there. But if the players want to play in it, and can exert some influence on their clubs, then hopefully we can all work together to make that happen. Because I think we can have a really, really exciting team.”

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