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Five things to know as USMNT’s U-23s aim to qualify for Olympics

Yunus Musah's decision to commit to the U.S. national team has American soccer fans thrilled, but Joe Prince-Wright, Nick Mendola and Andy Edwards advise caution when projecting too much onto the 18-year-old.

The United States men’s national team’s depth will be on full display when the club’s U-23 side attempts to qualify for this summer’s Olympics beginning Thursday in Mexico.

[ MORE: How to watch Olympic qualifying ]

But the Yanks will also be fighting history, having made just one Olympics in the last 21 years.

It’s going to be fun, for sure, but also tense. And here’s what you need to know about Jason Kreis’ red, white, and blue players heading south of the border.

1. History looms over the proceedings

The United States men have failed to quality for three of the last four Olympics, a tournament which has been viewed as the foundation for several strong national team runs around the world.

The Yanks finished just off the podium in 2000 and spun that into... nothing in 2004 and a group stage exit in 2008 before failing to make it out of qualifying in 2012 and 2016.

Some notable coaches failed this test, including Caleb Porter and Andi Herzog.

Kreis is headed to Inter Miami to help show Phil Neville the ways of Major League Soccer after this, but it’s not difficult to see his star rising a bit higher if he leads the U.S. not only to the tournament but deep into it.

2. The U.S. are heavy favorites to qualify and contend in Japan, but it takes just one slip to deny “Golden Generation” that chance.

There’s a pretty screwy facet of qualification here.

The U.S. can beat Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, and Mexico decisively in the Group A matches Thursday, Sunday, and March 24, but losing the March 28 semifinal to their Group B opponents would render all of those wins useless.

So before we find out which three players above 24 years old can make Kreis’ side, and which of the big group of players still with their clubs can join the squad in Japan -- we’re talking names like Reyna, Richards, Aaronson, Musah, Weah, etc. -- the Yanks have to somehow manage not to have an off day (at least one specific off day).

3. The Olympics will be the jump-off for at least one future star.

If you want to know a bit about what Olympic can success can signal about a career, look no further than 2012 and 2016.

  • Serge Gnabry rode six goals with Germany into a breakout season with Werder Bremen after the 2016 Summer Games.
  • Heung-min Son was coming off his first Premier League season in 2016, which saw four goals and an assist in 1,103 minutes. His second? Fourteen and eight in 2,066.
  • Mohamed Salah’s three goals at the 2012 tournament took Egypt to the quarterfinals, where they lost to Japan. Four days later, he made his Basel debut.

So it’s in the dreams of every U.S. player to use the Games as a springboard to something huge, whether Johnny Cardoso of Internacional or Hassani Dotson of Minnesota United.

When you consider that Brazil got to these Olympics with Matheus Cunha and Reinier, Spain with Dani Olmo and Dani Ceballos, France with Dayot Upamecano and Houssem Aouar, and Germany with Florian Neuhaus, and Italy couldn’t do it with Federico Chiesa and Moise Kean? Stars, man.


MANCHESTER, UNITED KINGDOM - JULY 29: Mohamed Salah of Egypt celebrates scoring a goal during the Men’s Football first round Group C Match between Egypt and New Zealand on Day 2 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at Old Trafford on July 29, 2012 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Francis Bompard/Getty Images)

Getty Images

4. It’s not just the U.S. bringing talent to qualifying

Mexico’s Jose Juan Macias is averaging 10 goals a season in Liga MX over the past three campaigns and Erick Aguirre and Uriel Antuna are very good, too.

Costa Rica brings a pair of MLS players in Randall Leal of Nashville SC and Luis Diaz of Columbus, while Honduras midfielder Rigoberto Rivas is an Inter Milan prospect on his third loan in Italy. Canada’s Ballou Tabla is back with Montreal from Barcelona.

There’s a lot to like about this qualifying tournament, though the Yanks and Mexico are heavy favorites to advance from their group in first and second and meet again in the final.

5. The U-23s feel the hype of the USMNT and know they have the stage

Twenty-year-old Sebastian Soto is gearing up for Olympic qualifying but also feeling the pull of the United States men’s national team as the program works toward realizing a Golden Generation.

The USMNT pool is deeper than ever now that Yunus Musah has selected to represent the nation of his birth over England, Italy, and Ghana.

And Soto, who authored his first two USMNT goals in a 13-minute cameo during the Yanks’ demolition of Panama, will know that Olympic qualifying isn’t just a message to his nation, the fans, and Jason Kreis but every other forward who wants to take the center forward spot ahead of the Norwich City center forward.

He’s not even the only center forward hoping to make that case. Jesus Ferreira of FC Dallas fits that bill, too, while there’s a bevy of central midfielders bidding to do the same.

Follow @NicholasMendola