National Writer: Charles Boehm

USA navigate "really difficult process" with 2024 Paris Olympics roster


Walker Zimmerman didn’t borrow Superman’s cape to fly across the continent, but it wasn’t far off from that.

The four-time MLS All-Star jetted thousands of miles cross-country to take part in a media round-table event held in New York City by the US men’s and women’s Olympic soccer teams on Monday, catching a red-eye flight in Portland after his Nashville SC side lost 4-1 to the Timbers at Providence Park Sunday night.

It was a travel itinerary rugged enough to draw expressions of sympathy from US women’s national team coach Emma Hayes. Yet Zimmerman sounded like a lottery winner as he addressed reporters a few hours after US under-23 men’s coach Marko Mitrović’s roster was officially announced ahead of the Paris Summer Games.

“Well, I don't have the Olympic pedigree that Lindsey does over there,” deadpanned Zimmerman about his fellow featured athlete Lindsey Horan, whose USWNT are four-time gold medalists, an ever-present in the Olympic women’s soccer tournament, whereas the men haven’t taken part since 2008 thanks to a string of qualification heartbreaks.

“My cycle, we didn't qualify, and that's when I thought, 'My dream is over. I won't have a chance to play in the Olympics.' And then as things materialized later this year, just getting this opportunity is amazing. It's something I've always watched growing up, something I've always wanted to participate in and again, I thought that was over. And so I'm just excited and can't wait to get going in France.”

The simple fact both national teams are part of the US Olympic delegation and holding a joint event like this is noteworthy. It’s the first of its kind, following the historic equal-pay arrangement linking both teams’ collective bargaining agreements two years ago – and right from the start, there was some news.

Alternate hopes

Hayes confirmed a late-breaking shift in the event’s roster regulations, which dictate small 18-player squads with four alternates previously only allowed to play when one of the 18 sustains an injury and is removed from the tournament. Now alternates can be added to a gameday roster in relief of an injured player, but the injured player can return for subsequent matches.

“There’s 22 players going to the Olympics … we are to prepare every player to be able to perform if required,” said Hayes, a decorated English manager who took charge of the four-time World Cup winners earlier this year. “The reality with alternates is that if there is a temporary injury to a player on the roster within the A team, that as long as we give six hours’ notice, we're able to make a temporary change and we can then change that for a following game. So from my perspective, nothing changes. Maybe gives us a little bit more flexibility. But there’s 22 players.”

That’s good news for Seattle Sounders midfielder Josh Atencio, FC Dallas academy product Johan Gomez and the Sporting Kansas City duo of Jake Davis and John Pulskamp, the four US alternates who may now have a bigger window of possibility to contribute considering what little margin for error an 18-player roster presents Mitrović & Co. in a tournament setting.

Roster challenges

While the Olympics are an established tentpole event for women’s soccer, it’s a much different outlook for the men. FIFA restricts the tournament to players under age 23, plus three overage exceptions per squad, and does not require clubs to release their players to participate.

Thus Mitrović and his staff have spent months communicating with clubs at home and abroad to convince them to voluntarily release players. Several top talents were reportedly denied that opportunity, including Haji Wright, former FC Cincinnati star Brandon Vazquez, FC Dallas product Ricardo Pepi and his PSV Eindhoven teammate Malik Tillman, and Columbus Crew homegrown Aidan Morris, who just joined England’s Middlesbrough in a multi-million-dollar transfer.

“We all know that it was actually a really difficult process in last eight, nine months, just talking to the clubs, trying to get all the players released,” said the Serbian-born coach. “On one side, it was a great experience for me to learn how that works. Yes, there was challenges, but however, we ended up with a roster that we really believe can represent us in the best possible way. I feel very, very good about the team that is going to Paris.”

CB reunion

Zimmerman and FC Cincinnati mainstay Miles Robinson will anchor the US defense, while Colorado playmaker Djordje Mihailovic rounds out Mitrović’s overage selections. It represents a welcome and much-deserved international spotlight for Robinson, a regular for the senior national team under Gregg Berhalter whose 2022 World Cup dreams were dashed by a serious Achilles injury in the runup to that tournament.

“I'm super happy for Miles,” said Zimmerman. “We have a lot of experience playing together, probably both of us had the most caps alongside one another. To see what he went through after World Cup qualifying, having an injury that he did, missing out on a World Cup, I'm so happy for him to be back and have the opportunity on the world stage to represent the United States and I know he's absolutely ecstatic to be coming along with this group.

“It's such a fun, young group of guys, I think he's going to fit right in. It's been fun keeping in touch with him this summer as everything has kind of gone on for his club and country. And so I'm excited to be alongside him. I think it'll be a really, really fun pairing.”

Luna omission

The Olympics’ cramped roster size forces coaches to make difficult decisions that a more conventional 23-player list would not, and one of Mitrović’s most prominent snubs was Diego Luna. The skillful attacker has been a live wire for high-flying Real Salt Lake this season and contributed significantly to the US U-20s team that booked qualification for Paris ‘24, yet Mitrović thus far has offered limited explanation for his reasoning.

The young Yanks have been drawn into Group A alongside France, New Zealand and Guinea. They begin their campaign with the most daunting assignment imaginable: A meeting with the host nation in Marseille on July 24, one of the very first fixtures of the entire Olympics, two days before the opening ceremony in Paris.