National Writer: Charles Boehm

USA Olympic roster spots up for grabs: "It's all about competing"


The US under-23 men’s national team are now so very close to their long-awaited adventure at the 2024 Summer Games: The young Yanks will kick off the Olympic soccer tournament with their Group A opener vs. the host nation, mighty France, in just six weeks.

And yet for several of those taking part in the U-23s’ current camp in Kansas City, that tournament will soon feel a million miles away.

The 25 players involved in this gathering – which is the United States men’s final chance to prepare together before the tourney – as well as others apparently still in the mix despite not being called in this time, are competing for just 18 places on the final Olympic roster, plus four alternates who will travel with the squad but cannot play in matches unless an injury opens up a spot for them.

“We understand it’s a smaller roster size, and this is one of the bigger camps that we've had,” said Philadelphia Union defender Nathan Harriel on Thursday. “We’re just happy to compete, and we do know that some people are going to be left off the roster. And just because you’re not here at camp doesn’t mean that your chance at the Olympics is over with. Anyone is still fair game. It's all about competing and winning and putting your best foot forward.”

All that makes Tuesday night’s game vs. Japan at Children’s Mercy Park, home of Sporting Kansas City, an extremely weighty proving ground for anyone seeking to make the team, and/or play a prominent role in France (8 pm ET | YouTube, Universo).

“We are going to sit right after the camp and try to definitely put [together] our best roster,” US U-23s head coach Marko Mitrovic told reporters in Monday’s matchday-1 media availability. “It's not an easy process. It's a big picture, and we have to take it from every angle and to finalize it as soon as possible, so we can approach the clubs and see if we don't have any setbacks regarding the roster.”

Olympic pride

That last part is quite important. Mitrovic and his staff may well have to make further adjustments to that ideal squad list, because clubs are not required to release their players for the Olympics, as the men’s tournament is a predominantly Under-23 event that falls outside of FIFA’s match calendar.

That further elevates the importance of not only dependable players, but dependable relationships between the federation and the American players’ clubs.

“I'm pretty sure all the clubs in MLS understand how big it is to represent your country on the Olympic stage, just because of how big of an event it is, and we haven’t been there in a long time,” said Harriel, alluding to the 16-year drought since the US men last took part in the Summer Games.

“I'm in Philadelphia – Jim [Curtin] is always for it, he always likes when we go and represent the team. I don’t think anyone in this squad would ever say no, they don’t want to represent the US at the Olympics.”

Veteran presence

One figure the Olympic Yanks will count on heavily is Walker Zimmerman, the veteran center back set to occupy one of the three slots available for overage players. The Nashville SC star helps fortify a position in which the current U-23 player pool is light at present, and with 42 senior USMNT caps, provides inspirational leadership.

“With Walker, my first ever senior team camp, he was there, and we have the same agent. So going into camp he was kind of like a big brother to me, and he helped me a lot in that first camp just to find my way around and get used to the group and be in that environment, and he's done the same thing here off the field,” recalled U-23s midfielder Tanner Tessmann, an FC Dallas homegrown now at Venezia, whom he just helped earn promotion from Italy’s second division back to Serie A.

“He's a great guy for the locker room, he's integrated really well with everyone here. So I think a lot of guys look up to him and definitely try to learn from him on and off the field, just how he does his thing. He’s very professional and yeah, we're really happy to have him as one of the overage players.”

Tessmann and his Venezia teammate Gianluca Busio, a Sporting KC academy product, look like key contributors in the center of the park. Meanwhile, Orlando City’s Duncan McGuire is a leading contender to lead the line at the No. 9 position despite recently picking up a shoulder injury in MLS action; the Creighton alum said on Thursday that his shoulder is “feeling good” and he expects to be available for selection to the Olympic roster.

Battling it out

Mitrovic must make some hard choices when it comes to other attacking areas.

Has New England’s Esmir Bajraktarevic, the youngest player in this camp – young enough to also be eligible for the 2028 Games, along with Inter Miami’s Benjamin Cremaschi – shown enough to earn a surprise ‘24 selection?

Is Real Salt Lake’s Diego Luna, a crucial architect of the US U-20s’ work in earning qualification for this tournament in the first place, really still in contention despite being left out of this month’s camp? How much will the staff weigh recent club form vs. what a player has shown in previous U-23 gatherings?

Mitrovic and his staff will decide, and reveal their picks to the world, sometime between Wednesday and the roster submission deadline on July 3.

“We are with this process now eight, nine months and one thing that we learned also is that obviously there is a club form, but also there is the performance from the players when they are in our environment. And sometimes those things go together, sometimes not,” explained the Serb.

“You have players, once they get to your environment, they always perform no matter what's going on within their environment or not. And also sometimes we have players that are very kind of copy-paste, OK, what's going on in their environment that will translate to our environment.”