TYAC Olympic Qualifying Position Breakdown: Making Middy Music

West Ham product Sebastian Lletget, shown here in the Torneo de las Americas against Columbia, is among the U-23 midfielders called into both US camps.

Jon Levy

You’ll have to forgive all of us here at The Yanks Are Coming for getting into a more-than-healthy amount of self-referencing in the coming months. We’re coming up on the blog’s fourth birthday this summer, TYAC having been created in the wake of a very talented 2008 Olympic soccer team’s early and unexpected exit from the Beijing tournament.  So while we may drone on just a bit about Orozco’s gaffe, Obinna’s goal, and a perfectly placed stoppage time free kick from Gerald Sibon, we’ll try and keep the personal and wistful rhapsodizing from approaching Rick Reilly levels. 

That being said, respecting history does have its benefits. The story behind TYAC’s genesis leaves us no choice but to pour our hearts, souls, brains, and words into the journey of what should become the 2012 US Men’s Olympic Soccer Team. We’ll cover qualifying from tip to tail, and that coverage starts with a position-by-position analysis of how new coach Caleb Porter’s squad is shaping up. First up: Midfielders.

Thus far the U-23’s have convened for camps in November and December. The first camp was overseen by US Youth Soccer Technical Director Claudio Reyna and US Under-20 coach Tab Ramos. The former national team greats coached a joint U-23/U-20 squad in Duisburg, Germany, because Caleb Porter’s Akron Zips were winding down their regular season and competing in their conference tourney. Then, with college soccer season in the rearview, Porter hosted his first Olympic qualifying camp on Florida’s west coast just before Christmas. He’ll name another squad in January, presumably including the most promising players from the previous two camps, and maybe some new additions. To start off we’re going to work within the players that have been called to this point, rather than speculate on whether eligible senior team midfielders like Brek Shea and Danny Williams will be called in for qualifying.

Here’s your midfield pool as defined by the last two camps:

Freddy Adu (Philadelphia Union), Bryan Arguez (Montreal Impact), Joe Corona (Club Tijuana), Danny Cruz (Houston Dynamo), Mikkel Diskerud (Stabæk)Dilly Duka (Columbus Crew)Jared Jeffrey (Mainz)Sebastian Lletget (West Ham United)Amobi Okugo (Philadelphia Union), Michael Stephens (LA Galaxy), Kelyn Rowe (UCLA/Generation Adidas), Tyrone McCargo (Nürnberg), Charles Renken (Hoffenheim), Caleb Stanko (Freiburg), Jose Villarreal (LA Galaxy), Luis Gil (Real Salt Lake),  Josh Gatt (Molde)*, Perry Kitchen (DC United)**

Bold Names = Midfielders participating in both camps

*Gatt makes this list as a wide midfielder despite being classified as a forward by US Soccer

**Kitchen has been deployed as both a defender and a midfielder for club and country, but his career now seems to be trending towards the center of the pitch in both arenas

That’s a pretty impressive list to anyone who’s been following the American youth system for the past couple years. But it rightfully has the feel of trying to assemble a team using only the first round or so of the NFL Draft. Most of these guys look great on paper, with their club teams, and on the training pitch. But within the context of this team? Don’t kid yourself, there are busts in there. Feel free to make your Freddy Adu jokes now, let’s get ‘em out of the way early.

Caleb Porter is also abandoning the old guard 4-4-2- but Thomas Rongen's experimental formations give the Akron coach a good head start.

So what will performing “within the context of this team” entail for our promising crop of young midfielders? Well, it seems that Caleb Porter has jumped on board with senior national team manager Jurgen Klinsmann in preferring a wider and faster formation than the Bob Bradley 4-4-2 we became so accustomed to. Porter’s used a 4-3-3 as his primary formation in Florida, deploying two wing forwards up the pitch and three central mids between the target striker and the backline. The senior team has struggled mightily to this point in adapting from their basic 4-4-2 mindset to Klinsmann’s 4-3-3/4-5-1 aspirations, but Caleb Porter’s squad isn’t expected to experience those same growing pains. Not only are these young players less set in their ways than the crusty veterans of the USMNT, but Thomas Rongen gave many of them an ace in the hole by playing a 4-3-3 at U-20 level in his last year as youth coach. Turns out that guy’s good for a lot more than European scouting and MLS television commentary, just ask American Samoa.

So we’re looking at a three man midfield that will be tasked with controlling the flow of the game in the center of the pitch, spreading play out wide to wing forwards (some of whom will at times be drawn from within these midfield ranks) and overlapping fullbacks, unlocking opposing defenses in the final third, and shielding their own defenders. Is that vague enough for you? The starting spots along with the bench roles are rightfully way up in the air, subject to healthy competition, but does anyone have the inside track to a start in Nashville?

Most likely to be a cemented starter right now? Union man Amobi Okugo.

His Job To Lose

If I was going to wager my fortune amassed as a soccer blogger I wouldn’t put it on a certain midfielder receiving a start in the first match of the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Tournament. But if I was forced to make that bet, my money’s on Philadelphia Union defensive middy Amobi Okugo. The former UCLA Bruin is a veteran of the residency program, has represented the US at every youth level, and most importantly, he’s taking well to his role under Caleb Porter. He’s got the resume, the skills, and the playing time for his club team. Barring a bad game or two in the upcoming U-23 friendly matches, Okugo should anchor the midfield against Cuba on March 22nd. Supplanting him would be like Metallica giving lead guitarist Dave Mustaine a bus ticket and some well wishes on the eve of the Kill ‘Em All sessions. Now here’s why that could happen:

If you’re scanning the midfield crowd for a Kirk Hammett (Mustaine’s replacement), look no further than DC United right back come holding midfielder Perry Kitchen. The third pick in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft is also a longtime veteran of the American youth national teams, and he actually captained the talented U-20 squad that failed to qualify for this past summer’s U-20 World Cup, a squad that also featured Amobi Okugo. Kitchen was deployed primarily as a right sided defender for that U-20 squad and DC United, but he also saw time in the defensive midfield with each team. And here’s the kicker, Kitchen played both positions for Caleb Porter as a member of the new U-23 coach’s Akron Zips. So what happens to Okugo if he’s forced onto the bench? He’ll probably work hard and earn himself another shot, but for our purposes we’ll say he heads to the country of his descent and remakes the national team in his image. If you’re following the heavy metal analogy, that turns Nigeria’s Super Eagles into Megadeth.

Trending Up

Aside from Okugo, five other midfielders have been invited to both camps thus far, and two of that lot are notably living up to and exceeding their already lofty expectation according to Fox Soccer’s Ives Galarcep. Sebastien Lletget and Joe Corona are very different players with very different stories, but we could see them linking up to lethal effect sometime very soon.

West Ham reserve Seb Lletget is supposed to be the prototypical forward-thinking central midfielder. America’s answers to Xavi Herández and all the “number tens” of the world if you’ve been staying current on your media player hype for the past couple years. Thing is, nothing’s happened to derail that train of expectations just yet. Aside from a couple ill-timed injuries and illnesses, one in particular that kept him out of the 2011 Milk Cup, Lletget has stayed the course, performing admirably at every opportunity with both West Ham and the US. I doubt he’d be in any sort of senior national team reckoning due to Klinsmann’s relatively hard and fast playing time axiom, but he’s forged reserve squad partnerships with West Ham legacy midfielders Olly Lee and George Moncur. In some cases, he’s forced himself into starting lineups ahead of his aforementioned compatriots, and that’s significant since Lletget’s father was never a Hammer. Lletget’s performance in Florida this month was as advertised according to Galarcep; very encouraging given that his legend and “ad campaign” have been growing on this side of the pond (and within the pages of this blog) for a long time.

Joe Corona's last name is a dream come true for the American Outlaws. An Olympic opportunity would be even more of a dream for a kid who once wanted to play for Mexico.

One last note on Seb before we get to the potentially electrifying Joe Corona: We’re officially instituting a TYAC nickname change for this player. New information has come to light. Prior to knowing the appropriate pronunciation of Sebastien’s last name, we were using phrases like “Lletget excited,” “Lletget is started,” and “Lletget Rossi’d up.” Upon learning via Soccer By Ives that Lletget is pronounced leh-JET, we’re instituting two new nicknames, and we’re open to more ideas in the comments section. We’ll see which one sticks. First off, in a nod to both The Sandlot and a commentator for Inside The NBA, we’ll go with Sebby “The Jet” Lleget.  And nickname option number two, submitted by West Ham Dan on Twitter (@DanCovello), cranks the clever up a few notches while bringing MC Hammer into the fold, 2 Lleget 2 Quit… hey heyyyyyy! 

Mr. Corona doesn’t have Lleget’s club team playing time problems,.He’s a mainstay as an attacking winger for Club Tijuana in Mexico, but there were definitely questions hanging over his head. First off, Joe chose to represent Mexico at international level before changing his mind and donning the red, white, and blue. He ended up on the right side of the border, but flip-flopping like that doesn’t inspire confidence. Meanwhile, most American soccer pundits viewed Corona as a winger exclusively before these US U-23 camps. Thankfully, Corona’s been a pleasant surprise in the center of the pitch, proving he can dribble, distribute, and defend in the think of the action, as well as on a flank.

I’m Watchin’ You

It should be pretty easy to understand why we’re keeping a close eye on both Freddy Adu and Mixx Diskerud. Both players have experience with the senior national team, and provide the versatility to play as an attacking midfielder in the center or the park or out wide, flanking a target striker. Diskerud has been on the collective American radar since notching a brilliant assist in South Africa on Juan Agudelo’s first USMNT goal, and the rollercoaster of Freddy Adu’s national team career doesn’t need rehashing. His most recent caps did provide the US a new useful attacking dimension in the CONCACAF Gold Cup though. And it’s true– Adu was deeply involved in two to three of the best American goals in 2011— at the senior level. So his value in a Yanks shirt shouldn’t be underestimated.

Meanwhile, Dilly Duka and Jared Jeffrey continue to perform well and seize the opportunities given to them. I’ll stop there, rather than attempt to analyze the play of every midfielder called to this point. We’ve got a lot of time left, and our speculation is better served in the fun section below!

Jose Torres was enjoying a Klins-assaince to his national team career prior to injury last autumn. While fans clamor for Dempsey, Torres might be an astute overage selection.

Overage Possibilities

These considerations won’t seriously come into play until Caleb Porter’s group of young men qualifies for the London Olympics, but once they do, it’s worth wondering which older midfielders might be in the mix to fill one of the three allotted “old dude” roster spots.

The Walking Wounded – Will Stuart Holden or José Francisco Torres be given the chance to show their health and regain their form at the Olympics? It could be a great way to give either of them meaningful minutes in a tournament format.

Stoppers – The defensive midfielder position is a strength for the US, and if Caleb Porter doesn’t feel that Okugo or Kitchen is up to snuff, it’s possible that Ricardo Clark, Maurice Edu, Kyle Beckerman, or Jermaine Jones is tasked with that duty. Maybe even MB90.

Will To Win – What if Klinsy and Porter decide they want to go all out in this tournament. Send a message to the football world, go for the gold, etc. It’s a remote but real possibility that Donovan or Dempsey is included in the Olympic squad. But would this hamstring the growth of some of the players discussed above?

German Seasoning – Unlike his Hoffenheim teammate Danny Williams, Fabian Johnson misses the U-23 cut for this tournament, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be on the squad for the Olympics. Needless to say, that goes for pretty much any Germany-based American. It’s Jurgen Klinsmann’s world, we’re just living in it.

Jon Levy is the Co-Founder and Associate Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at jon.f.levy@gmail.com and you can and should follow him on Twitter at @TYAC_Jon

Filed Under: 2012 OlympicsFeaturedJanuary 2012USMNT

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  • Amy

    Continuing the Twitter discussion: here’s the comparison:

    Edu-Kljestan-Holden-Bradley-Adu

    Lletget-Okugo-Shea-Williams-Adu

    You think this group is on paper slightly better? I think that’s a truly hopeful assessment (not that you are necessarily wrong, Jon!!)

    Here’s the other thought:

    Given the MF depth, is the center of the defense the area where the overage help might be best– thinking maybe Jon Spector, who by all accounts is playing well in England this year, and maybe Clarence Goodson or someone of that ilk?

    Great stuff as usual, sir.

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  • Timm

    Danny Barrera doesn’t even get mention as a possibility? Five years from now we’ll see how the other CMs on this list stack up against him.

  • Stephen

    Disappointed not to see more of a spotlight placed on Josh Gatt in this piece. He may be playing Champions League footie this time next year and may be THE most dynamic right-wing MF option in the U-23 pool.

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