By Michael Lewis
With a berth in the Tokyo Olympics on the line, U.S. Under-23 head coach Jason Kreis admits he doesn’t know much about his first opponent, Costa Rica, doesn’t know how his team will perform in the match, and realizes his players’ match fitness is not up to optimum strength.
Kreis will discover a lot Thursday when the Americans kick off the Concacaf Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Guadalajara.
The USA will meet the Ticos at 5 p.m. ET.
“It’s a really interesting situation that a lot of coaches don’t probably face where you kind of go into this first game and saying to yourself, ‘Okay. I’m not real sure about the opponent. I haven’t been able to scout them to the level of detail that you would scout any typical opponent.’
“And you also are saying to yourself, ‘I’m not real sure about our group. So, we go into this with a little bit open eyes and ready to work extremely hard as we move forward and after the first game, because now we’ll have actual game footage for ourselves to look at our group as well as game footage of the two next opponents to look at, and really digest a lot more and a lot more detail.”
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the USA hasn’t played any friendly matches prior to the tournament, so Kreis hasn’t seen this group of players in action.
“We haven’t even been able to play a different opponent down here, as we typically would to prepare as we’re down here because of COVID concern concerns,” he said. “We’ve only been able to play ourselves. … We’ve had a lot of match situation and 11-a-side against ourselves.”
Sixteen players from the 20-man qualifying roster are from Major League Soccer. In a perfect world without COVID, those players would have been in training camp since January and moving toward acceptable match fitness. Several players were called into the U.S. men’s national camp in January.
The team traveled to Mexico for a 17-day training camp to work on its fitness and tactics. So, there has been improvement. Whether it will be good enough to earn three points against Costa Rica is another matter.
“The first thing that jumps to my mind is that we don’t have what I would say, is a requisite level of match fitness, because of the fact that these guys we’re starting actually starting preseason a week after we got here,” Kreis said.
“When we got here, I was quite surprised at the level of the fitness that the players had from the get go. We’ve worked extremely hard in our training sessions. There’s reasons that we were here for 17 days before our first game, and that was to give ourselves the absolute best chance to reach the level of fitness that we’re going to need but yeah I mean as I look, look forward in this tournament, and think about the fact that we’ve got three games in short order, but we’ve got the ability to make five substitutions in each of those games.”