The U23 Men’s National Team wrapped up the domestic half of its two-week training camp with a 1-1 draw against the full national team on Tuesday.
While the result may be encouraging for the overall psyche, it was the rapid improvement from one game to the next that left the coaching staff extremely pleased.
“More important than tying the national team was the progress we saw from game one to game two,” said head coach Caleb Porter after Tuesday’s scrimmage.
The coach was not excessively discouraged by the first scrimmage on Friday that resulted in a 0-4 defeat. In fact, he thought the team did well holding possession, which was the focus of much of the camp, but he was let down in the mental lapse defensively that saw the full team run up four goals in a manner of minutes.
Caleb Porter is pleased with the U23's progress.
So, Porter worked on defense in the four training sessions between the scrimmages and the players responded with a more complete performance.
“I thought we were definitely tighter defensively. We worked on the back four and making sure that when there was no pressure that we were dropping the lines. And as we attack, making sure we were ready for that transition moment. Those things were very good (on Tuesday).”
The players bought into this idea of quickly eliminating any attack, as the audible ‘kill it’ was prevalent from the players in the second scrimmage when the U23s briefly lost possession.
In general though, the theme of the camp remained in what Porter’s teams do best – keep the ball and make the other team chase the game.
“In training, we are trying to develop the concept,” said Porter. “We are going to be an attacking team. So you need to work on all the little details that go into playing attacking soccer, you can’t just expect to be a team that throws a ball out and plays beautiful soccer.”
From spacing to combination play, Porter practiced what he preached even though he recognized that some of the players would not make the cut when he recalls camp in late February.
“Every camp I assume the guys will be moving forward,” said Porter. “Doesn’t mean they all will be. In fact, some of them won’t.”
With nine midfielders in this camp, it is the most likely group to see the most cuts moving forward. The coach said he focused on finding the right blend of midfielders during this camp – the balance of creativity and destruction.
Amobi Okugo and Jared Jeffery personified that versatility, which the coach seeks from his trio of midfielders, and started both scrimmages in the center of the field. Okugo is tailor-made for this system with his ability to quickly win possession back and facilitate from a deep laying midfield role. He was a star of the camp with his crunching tackles and efficient distribution.
Jeffery, on the other hand, had an up-and-down camp. At times, his decision-making came under question, and eventually led to some needless giveaways in the scrimmages. But he also showed more of a willingness than most to change the point of the attack, which drew praise from Porter and his staff.
No one really seized the reins on the final spot in the midfield though. Mikkel Diskerud enjoyed a brief spell there, but did not make his presence felt in either scrimmage. Dilly Duka had some positive moments, but the Columbus Crew midfielder drifted out of the play for stretches and frustrated the defenders with his reluctance to show for the ball.
Isaac Acuna made a really good impression in his debut with the national team program, but like many of the off-season players, he lacked some game fitness to really put his stamp on the spot.
“He is real clever, pretty smooth, good ideas,” said Porter about Acuna. “He is an interesting piece. He is not fit, but he’s got some good soccer in him, as do a lot of these guys. We are going to have a very difficult challenge in picking our group.”
The spots on the wing are fairly clear from this camp with Freddy Adu and Jack McInerney as the top choices. However, Porter said that he would have the top pick of domestic players for Qualifying, which means Brek Shea and Juan Agudelo, who were with the full team during this camp, will likely unseat that duo.
Defensively, this team is a work in progress. Since Porter devoted so much time at the beginning of camp to the fluidity of the offense and only spent the last two days focused on the back four, the defense is playing catch-up in pretty much every facet.
The coach does not seem concerned as he continues to advocate, “it is easier to destroy than create.”
With only nine weeks until the opening Olympic Qualifying game against Cuba on March 22, Porter knows he has a long way to go before he has this team where wants it, but he does like the direction it is heading.
"It is a short window, but I like where we are at and I am pleased with the progress we are making."