U.S. men’s soccer Olympic qualifying preview

Gedion Zelalem
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The United States U-23 national team will kick off its campaign to qualify for the Olympics when coach Andi Herzog’s side plays Canada in Kansas City on Thursday night.

Needing to advance from the four-team group as one of the top two sides and win a single semifinal matchup to qualify for next summer’s tournament, the not-so-baby Yanks are a mere 360 (or 390) minutes away from righting the wrongs of 2012 and proving themselves capable of taking the torch from the likes of Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Tim Howard and Jermaine Jones over the next two World Cup cycles.

So who’s on the roster? Who’s expected to start, and star? Who do they have to beat in order to qualify? And what are expectations for the team as a whole? Let’s dive right in …

Goalkeepers (3) — Charlie Horton (Leeds United); Ethan Horvath (Molde FK); Zack Steffen (SC Freiburg)

As always, the U.S. player pool is rich with quality goalkeepers. Steffen starred during the U-20s’ run at the World Cup this summer, though he’s far from the most established of the bunch back at their respective club sides. Horvath was recently given a run of first-team minutes with Molde, one of Norway’s biggest clubs, and has so impressed during that stretch that Herzog said during a Wednesday conference call he felt it best to leave the 20-year-old Highlands Ranch, Colorado, native with his club until the official beginning of the upcoming international window.

For games no. 1 and 2, it’ll be either Steffen or Horton, who moved from Cardiff City to Leeds United this past summer.

Defenders (6) — Cameron Carter-Vickers (Tottenham Hotspur); Eric Miller (Montreal Impact); Matt Miazga (New York Red Bulls); Will Packwood (Unattached); Matt Polster (Chicago Fire); Dillon Serna (Colorado Rapids)

While Jurgen Klinsmann’s senior team might be struggling for capable center backs — maybe he’s the one struggling to select the right ones — Herzog’s U-23 squad has two of the brightest prospects we’ve seen at the position in a long, long time. Miazga, already a regular starter and budding star for the Red Bulls, has come on by leaps and bounds from 2014 to 2015, fairly warranting talk about a call-up to the senior team sooner rather than later. He turned 20 over the summer.

Then there’s Carter-Vickers, who won’t turn 18 until New Year’s Eve. Speaking of stars at the U-20 World Cup, no American player burst onto the scene and announced his arrival more loudly than Carter-Vickers. Built and sculpted like a 26-year-old veteran already — limbs like tree trunks — Carter-Vickers reads the game exceptionally well for a player his age. It won’t be long before he’s being considered by Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino for UEFA Europa League games. Carter-Vickers spoke at length to ProSoccerTalk’s Joe Prince-Wright last month in England.

Polster, who has quickly become one of Major League Soccer’s best defensive midfielders as a rookie, gets pushed to the backline due to an abundance of quality, deep-lying midfielders. Having played fewer than a handful at center back this season, it will be interesting to see how much and how quickly Herzog goes to the 22-year-old Milwaukee native in the back.

Miller has reportedly been “recalled” by the Impact due to “injury” — his condescending air quotes, not mine, in a frustration-filled Twitter post on Wednesday that has since been deleted — meaning the starting right back job is wide open. Serna, who irregularly features as a midfielder for the Rapids, could actually end up winning that spot.

Midfielders (7) — Fatai Alashe (San Jose Earthquakes); Gboly Ariyibi (Chesterfield); Luis Gil (Real Salt Lake); Emerson Hyndman (Fulham); Marc Pelosi (San Jose Earthquakes); Wil Trapp (Columbus Crew SC); Gedion Zelalem (Rangers)

Trapp, Hyndman and Zelalem are three of the most gifted central midfield players — in that order, present moment — the U.S. system has produced in quite some time. There’s just one problem with that: the former two might be so close to identical players that they’re unable to play together. Trapp has flourished with Crew SC playing alongside big, strong Tony Tchani, a mountain of a tackling midfielder with great passing skills, awareness and ability to organize. That, Hyndman is not.

In a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 system, there’s certainly room for both players to fit into the same midfield, but there’s not enough soccer balls for two very ball-dominant operators. Alashe, another MLS rookie, seems the best fit to start alongside one of Trapp or Hyndman.

No player in the current U.S. pool has more hype surrounding him right now than Zelalem. The 18-year-old Ethiopian-German-American playmaker (Arsenal) has begun his loan stint with Rangers in scintillating form, becoming a first-team regular for the Scottish second-division side and frequently impressing with smooth dribbling skills and his ability to pick out the decisive pass into the final third. With a clear lack of attacking wing players on the roster, the onus of creating quality scoring chances will fall almost solely on the shoulders of Zelalem.

Forwards (4) — Alonso Hernandez (FC Juarez); Jerome Kiesewetter (VfB Stuttgart); Jordan Morris (Stanford); Maki Tall (FC Sion)

Up top, there’s Morris, followed by the great unknown. Tall showed well in the U-2os’ first World Cup game before missing the rest of the tournament through injury. Still just 19 years old, the Washington, D.C., native moved from Lille to Sion (Switzerland) this past summer.

As for Morris, it was a bit of a surprise to see the Stanford University standout on the U-23 roster when Klinsmann has so regularly called him into senior team camps over the last six months. With the CONCACAF Cup showdown with Mexico scheduled for October 10 — the same day as the U-23s’ potential semifinal appearance — the possibility still remains that Klinsmann plucks the 20-year-old after one or two group games. With Morris in the starting lineup, the U-23s have one of the quickest and craftiest strikers in the entire U.S. player pool, both in terms of getting from Point A to Point B and confounding defenders with intelligent, tough-to-track movement. Without Morris in the squad, who knows where the goals will come from.

Group A schedule

Thursday — vs. Canada (9 p.m. ET, live on NBC Universo)
Saturday — vs. Cuba (5 p.m. ET, live on Telemundo)
Tuesday, Oct. 6 — vs. Panama (9:30 p.m. ET, live on NBC Universo)

Outlook

The qualifying disaster of 2012, in which the U.S. U-23s failed to even get out of the group stage, both feels and is a long, long time ago now — not only in a literal sense, but considering how much better and deeper the under-23 talent pool is this time around.

Finishing atop Group A — seven of nine points is distinctly possible — should be the only target for Herzog’s squad. From there, it’s a win-and-you’re-in showdown against the runner-up from Group B, could be, but is unlikely to be, Mexico.

Failing to qualify for the Olympics won’t set the senior team back one bit — remember, it’s a U-23 competition with three overage players — but in terms of bridging the gap from the current generation of USMNT regulars to what is looking an increasingly promising group of youngsters working their way through the ranks, it would be a massive opportunity missed to gain invaluable major tournament competition before making the jump up to World Cup qualifying and the World Cup itself.

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Alexa Knierim, Brandon Frazier win U.S. figure skating pairs’ title in possible final nationals

Alexa Knierim, Brandon Frazier
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Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier haven’t decided if they’ll compete beyond this season, so Saturday may have been their farewell to the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

If so, they went out as dominant winners, the first pair in their 30s to win nationals in more than 50 years.

Knierim, 31, and Frazier, 30, took their second U.S. title together, totaling 227.97 points to prevail by 31.11 over Emily Chan and Spencer Howe. They led by a gaping 15.1 points after Thursday’s short.

Knierim and Frazier were solid after errors on their opening jumping combination in Saturday’s free skate. They broke their own pairs’ margin of victory record from the 2021 U.S. Championships under a scoring system implemented in 2006. Knierim appeared to wipe away tears backstage.

“As I get older, the longer I’m in this sport, the more gratitude I have for it,” Knierim, the oldest woman to win a U.S. figure skating title since 1995 (Renée Roca), said on USA Network. “After that music ended, I’m just thankful that Brandon’s by my side and I’m able to do what I love.”

Ellie Kam and Danny O’Shea bagged bronze to likely round out the three-pair team for March’s world championships.

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Full Scores | Broadcast Schedule

Knierim and Frazier considered retiring after last season, after they missed nationals due to Frazier’s COVID-19, petitioned onto the Olympic team and posted the best Olympic finish for a U.S. pair (sixth) in 20 years.

They then became the first U.S. pair to win a world title since 1979, beating a field that didn’t include any of the top five from the Olympics.

They returned in part to compete as world champions and rank second in the world this season (during which the top Olympic pairs also haven’t competed). They will likely go into March’s worlds in Japan as underdogs to Japan’s Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara, who won their lone head-to-head this past fall at the Grand Prix Final.

Back in October, Knierim said this will probably be their last season competing together, though the pair also thought they were done last spring. They don’t expect to make a final decision until after a Stars on Ice tour this spring.

“This U.S. Championships for us was extra special because you’re just reflecting on the journey, and you know that there’s a good chance that this will be your last one,” Frazier said.

Knierim won her fifth U.S. title, tying the record for a pairs’ skater since World War II, joining Kyoka InaTai BabiloniaRandy GardnerKarol Kennedy and Peter Kennedy. Knierim’s first three titles, and her first Olympics in 2018, were with husband Chris, who retired in 2020.

Silver medalists Chan and Howe continued their recent surge. After placing fourth at last season’s nationals, they rank sixth in the world this season. That’s despite summer injuries that left them unable to practice lifts (his shoulder) and throws (her foot) for a while.

Kam, 18, and O’Shea, 31, made the podium four months after becoming a pair and less than two months after a car Kim was riding in was hit by a drunk driver while crossing an intersection. The car was totaled, but Kim and O’Shea still competed days later in Croatia.

O’Shea won the 2016 U.S. title with Tarah Kayne, retired after they split in late 2020, then came back in 2021 with Chelsea Liu. They ranked sixth in the U.S. going into 2022 Nationals, but withdrew beforehand due to concussions both suffered in a November competition fall, according to Figure Skaters Online.

NBC Sports’ Sarah Hughes (not the figure skater) contributed to this report.

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2023 U.S. Figure Skating Championships scores, results

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Full scores and results from the 2023 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in San Jose …

Women
Gold: Isabeau Levito — 223.33
Silver: Bradie Tennell — 213.12
Bronze: Amber Glenn — 207.44
4. Starr Andrews — 188.24
5. Josephine Lee — 187.68
6. Lindsay Thorngren — 187.19
7. Clare Seo — 175.60
8. Gracie Gold — 173.98
9. Ava Ziegler — 167.70
10. Sonja Hilmer — 166.49
11. Gabriella Izzo — 166.40
12. Ting Cui — 161.27
13. Audrey Shin — 161.12
14. Lindsay Wang — 154.91
15. Michelle Lee — 145.28
16. Elsa Cheng — 138.13
17. Alexa Gasparotto — 129.41
WD. Hanna Harrell

Men’s Short Program
1. Ilia Malinin — 110.36
2. Jason Brown — 100.25
3. Tomoki Hiwatashi — 85.43
4. Liam Kapeikis — 82.27
5. Andrew Torgashev — 78.78
6. Maxim Naumov — 77.71
7. Jimmy Ma — 73.88
8. Goku Endo — 73.45
9. Samuel Mindra — 71.36
10. Yaroslav Paniot — 70.87
11. Camden Pulkinen — 69.47
12. Matthew Nielsen — 67.98
13. Joonsoo Kim — 67.45
14. Daniel Martynov — 64.04
15. Will Annis — 63.46
16. Dinh Tran — 60.63
17. Mitchell Friess — 59.14
18. Joseph Klein — 58.38

Pairs
Gold: Alexa Knierim/Brandon Frazier — 227.97
Silver: Emily Chan/Spencer Howe — 196.86

Bronze: Ellie Kam/Danny O’Shea — 184.01
4. Sonia Baram/Danil Tioumentsev —- 179.08
5. Valentina Plazas/Maximiliano Fernandez — 176.34
6. Katie McBeath/Nathan Bartholomay —- 172.74
7. Maria Mokhova/Ivan Mokhov —- 148.84
8. Nica Digerness/Mark Sadusky — 137.98
9. Grace Hanns / Danny Neudecker — 135.30
10. Nina Ouellette/Rique Newby-Estrella — 132.07
11. Linzy Fitzpatrick/Keyton Bearinger — 129.80

Ice Dance
Gold: Madison Chock/Evan Bates — 229.75
Silver: Caroline Green/Michael Parsons — 207.46
Bronze: Christina Carreira/Anthony Ponomarenko — 198.45
4. Emilea Zingas/Vadym Kolesnik — 198.13
5. Emily Bratti/Ian Somerville — 189.84
6. Lorraine McNamara/Anton Spiridonov — 189.15
7. Katarina Wolfkostin/Jeffrey Chen — 183.05
8. Eva Pate/Logan Bye — 182.61
9. Oona Brown/Gage Brown — 181.89
10. Isabella Flores/Ivan Desyatov — 177.31
11. Angela Ling/Caleb Wein — 167.87
12. Leah Krauskopf/YuanShi Jin — 133.93
13. Cara Murphy/Joshua Levitt — 129.85
14. Caroline Depietri/TJ Carey — 123.40
WD. Raffaella Koncius/Alexey Shchepetov

FIGURE SKATING NATIONALS: Broadcast Schedule | New Era for U.S.

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