PHOENIX – Nine months before the Paris 2024 Summer Olympics kick off, 23 American youngsters took to the Valley to fight for an opportunity to don the USA crest on the global stage.
The journey toward cracking the United States U-23 Men’s National Team Olympic roster began in Phoenix with a 10-day training camp highlighted by two international friendlies starting Oct. 11 against Mexico (2-1 win) and ending Tuesday in a 4-1 win against Japan at Phoenix Rising Soccer Stadium.
“When we planned this camp, we wanted to play against good opponents, opponents that are going to challenge us from the first minute to the very last,” said coach Marko Mitrović. “We got what we wanted, two good teams. This is the level that we can expect in the Olympic games, so we have to be ready for that.”
Although a pair of international friendly wins is nice to have under the belt, the focus of this camp wasn’t on the matches but rather establishing a cohesive unit of young players who have limited playing time together on the pitch.
The team is composed of 18-to-23-year-olds representing 19 unique clubs, including 12 from the MLS. For several athletes on the squad, such as FC Dallas forward Bernard Kamungo, this camp served as their international debut.
“My American dream keeps going,” Kamungo said. “I’m so excited and just so happy for what I have achieved so far. This is such a dream come true for me.”
Even for more experienced players such as Eintracht Frankfurt winger Paxten Aaronson, there is something special about representing the United States on a global stage.
“When you’re a young kid and you hear the Olympics, your eyes just kind of light up,” Aaronson said. “To be able to represent and play the game I love in front of such a big crowd, big culture, big tournament; it would mean a great deal to me.”
The U-23 squad was the United States’ first team sport to qualify for the 2024 Olympic Games in July 2022 with a semifinal win in the CONCACAF U20 Championship. The tournament marked the first time the competition served as Olympic qualifiers.
The United States Men’s National Team has not been represented in the Olympics since 2008, when the squad finished ninth out of 16 represented countries. The U.S. has never won a gold medal but took home both the bronze and silver medal in 1904.
The USMNT’s last Olympic appearance was only two years removed from its highest FIFA world ranking (No. 4). Now, FIFA has the U.S. ranked 11th, nine spots above the Americans’ average since FIFA began ranking international teams in 1993.
Since 2021, the United States has been in the midst of what many consider the “golden generation” compared to the country’s history in the sport.
The U.S. has compiled a CONCACAF Nations League championship in 2021, a Gold Cup championship in 2021, a round-of-16 appearance in the 2023 World Cup, and the best calendar-year record in national team history in 2021 (17-2-3).
Although the senior team won’t be represented in Paris next summer, nine players on the Olympic roster have appeared for the senior USMNT squad and have experience at a higher level.
The soon-to-be 22-man roster has yet to be finalized, but Mitrović made sure nearly every athlete had a chance to shine during this camp in Phoenix.
“When we planned this camp, obviously we wanted to win the games. That’s learning as a habit,” Mitrović said. “Above that, was for every player to have a fair opportunity to show himself.”
While Mitrović is focused on building a coordinated, cohesive squad, players such as Aaronson and forward Duncan McGuire are focused on improving team chemistry away from the pitch while improving their individual skill sets on it.
“We’ve built chemistry off the field,” McGuire said. “Spending time with one another, learning to care for one another so that on the field we make the runs for one another.”
“In the hotel we are all basically right next to each other,” Aaronson said. “Just groups of guys hanging out on our off day, going golfing or going to Topgolf, just all chilling on and off the field it builds more and more connection the more you know people off the field.”
Now with the first Olympic training camp wrapped up, the US U-23 team shifts its focus to the Pan American Games tournament in Chile set for Oct. 23, with the U.S. taking on Brazil’s U-23 squad in the first round.