Questions in midfield and up top: A closer look at the U.S. U-23 squad for Olympic qualifiers

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The roster is set and the goal is clear. The U.S. Under-23s are now ready to take their first step towards a long-awaited return to the Olympics.

U.S. Soccer has announced the final 20-man roster for the CONCACAF Olympic qualifiers, which kick off next Thursday when the U.S. take on Costa Rica in the first step in their journey towards Tokyo.

Yet that journey begins with some big questions when it comes to squad selection as the U.S. heads to Guadalajara with little margin for error.

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The 'perfect' No. 9

One of the biggest question marks with this squad is the No.9 position, especially considering the decision to leave Portland Timbers forward Jeremy Ebobisse not just off the squad but off of the training camp roster altogether.

A year ago, Ebobisse was likely a frontrunner to start up top. Instead, the U.S. will turn to Jesus Ferreira and Sebastian Soto, two players that are far less experienced at the senior level.

That doesn't seem to concern Kreis, though. Ferreira is fresh off his first international goal in the 7-0 win over Trinidad & Tobago in January, while Soto has netted twice in as many games for the senior team.

Ferreira, in particular, offers a different sort of profile than Ebobisse, who is much more of a traditional centre forward.

The FC Dallas youngster is nowhere near the threat Ebobisse is on set pieces, and the U.S. may come to regret not having that threat in the moments that define this tournament, but Kreis believes his technical ability could be a defining characteristic of the U.S. attack.

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"Jesus is an interesting one, probably the most interesting one, because he hasn't played a whole lot of striker for FC Dallas because they typically will use him in the midfield," Kreis said. "But the way that we want to utilize our nine means that this is the perfect candidate for that.

"Having Jesus in the last January camp, and then having him again in this January camp, we see a player that really seems to understand and fit our game model in that position, and then we see in his performance in the match, it was excellent. So, he's a guy that we were looking at in that position.

"Then we have Sebastian Soto, another player that, over the past four or five months with his full national team experience, has taken advantage of his opportunity."

As for Ebobisse, Kreis was not ready to fully close the door even if it will be a long road back into the U-23 picture for the Timbers forward.

"I feel I evaluate [Ferreira and Soto] a little bit higher than Jeremy," he said. "That's the only reason why Jeremy wasn't included.

"But Jeremy is a lot like a lot of the players that didn't end up making this final roster, and I'm a big fan of his and a lot of these players that didn't make the roster but, unfortunately, we're only allowed to bring 17 field players to this tournament."

Lacking a No. 10?

While the U.S. squad doesn't have a traditionally burly No.9, there's also a distinct lack of No.10s. Part of that is due to availability.

Brenden Aaronson and Richie Ledezma would both be candidates to start in that position, but neither was made available for this tournament as they continue on in Europe. Last year, Aaronson, in particular, would have been a near-lock to start in an attacking midfield role but his move to RB Salzburg removed him from the pool, for this tournament at least.

Two other central midfielders that have more attacking games, Eryk Williamson and Tanner Tessmann, were also left out of the squad. Without them, Kreis sees a different sort of vision.

Jackson Yueill has plenty of senior-team experience and is likely the starter at No.6, but there will need to be some sort of production from whomever starts alongside him in the midfield.

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Djordje Mihailovic is the most attacking of the bunch and he has been a regular at this level, having previously worn the captain's armband. Because of his attacking ability, Mihailovic seems to be a vital piece for the U.S., who could struggle to create with a squad full of No.6s and No.8s.

However, Kreis also earmarked Hasani Dotson and Johnny Cardoso as two players with underrated attacking skills, offering him what he sees as a group of No.8s that can go forward when the time comes.

"The first time I spoke to [Cardoso], I was telling him, 'It keeps showing me here that you're playing nine, and you're coming in here and now we're asking you to play six!' And so the couple of times we've had him in the national team camps, once with the 23s and once with the full team, we had him at six," Kreis said.

"Then, we looked at him as an eight late in the camp and in the game and he showed that he's got some really creative ideas in the attacking half of the field. He's another player that I think is quite, quite versatile."

Kreis also says there is the option to play Ferreira as a No.10 behind Soto should the U.S. opt to go that route. Uly Llanez and Sebastian Saucedo, two traditional wingers that have been listed as midfielders, should also provide a bit of creativity in the final third.

Goalkeeper battle still somewhat open

While Kreis says he has not yet selected a starting goalkeeper, it appears that JT Marcinkowski does have the inside track.

The San Jose Earthquakes goalkeeper is far and away the most experienced of the trio, which also includes Matt Freese and David Ochoa, as Marcinkowski has been a part of all nine training camps for the U-23s during this cycle.

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Kreis wasn't prepared to name a starter just yet, but he did hint that Marcinkowski might just be the guy, at least initially, due to his experience with both the U-23s and in MLS.

"We were in the same situation last year where we have these three goalkeepers, and we like all three,"  Kreis said. "And we're kind of looking at them like, 'Okay, who can be the starter?'

"I don't feel like anybody's really put that flag in the ground to say I'm the guy, and so now we have to make, I think, a really difficult decision.

"I think what we're probably thinking about is maybe one gets the first game and the other gets the second game, and then based on that performance, we move forward.

"But I do think there's probably one in the group that's maybe played a few more MLS matches than the others and probably has a little bit of a slight pole position at the moment."