For U.S. Men’s Soccer, The Paris Games Present A Unique Opportunity — And They’re Coming On Fast

by Chrös McDougall

Kevin Paredes looks on prior to the match against Oman on Sept. 12, 2023 in St Paul, Minn. (Photo by Getty Images)

ST. PAUL, Minn. – Two minutes into his debut with the U.S. men’s soccer team, Kevin Paredes received a pass from Ben Cremaschi and whipped a low cross into the penalty area. An Oman defender, sliding to stop it, instead slipped the ball into his own net.

The own goal sealed the U.S.’ 4-0 win in a friendly Sept. 12 at Allianz Field in St. Paul. Less than a year from now, the same combination could be making plays like that in stadiums across France.

Both Paredes, 20, and Cremaschi, 18, made their senior national team debuts in the Oman friendly, and both could be prime candidates to make the U.S. team at next year’s Olympic Games Paris 2024, where men’s squads are limited to mostly players 23 and under.

After missing out on the past three Olympics, the U.S. men secured their spot for Paris last summer, and suddenly things are progressing quickly. Just prior to last month's international window, U.S. Soccer named an Olympic coach. Later this month, the U-23 team meets in Phoenix for its first training camp, which will include a pair of friendlies – against Mexico on Oct. 11 and against Japan on Oct. 17.

While predicting the Olympic squad can be a fool’s errand – in addition to the age restriction, which requires all but three players per team to be born after Jan. 1, 2001, professional clubs are not required to release their players to take part in the Games – the Olympics provides a unique opportunity for both the players and the national team.

The Oman friendly saw the 51st different U.S. starter so far in 2023, which is a record in program history according to Opta Sports. But fewer than half that many players can make the roster for next year’s biggest senior men’s tournament, Copa América.

So while Olympic-eligible standouts such as Yunus Musah and Gio Reyna, both 20 and veterans of the most recent World Cup, are more likely to be with the senior team at Copa América, the Paris Games could be an ideal landing spot for players like Cremaschi and Paredes who are still establishing themselves on the international level.

Paredes, who plays for VfL Wolfsburg in the German Bundesliga, described the Olympics as “huge.”

“To be a part of that,” the wingback said, “it would be unbelievable and something I want to work toward and something I want to be a part of.”

Kevin Paredes competes against Oman on Sept. 12, 2023 in St. Paul, Minn. (Photo by Getty Images)

Marko Mitrović, an experienced youth coach who had been leading the U.S. men’s U-19 team, was elevated to the Olympic job on Sept. 6. Speaking less than a week later in St. Paul, Musah and Paredes said they had yet to hear from Mitrović – or much else about the Olympic team. However, that should change soon.

Synergy has already been building within the program, however.

“We’ve always worked closely together,” senior men’s coach Gregg Berhalter said. “When I go into the office I walk right by his desk every single day. We chat every single day he’s in the office, all the time talking about teams-related stuff, tactics. So we have a very good relationship.”

A native Serbian, Mitrović played professionally and broke through as a coach in his home country, most notably serving as the first assistant on the Serbia team that won the 2015 U-20 World Cup. He went on to work as an assistant for the Chicago Fire of MLS and Reading in the English Championship before taking on the U.S. U-19 job in 2022.

“He’s a very serious coach,” Berhalter said, adding, “He’s a great candidate, and I’m excited to see what he can do with the Olympic team.”

He’ll have his first opportunity during the October international window, when he’ll in many ways be blazing a new path.

Men’s soccer has been an Olympic sport since the original Paris Games in 1900, but it’s cycled through various iterations and eligibility requirements. At one time seen as the sport’s international pinnacle, then as the amateur world championship, the Olympic men’s tournament has been open to professionals since 1984 — though European and South American players with World Cup experience were ineligible for the 1984 and 1988 Games. Restrictions making the Olympic tournament a (mostly) U-23 competition took effect in 1992.

The U.S. won a pair of medals – silver and bronze – at the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis, when the tournament was made up of three club teams. In the professional era, the U.S. qualified a team six times in its first 10 tries, finishing as high as fourth place in 2000 but missing out altogether in 2004, 2012, 2016 and 2020.

(left) Paxten Aaronson competes for possession during the first half of in an international friendly match against Columbia on Jan. 28, 2023 in Carson, Calif. (Photo by Getty Images)

That latest drought ended in July 2022 when the U.S. beat host Honduras 3-0 in a semifinal match at the Concacaf Men’s U-20 Championship.

Midfielder Paxten Aaronson, the younger brother of U.S. World Cup player Brenden Aaronson, scored seven goals to win the Golden Boot while also claiming the Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player. Now a senior national team player himself after making his debut in January, Paxton could be an intriguing Olympic choice, having just turned 20 in August.

Several other players will merit serious consideration for Paris.

The 18-year-old Cremaschi made his MLS debut for his hometown Inter Miami earlier this season and has thrived playing alongside Lionel Messi. However, the midfielder could still elect to represent Argentina rather than the U.S.

“His performance today did nothing to change my opinion,” Berhalter said after the Oman game. “I think he’s a highly, highly talented player, exciting potential, and I think he showed that today.”

Meanwhile, five members of the U.S. team that reached the quarterfinals at the U-20 World Cup earlier this year have since earned their first senior cap. That group includes Gaga Slonina, a 19-year-old goalie who signed with England’s Chelsea in 2022 (though he’s yet to play a competitive game for the London club). San Jose Earthquakes forward Cade Cowell played on the U-20 team at both the 2022 Concacaf event and the 2023 World Cup and was on the senior roster for last month’s friendlies. Defenders Caleb Wiley and Jonathan Gómez have since earned senior caps as well.

Then there’s Paredes, a Northern Virginia native who came up through D.C. United’s academy and made his MLS debut as a 17-year-old in 2020. A high-energy and creative wingback, Paredes signed with Wolfsburg in 2022 and played in 22 league games while scoring a goal and adding three assists last season, mostly off the bench.

Following the Oman game, Berhalter praised Paredes’ energy and aggressiveness after coming in a second-half sub.

Still glowing after his senior debut, Paredes credited his experiences with youth national teams for helping him reach this point.

“It built me up for this moment today,” he said, “so I was grateful for it.”

Of course, his greatest goals in soccer are ultimately at the senior level, such as playing at the World Cup. Nonetheless, a youth national team opportunity at the Olympics could help him get there.

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