The Olympic Footy Buzz Continues With A Few Thoughts From The U23 Games Against Aussie

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The New Zealand U23 men just came through a couple friendly games against Australia and in a week they take on the best of Oceania for a spot at the 2020 Olympics. Back in July an U23 selection went to Samoa and won the Pacific Games. Busy times indeed for Des Buckingham… much busier than if he’d gotten the All Whites gig, just quietly.

The Pacific Games tour was definitely more of a get-the-ball-rolling sort of affair. They won and that was great, with a couple players really impressing along the way (most of all captain Logan Rogerson). The games against Australia were a bit more of a test and they came with a much stronger squad as the international window allowed for a few overseas fellas to drop by. Not all those who were named actually made it to Oz, with Michael Woud not accompanying Willem II teammate James McGarry – thanks to the injury he’s been carrying from preseason – and neither Eli Just nor Dalton Wilkins from FC Helsingor in Denmark turned up either with their club in a division below where they’re forced to adhere to international breaks.

Which is fine, these aren’t official games and we already know, plus more importantly Des Buckingham already knows, what all of that last U20 squad are capable of. This Olympic journey is basically a direct continuation from that U20 campaign – you take the team chemistry of that lot of lads as the baseline and then bring in a few older guys from under that 1 January 1997 birthday cut off and build from there. It’s a bit of a luxury, really. Instead of building from scratch we’re building off one of the more impressive youth teams we’ve ever had and what’s more is that the controversial early knockout exit they had at that World Cup now becomes motivation to make a bigger splash at Tokyo 2020.

In fairness there wasn’t a lot we could really learn from the two games against Australia. The first one wasn’t even broadcast at all until some highlights emerged the next day while there was a lovely little livestream of the second game but watching that only kinda made clear that this was far from the finished product we were looking at. For both teams to be fair - although a pair of 1-1 draws are great results for the kiwis, all things considered. So while this article was gonna be more of a look at what the actual Tokyo 2020 squad might look like if we get there… it’s gonna be too long if I go all in on both these angles at once so we’ll just stick to the Aussie games and looking forwards to the OFC qualifiers for now, because there were still a few pretty fascinating subplots to deal with from these two games.

When I say that the final product is a way off, mostly what I mean by that is that if the Olympics were tomorrow and Coach Buck was picking a starting XI then chances are at least six or seven guys who’d feature in that weren’t playing here. A lot can happen between now and next July – hell, we might not even qualify – but as it stands we were missing all the Welly Nix dudes (though they’re back for the OFC games) which means Callum McCowatt, Libby Cacace, Ben Waine, and Callan Elliot in the very least, as well as a number of USA college guys not the least of whom being Joe Bell (but I’ll also throw out some names like Will Ebbinge, Connor Probert, and Alex Grieve as squaddie possibilities), all of the Ole/Torslanda crew which means Nando Pijnaker, Owen Parker-Price, and Dom Woolridge (as well as Just and Wilkins). Michael Woud’s already been mentioned. Sarpreet Singh is a guarantee at this point. Matt Conroy just signed pro in Denmark. You get the drift.

What I think I’ll do next time is compile a list of all the dudes who’ve been involved in these three squads, plus the U20s, plus the previous U20s, plus if there are any other obvious candidates within the age range. Remember they can take three overage players to the Olympics too which could be crucial. I can think of three off the top of my head who would be absolutely ideal given the makeup of the squad but that can wait ‘til next time.

Here are the lineups for the two games against Australia…

Cameron Brown / Noah Billingsley, Hunter Ashworth, George Stanger, James McGarry / Gianni Stensness, Clayton Lewis / Logan Rogerson, Ollie Whyte, Max Mata / Myer Bevan

Subs Used: Billy Jones, Dylan de Jong, Jordan Spain, Dane Schnell, Jake Porter, Lachie McIsaac

Conor Tracey / Noah Billingsley, Hunter Ashworth, Billy Jones, James McGarry / Gianni Stensness, Dane Schnell / Logan Rogerson, Clayton Lewis, Max Mata / Myer Bevan

Subs Used: George Stanger, Jake Porter, Ollie Whyte, Dylan de Jong

A couple notable trends there. The goalkeeping duties were split between the first game and second game with Auckland City rivals Cameron Brown and Conor Tracey each getting ninety minutes. This is the annoying thing here because I can’t really say much about Brown’s performance considering I’ve only seen the five minute highlights and he’s barely involved (nothing much he coulda done about the goal) however Tracey did have a couple of very awkward moments in his game, pulling out the Big Stef at Bristol City footwork and getting caught by Aussie sending multiple attackers to pressurise him a few times and he just never had as much time as he thought he did. Hence an embarrassing goal conceded in the third minute. But Tracey also made some quality saves along the way and that does reflect a strong mindset, not letting one dodgy area of his game affect the rest of his performance. But yeah, gotta be sharper with ball at feet if he wants to go to Tokyo.

Also pretty obvious is that three CBs each played 135 minutes – aka a game and a half – with Hunter Ashworth, George Stanger, and Billy Jones being that trio. There’s a lot of pressure on the CBs with the way this team wants to be playing as the fullbacks are told to push quite far forwards. What that led to in the second game, and maybe the first too dunno, was a very end to end kinda contest with Aussie consistently finding space to run at our defence. But I’d put that more down to the midfield’s positioning than anything the defence did wrong… which just goes to show what a crucial link Joe Bell is going to be for this team. There’s nobody else in this age group who can offer that level of balance both ways.

There were three players who played all 180 minutes: Myer Bevan, Gianni Stensness, and Clayton Lewis. For Stensness it’s probably to do with that last paragraph, seeing as we didn’t have a lot of other trusty defensive mids available. For the other two it’s a lot more funky. Myer Bevan was given a real opportunity to put himself into the mix here and… yeah, gonna reserve judgement on that one until he’s played more. He’s going to the OFC qualifiers so goals should hopefully flow there. Against Oz, from what I saw, he was a bit clunky within a pretty flowing and fluid front four and with a real focus on working overlaps and getting crosses into the box you do want your main striker to be more of a presence… but he played a nice role in the goal in the second game. Also finishing across the board was a few rungs down the ladder from the standard of the build-up play so it wasn’t only Bevan. Anyone know if he’s got a Premmy deal for this season lined up? Or maybe he’s biding his time for another pro deal overseas somewhere.

As for Clayton Lewis, he’s the most interesting case of them all. A muscle injury in preseason for Scunthorpe as he comes into the last year of his contract, with the team having just been relegated to League Two, has him in a massive career crossroads where a strong season for the Iron could cement the next few years of his career and a poor one and he might be back at Kiwitea Street (not the worst backup plan but still not pro footy). Terrible timing for that injury then and with Lewis unavailable (they’ve got a new manager too, different from the caretaker who game CL a run of games late last season) Scunthorpe have started League Two abysmally, losing six of their first seven matches and sitting last as we speak. He had played a little for the reserves on his way back to fitness but suffice to say 180 minutes here was a surprise.

You know what though? He was fantastic. The best of New Zealand’s attackers, constantly involved in all the good things we produced, and he scored a beautiful free kick in the first game. Lewis is also in the OFC qualifiers squad even though that falls outside the international window so not sure what the deal is there with Scunny. I guess they just want to see him playing plenty of games and getting that match fitness up but still a little odd that they’d agree to be without any first team player for an extra couple weeks considering the predicament they’re in. All goods for Clayton though if he can get that confidence up to a boiling point.

Noah Billingsley at right back is definitely one to keep an eye on. Callan Elliot was the incumbent for the U20s but considering every right back in the country these days seems to be a converted winger or midfielder that spot is pretty up for grabs and Billingsley looked really good there in there games. He’s quick and composed and he’s good on the ball and most importantly he seems to make great decisions. Meanwhile over on the left it was cool to see James McGarry getting some time in an All Whites jersey. Left-back’s a spot with a lot of competition but training every day in the Dutch top flight is no small deal. And also shout out to Logan Rogerson for a well taken goal in the second game. Word is that he’s got an Auckland City gig on the way which is a fantastic signing for the Navy Blues.

That’s the squad for the Oceania tournament and the headline in flashing neon lights is that there are four Welly Nix blokes involved, after Des Buckingham and Uffie Talay cut a deal to have them included here but not against Aussie so as to find a nice middle ground that doesn’t disrupt the Phoenix preseason too much. But with the international break over it does mean that the likes of Max Mata and George Stanger won’t be there. Ollie Whyte hangs in there though, as does Clayton Lewis, and same deal with the two UC Santa Barbara boys and Billy Jones at Nevada who clearly don’t mind missing an extra bit of uni. Hey, that’s what video lectures are for after all. Or bribe a mate to take notes, no dramas.

That’s it for the internationally based squaddies (well, Gianni Stensness too at Central Coast Mariners if you count that), the rest all currently doing their thing in Aotearoa as you’d expect for a tournament like this. Which means we have 15 players from the squad against Aussie still here (of whom all but Rob Tipelu and Sean Liddicoat featured on the pitch). There are also ten players who were in the Pacific Games gold medal winning squad (all of whom were also in the Aussie group). Plus seven of this lot were in the U20 World Cup squad including all four of the Nix lads. So there you go, that’s where we’re at. Time to go win some games in Fiji.

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