U.S. U-20 analysis

Analysis: Varas names U-20 World Cup roster, taking risks with eyes towards knockouts

U.S. U-20 head coach Mikey Varas announced his World Cup roster and, in addition to the troubles of securing releases for top players, the big story is that he is taking a risk for the group stages that he hopes will payoff in the knockouts. ASN's Brian Sciaretta breaks it down.
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
May 10, 2023
12:25 PM

UNITED STATES U-20 head coach Mikey Varas unveiled his roster for the 2023 U-20 World Cup. This will be the first World Cup tournament for the U-20 team under Varas and putting together the team was difficult given that most clubs are still in season and player releases are non-mandatory.

In the end, Varas struggled for player releases, but he still got most of what he wanted. The biggest absence was Paxten Aaronson who was the Golden Boot winner last year at the CONCACAF Championships. Then Aaronson’s top backup in Brian Gutierrez was also not released by Chicago and the team’s top central defender all cycle, Jalen Neal, was also not released by the Galaxy.

The U.S. team was drawn into Group B and will begin play on Saturday, May 20 against Ecuador. Then the team will play Fiji on May 23, and finally will conclude group play against Slovakia on Friday, May 26. All games will be at 2pm EST.

Here is the roster along with some thoughts.

The Roster


GOALKEEPERS (3): 21-Alexander Borto (Fulham/ENG; South Plainfield, N.J.; 2/0), 12-Antonio Carrera (FC Dallas; Frisco, Texas; 4/0), 1-Gaga Slonina (Chelsea/ENG; Addison, Ill.; 5/0)

DEFENDERS (7): 17-Justin Che (Hoffenheim/GER; Dallas, Texas; 6/0), 5-Brandan Craig (Philadelphia Union; Philadelphia, Pa.; 10/1), 2-Mauricio Cuevas (LA Galaxy; Los Angeles, Calif.; 13/1), 14-Marcus Ferkranus (LA Galaxy; Santa Clarita, Calif.; 11/0), 13-Jonathan Gomez (Real Sociedad/ESP; Keller, Texas; 6/0), 3-Caleb Wiley (Atlanta United FC; Atlanta, Ga.; 5/0), 4-Joshua Wynder (Louisville City FC; Louisville, Ky.; 2/0)

MIDFIELDERS (7): 6-Daniel Edelman (New York Red Bulls; Warren, N.J.; 10/0), 10-Diego Luna (Real Salt Lake; Sunnyvale, Calif.; 16/4), 8-Jack McGlynn (Philadelphia Union; Middle Village, N.Y.; 16/2), 20-Rokas Pukstas (Hajduk Split/CRO; Stillwater, Okla.; 12/1), 15-Niko Tsakiris (San Jose Earthquakes; Saratoga, Calif.; 5/3), 18-Obed Vargas (Seattle Sounders FC; Anchorage, Alaska; 4/0), 16-Owen Wolff (Austin FC; Austin, Texas; 3/1)

FORWARDS (4): 9-Cade Cowell (San Jose Earthquakes; Ceres, Calif.; 7/2), 11-Kevin Paredes (Wolfsburg/GER; South Riding, Va.; 6/2), 7-Quinn Sullivan (Philadelphia Union; Philadelphia, Pa.; 15/7), 19-Darren Yapi (Colorado Rapids; Denver, Colo.; 3/0)


Varas’ big gamble


The big takeaway from this roster announcement is that Mikey Varas is taking calculated gamble with the roster. His initial requests for players to be released the entire tournament saw a lot of denials. In fact, Hajduk Split even went so far as to announce on their official twitter feed that they denied the release of Rokas Pukstas on May 4. Pukstas has become a regular starter for Hajduk Split and that club as the Croatian Cup final on May 24.

Then the Chicago Fire announced that Brian Gutierrez was not released. There were also reports about Noel Buck being denied. On top of that, it was always dicey that star winger Kevin Paredes would be released as he had been a regular with Wolfsburg this season as an offensive substitute. Then there was the Paxten Aaronson news on Tuesday that he was not being released.

As opposed to simply taking the next best player available, Varas decided to take some risks and keep spots on the roster open for the group stages and allow some players just to join for the knockouts. There are only so many spots a manager can afford to keep open for a group stage, but Varas has opted to hold open spots for Paredes and Pukstas.  

Combined with the fact that the team was already shorthanded in the opening game against Ecuador before the late arrivals given Cade Cowell’s suspension (due to the postgame brawl with Costa Rica last year in qualifying) and that Niko Tsakiris has been injured since February and hasn’t played a game since then, this is a gamble.

Against Ecuador in the opening game, the U.S. team will have just 15 field players – including the only recently recovered Tsakiris.

What Varas wants is the best possible team he could get for the knockouts. He could have just taken the best available team right now, but he decided to go for it. Iinstead, he is opting to go shorthanded in the group stage to have the best team possible in the knockouts.

Of course, he must get to the knockouts to get these players and going shorthanded in the group stage puts the team at a disadvantage. But with four of the six third place teams advancing and the U.S. team drawing a minnow in Fiji into its group, it doesn’t seem like a reckless gamble. Three points with a decent goal differential could potentially be enough to advance. If the U.S. pounds Fiji and takes close losses to Ecuador and Slovakia, there is a good chance it goes through.

It’s a gamble early with the hopes that the team will get a big boost in the knockouts.


Defensive spine the key


The key to the U.S. team advancing is likely on the defensive side. Team captain and defensive midfielder Daniel Edelman is very important to the team’s success. A big reason for this is that there is a big drop-off between him and the next No. 6 in the lineup, the young Obed Vargas who is playing up a cycle and missed the second half of 2022 and the first quarter of 2023 due to injuries.

Edelman is important to the leadership of this team and in protecting the team’s defensive spine. Part of the reason why the team struggled in March in Spain (losses to France and England) is because Edelman was not there.

Edelman will sit in front of a central defense pairing that is likely Brandan Craig and Josh Wynder, who is also playing up a cycle. With Jalen Neal not released and Wynder having his stock take off over the past year, it will be a huge opportunity for Wyndner – who is signing for Benfica after developing with Louisville City.

In front of those three, Gaga Slonina will be in goal and he brings more experience with him to the U-20 World Cup than any other teenage American goalkeeper in recent history.

The front five (the No. 8, No. 10, two wingers, and the forward) are going to be rotated and it doesn’t seem clear what the top options are yet there – given the releases. But if Slonina, the central defenders, and Edelman can play well, the U.S. team should be in good shape.


How will the U.S. team play?


The U.S. team has played almost exclusively with a 4-3-3 this entire cycle. But could the roster limitations force a different formation? It’s possible and Varas declined to answer if there was another formation that he’d be willing to use.

The 4-3-3 formation remains the most likely and the starting lineup for the Ecuador game almost picks itself.

  •        GK: Slonina
  •        RB: Mauricio Cuevas
  •        CB: Brandan Craig
  •        CB: Josh Wynder
  •        LB: Jonathan Gomez
  •        CM: Dan Edelman
  •        CM: Jack McGlynn
  •        CM: Owen Wolff
  •        LW: Caleb Wiley
  •        RW: Quinn Sullivan
  •        CF: Darren Yapi


That would leave Diego Luna, Niko Tsakiris, Markus Fekranus, Obed Vargas, Justin Che, and the two backup goalkeepers on the bench.

Moving forward in the group stage, Cowell’s return offers up some more flexibility. Plus, it will be important to see the progress of Tsakiris and how Justin Che is performing after a long injury layoff as well.

Varas also indicated on Wednesday that he like’s Wiley’s ability to play the wing, and that makes sense against Ecuador with Paredes and Cowell out.

One of the differences between this U-20 roster now and the one that played in qualifying is that Yapi gives the team a different look. Varas often went without a No. 9 for most of the cycle since he didn’t like his options. But Yapi’s emergence in 2023 with Colorado and then with the U-20 team in March gave the team a true No. 9. Now it comes down to providing him service. If the team is able to utilize the a true No. 9, it should help fill the void left by Aaronson’s absence.


Notable absences


There is a lot of talk about releases. We know that Neal, Aaronson and Chris Brady weren’t release while Buck may night have been released. We also know Ricardo Pepi is age eligible but has moved onto the first team. But who else is not here that could have been a coach’s decision?

Benja Cremaschi: versatile Inter Miami midfielder was not on the roster despite playing with Argentina’s U-20 team in December and the U.S. U-20 team in October. He is eligible for next cycle and that was always going to be his main cycle. Inter Miami would have released him, but he either was not selected by Varas or he declined due to hope with Argentina next cycle.

Caden Clark: The RB Leipzig midfielder had had injuries but has also not yet played for Leipzig in the Bundesliga. He has been an unused substitute at times. But next week will be the eight-month anniversary of his last game. He’s talented but his lack of playing put him in a bad position, especially on a roster where Varas will be shorthanded in group play.

Alejandro Alvarado: The Vizela midfielder had a good CONCACAF U-20 tournament last year but has struggled in subsequent U-20 camps and has not made an impact at Vizela (only 65 first team minutes all season).

Michael Halliday: The Orland City right back was a bit of a surprise to not make the roster given that he has had a strong start to 2023 with Orlando, he has played with the U.S. U-20 team a lot this cycle (including at qualifying), and the other right backs in Mauricio Cuevas and Justin Che have both struggled for minutes.

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