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Youth National Team analysis

CONCACAF sets critical 2022 Summer tournament to qualify for both U-20 WC and Olympics

The U.S. youth national teams have been dormant for over a year and a half. Now things will need to change quickly as CONCACAF has unveiled a massive U-20 summer 2022 tournament that will determine qualifying for both the 2023 U-20 World Cup and the 2024 Olympics. ASN's Brian Sciaretta offers his thoughts on the tournament and whether or not it benefits the U.S. team. 
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
September 16, 2021
9:05 PM

ON THURSDAY, CONCACAF announced that it had made a radical change for its qualifying path for both the next U-20 World Cup and the Olympics. Instead of separate tournaments, CONCACAF will now have a single U-20 qualifying tournament that will determine the region’s spots for the 2023 U-20 World Cup and the 2024 Olympics.

To add a sense of urgency to this matter, this one major tournament will be held this upcoming summer at a venue/location still to be determined.

The format is simple. There are group stages followed by knockout stages. The four semifinalists qualify for the U-20 World Cup. The two finalists qualify for the Olympics.

There are several reasons why this is a massive departure from the past – and several things to think about.


Time Gap

For one is the gap between the qualifying tournaments and the actual events. The qualifying tournament will be in the Summer of 2022. The U-20 World Cup won’t take place until the following year in Indonesia in the summer of 2023. Then, the Olympics won’t be for two years after the qualifying tournament.

That is good news if the qualifying tournament is successful for both tournaments, the teams can spend a lot of time preparing for the tournaments.

If they fail for the U-20 World Cup, the U-20 team will then become dormant for over a year until after the 2023 U-20 World Cup. The Olympic team will then be dormant for many years (4-6 years) until preparations for 2028 when the U.S. team will get to participate in the Olympics as the host nation.


2001s & 2002s sidelined


It’s been a rough time for the players of the 2001 and 2002 birth years. These players were denied a U-20 cycle due to COVID. Now they will not have the opportunity to be part of a U-23 qualifying team.

They are, however, eligible for the 2024 Olympics. So the 2001 and 2002-born players will have to sit on the sidelines and cheer on the 2003 and 2004-born players and then if the kids are successful, they will then get to take part in the U-23 team.

Players such as Tanner Tessmann, Gianluca Busio, Julian Araujo, George Bello, Cole Bassett, Aiden Morris, Konrad de la Fuente, Leon Flach, Taylor Booth, and Matthew Hoppe could take part in the 2024 games in Paris but it will need the 2003s and 2004s to get the team there.


Summer planning


From a U-20 perspective, the decision to have this tournament in the summer before the U-20 World Cup makes a lot of sense. Yes, there is a long gap of time between qualifying and the World Cup – and year is an eternity for teenage players whose form can change in a matter of months. But the summer timeframe makes it likely that top players will get released.

Under FIFA rules, clubs are never required to release players for youth national team duty but if the tournament is in the summer, European clubs would be far more likely to release players (at this point ages 17-19). Even, for domestic leagues it would come at a better time than November, February, or March – which have been used in recent U-20 cycles.


Benefits to the United States


This new format ups the stakes for next summer with berths in two major tournaments on the line. Despite that, this new format is massively beneficial to the United States in its quest to reverse three cycles of failing to qualify for the Olympics.

First, the U.S. U-20 team is far more successful than the U-23 team. The U-23 team often struggles with getting players released as European teams are generally uncooperative and more MLS teams are now dragging their feet because the older players are, the more important they are to their clubs. Plus, there is also the issue that many top U-23 players have also moved onto the full national team.

Meanwhile, younger U-20 players are often still domestically based and even the European-based teams let their teams play when its in the summer. There are also few players that have full national team duty.

The U.S. U-20 team is generally in far better position to compete than the U-23s. History has shown this. The U.S. U-20 team has qualified for 11 out of the last 12 U-20 World Cups (or FIFA Youth World Championship). The U.S. U-23 team has qualified for just one of the last five Olympics.

Now the U.S. U-20 team will compete for qualifying spots in a format that is generally more favorable for them.

On top of that, this U.S. U-20 team will be built off players from a 2003 and 2004 birth year. So next year, the oldest of these players will be turning 19 in 2022. While that is a young age, the U.S. can come close to fielding a lineup of players who aren’t merely starters for their clubs but who are also impact players – Caden Clark, Justin Che, Cade Cowell, Kevin Paredes, Quinn Sullivan and Moses Nyeman. Even at player like Ricardo Pepi will be finished with World Cup qualifying with the full national team and could be used to get the team to U-20 World Cup and the Olympics.


Time to get going


The U.S. U-20 team now needs to get going. The 2003 and 2004-birth year players now have a lot on their plate. The team needs a coach and camps. The last U-20 head coach, Anthony Hudson, is now a full national team assistant and it remains to be seen if he’d be in consideration to return to the U-20s.

The U-20 team is set to play in a tournament in Mexico that will have top competition. ASN also understands there are also camps planned for January and March – and maybe more in between.

The 2024 Olympics are actually an important tournament as the U.S. program will be looking for tournaments to prepare players ahead of the 2026 World Cup where it won’t have to qualify but will need to prepare. Then when you add in the 2023 U-20 World Cup, this is a very important nine-month cycle.

This U-20 team always seemed promising but now it will have twice the responsibility. The stakes are now very high for this group of young players.

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