ASN Exclusive

Nsien discusses progress and direction of the U.S. team ahead of U-20 World Cup qualifying

ASN's Brian Sciaretta spoke with U.S. U-19 head coach Michael Nsien who is preparing his team for this summer's U-20 World Cup qualifiers as they look for their fourth straight CONCACAF U-20 title.
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
May 17, 2024
6:00 PM

THIS SUMMER IS set to be an extremely busy time for U.S. Soccer as the Copa America and the Olympics will draw a lot of attention among American fans. But amid that excitement, there is also another important tournament, the CONCACAF U-20 Championships which will serve as qualifiers for the 2025 U-20 World Cup in Chile.

The U.S. team is labeled as the U-19 team until the fall when it will change to the U-20 team, but this is traditionally what has been known as the U-20 team at the start of the cycle. Leading that team is head coach Michael Nsien, 43, who was previously the U.S. U-16 head coach.

Nsien and his team recently opened the cycle in March in Morocco where his team defeated England 3-2 before falling to Morocco 1-0. Next month in early June, he will hold his second and final camp before the CONCACAF qualifiers which will take place in Mexico.  

The United States has won the last three CONCACAF U-20 titles and has been drawn into Group A. There they will face Jamaica on July 19, Cuba on July 22, and Costa Rica on July 25. Should they advance from that group, as expected, they will play a quarterfinal game that will determine qualification for the 2025 U-20 World Cup.

American Soccer Now recently spoke with Nsien about the U.S. U-19/20 team, where that team stands after its first camp, and its direction heading into a pivotal summer tournament.

Brian Sciaretta for ASN: It's a big couple of months for you. You had your first camp in March and now one next month in June. Can you talk about the progress the team made in its first camp and the direction of the team after leaving that camp?

Nsien: I would say going into that camp, it was very, very exciting and I was very optimistic with the players that we had at our disposal. Just going back and speaking to Marco [Mitrovic] about the group previously, I was very excited about the players that we could have. Also speaking with Gonzalo Segares, and bringing in some players who are a little bit younger into the fold as well - with the potential and some of the momentum they have from the U-17 World Cup. In the camp, we faced two very different but, two well-established national teams in England and Morocco. I would say coming out of the gate, in the match against England, I think I can't ask for more in terms of the individual performance of the players. In the first game, a lot of those guys were new to each other, so I am extremely happy about how they executed. Morocco, maybe the result didn't go our way, but there were definitely also some good takeaways from that. I think that puts us in a good position going into the next camp and then obviously, preparing for CONCACAF.

ASN: You said you spoke with Marco and obviously as his previous job as the U-19 head coach, he worked with most of these players. But I'm wondering if you could talk about how your roster and your overall depth chart are put together? You have a big say, but I am wondering how the collaboration works between you, other coaches, your staff, and scouts at U.S. Soccer?

Nsien: With the Olympics, Copa America and CONCACAF U-20s all in the same timeline, it's definitely collaborative because it's kind of a rolling effect - who Gregg [Berhalter] wants to move up, then in-turn who Marco has thi disposal, and then of course, my group.

I think maybe the individual emphasis on my end. I like very dynamic wide players. I wanted to see a little bit more of that in this last camp. Players who, before you get extremely tactical in enabling and organizing your team, can really break down opposition in 1v1 situation? That was a big objective for me going into this camp is could I identify players that could break down players and break down teams in a 1v1 situation?

ASN: Did you get that? Did you like what you saw? You had some good wingers there. Cole Campbell was very effective in the camp. You might also be able to add Esmir Bajraktarevic later but he's been in the U-23 pool recently. 

Nsien: We want to be able to mix it up. But yes, definitely Cole came in for his debut with the U.S after his one-time switch. He was definitely up for the challenge to show and prove why it was all worth it. I think he made that impact. Christian Fletcher is also very dynamic in a 1v1. Then you add guys that can kind of play as pocket wingers - like Favian Loyola and David Vasquez, just to give us a different look in case we needed to create overloads and things like that on the field. But first and foremost, good players beat players 1v1, and I think we definitely saw that. We have those players our disposal. Then the players that you've mentioned, like Esmir, and others that we could potentially have with this group, they're exciting and potentially electric.

ASN: You have a couple guys who are involved with the U-23s, and they're eligible for your group. Esmir is one, Obed Vargas is another.  Benja Cremaschi has played with the USMNT and the U-23 team. Josh Wydner has been hurt, but he is someone who was at the last U-20 World Cup. Have you discussed with them the potential of playing with the U-20 team in case they're not selected with Olympics? Or are most communications with these players through Marco at this point?

Nsien: My role is obviously how to progress players through - all the way to the senior national team. If there is an opportunity with the Olympic team, that has to be the priority for them at the moment. But if that doesn't come for them, of course they know that they have an opportunity with the U-20s. For us it is to still make sure that they have a pathway all the way through the senior team and would be featured 100% with my group. But I would say either way, it's a good opportunity for them. But of course, I'm sure they have their eyes on the Olympic team as well.

At the moment, that [communication] goes even from senior team with the planning in terms of this players pathway and into Marco and then to me. There have been some light conversation on my end, but more of those discussions are with Gregg and Marco at this moment.

ASN: When you put together the entire pool of players for the U-20 cycle, what do you see regarding the depth of this age group? By this point, you have had a chance to scout MLS, MLS Next Pro, foreign leagues, so you have a solid idea where things stand. Are you encouraged by the talent, the first team minutes, and the pathway to first team minutes from this group?

Nsien:  I would say the overall depth, it's not a massive age group if you just consider the 2005s. But you add the 2006s to the equation, which we're very excited about, I think it opens up the pool tremendously. I'm excited about all of the options. Again, some of that could be split in terms of the U-23s and other competitions. But if I had every one of them at my disposal, I think we could make a not only a good run in CONCACAF, but in the World Cup as well.

In terms of minutes and MLS, it's a tricky age group. We have some players that are getting heavy minutes. Some players are, are not playing enough, but they are in a first team environment. And then you have some players in Europe at U-19, U-21 situations. We really have to do a good job of just speaking to the players individually. Their mindset is extremely important, happy with what they're doing, kind of what their goals are. And hopefully, sometimes when players aren't getting the minutes that we would like, we can put it as an opportunity to come back with the national team, get heavy minutes, kind of build confidence, get their legs under them, and hopefully send them back to their team having given them better exposure and confidence.

ASN: You're the first U-20 head coach scouting MLS Next Pro from the start of a cycle. How are you assessing that pathway to provide experiences you are looking for at this level of the youth national team spectrum?

Nsien: When you look at MLS Next Pro, some of the 2005-2006 [age group] are older players on the team. For me, it's always going back to them and making sure that they take it very seriously. Some of those guys, it could feel like a demotion at times. They have to look at it as a positive. Those minutes are extremely important. Approach those minutes with a first team goal in mind. So those are some of the conversations I have. Different teams with different approaches to that. Some of them go very young and it's not a competition that maybe for some of our players that is extremely difficult. But it's an opportunity to get minutes and their mentality and approach towards it is going to mean more than actually the competition. We just want to make sure that they're focused and are giving 100% - and then they go back to their first team environment and are training at a high level. But it takes a lot of communication to see where players are.

ASN: I guess a good example for that could be Taha Habroune who had a good camp with you in March, but at the Columbus Crew, he's behind players like Aidan Morris and Darlington Nagbe. The U-20 team could then be used to fill in the gaps between the Crew's MLS Next Pro team and the first team. 

Nsien: There's always a concern for what kind of form they'll be in because it can look a little bit of erratic. But I think he's a good example because he came into camp in Morocco and absolutely did so well for us. He was very, very positive in terms of his attitude coming from that. Just the conversations with him and other players going in is that they're hungry. Maybe those minutes at the highest level, they've been starved a bit from that. So when they come into the national team, there's a big desire to kind of get that exposure, improve, and even prove to their home clubs the level they're at. I think as long as that's the attitude, that's okay. But sometimes players are a little bit discouraged, you have to kind of walk them through that. I think Taha is a great example of that professional mindset, how it translates to the national team, and hopefully back to the club.

ASN: Comparing to the start of previous U-20 cycles, you have a tougher job because you had the March camp, you have a June camp, and then you have World Cup qualifying. Previous coaches have had many more camps prior to qualifying to build their teams. There is a lot of pressure for you to get a lot right in these two pre-qualifying camps. Are you going to be able to take any players into qualifying who haven't been part of the March or June camps?

Nsien: There's no denying the camps are massive with only two. The efficiency has to be spot on. With myself and talent ID, that first camp in Morocco, it's who are players that right now we feel we can trust to get the job done in CONCACAF. And in the second camp that we'll have, it's we have to find stronger competition and, with some players that we haven't seen, we have to give an opportunity. Of course, the timeline, it's in a very tough situation where some of the European players are coming off a season and maybe they'll be a couple of weeks of not playing. We have to understand where they're going to be mentally as well. But it's about being efficient as possible, trying to find the right competition.

Of course, there could be potentially a player who just gets hot in the next month or two that shows that he's prepared and ready to take a step into CONCACAF. You also have the nuance of the U-23s and who is available for us. There's a ton of moving pieces over the next month and a half. We have to do our best to get it right. But I think the first camp was a very good step. The second camp will tell a lot about, I would say 80% of what we're expecting for CONCACAF.

ASN: What was your reaction to the CONCACAF U-20 World Cup qualifying draw and playing in Mexico? The format is always tough because, no matter how well you do in the group stages, qualifying always comes down to one game.

Nsien: First just looking at the group. I think it's a fairly challenging group. I think if we control what we can control with the players that we have, we should do well. But that's definitely a group that you can't overlook anyone. We have to be conscious of that. I think the players that I've worked with so far - I actually also worked with a couple of them in Chile at the Pan American Games as well. I think the leadership group, it's going to be a significant part of that tournament because there's going to be a lot of new players that we have to bring into the understanding of our way and how we want to do it. That's going to be a good challenge. The leadership group has shown that they can adapt players very quickly. That's going to be important. And of course the conditions - it's CONCACAF, it's Mexico.  It'll be important that we kind of stick to ourselves, create a good team dynamic, and we take on every challenge one at a time.

ASN: One big issue for every youth coach now is that releases from clubs are becoming trickier. You saw how it affected the last U-20 head coach in Mikey Varas. This summer you will have some guys who are or will be regular first team players with MLS teams, some will be on the cusp, then you have guys in Europe like Cole Campbell and Keyrol Figueroa who could be getting great opportunities in preseason with Champions League level teams. Have you begun speaking to clubs about releasing players for this tournament?

Nsien: My experience so far in these situations is that it can be difficult. It can be uphill at times. I think constant communication with the clubs to see what they're thinking gives you the best opportunity to at least know and be proactive about it. The European based players, I would say a few weeks ago I would have been that it should be fairly simple, a lot of these guys are going into just pre-season. But the ones who are going into pre-season with first teams, that's a different challenge. But at the same time the communication with the clubs is they're going to get great competition [with us] in terms of a pre-season, if they want to look at it that way. The players will be fit and ready going into their campaign - probably as good as or better than they would prepare them because, maybe they're bench players on the first team and it's just more about the exposure. But in terms of form, we think we can help them a lot with that.

With the MLS groups, I would say I'm optimistic. I think our relationship with MLS is good. We have to make our case that it's the national team. We would hope that MLS and all these clubs will support our mission and our vision as well. But at the same time, we're always respectful when it's a good opportunity for the player. We have to put the player's situation first. But within CONCACAF, and the conditions, and the teams that we're playing against, it will be enough to help players continue to develop. And I think that's what everyone wants. We're on the same page for that.

ASN: There is a lot of talk about some players who are still very young for your group and who might be U-17 eligible for 2025.  Top players for this age group would include players like Nimfasha Berchimas or Julian Hall. Are they on the table for you, or are you going to let them kind of stay with U-17's?

Nsien: I think it's definitely discussion. When you're ready and when you're capable, you should go for it. It shouldn't be solely based on age. You mentioned Berchimas. He had a very good last year and it was just like -  man, he's rising a lot. Then he's had some minutes with the first team, and now he's spending a lot of time with the second team. I think it's important to evaluate him as well at this time and see where he's at. I think a lot of his game is obviously built on resiliency and being able to beat players one on one. I would like to know if he could do it at the U-19, U-20 level as well and put him in that situation. A player like him is definitely on our radar. And Julian Hall, those guys are definitely on the radar for us because we need that dynamic. It's about do they come in and do they have the confidence against players of a bit older age? That's kind of that American spirit that we want anyways - you come in a couple of years younger, it doesn't matter. You're here for a reason. Go show us why you're here. Those players are on the radar. They'll get a look, I believe, in the next month or so, and we'll continue to track.

ASN: Overall, it seems like a lot of players with unique experiences to draw from. A player like Benja Cremaschi is playing with some of the greatest players of all time and has also made his USMNT debut. Diego Kochen has made the bench for Barcelona. Keyrol Figueroa just signed a pro deal with Liverpool. Obed Vargas has won a CONCACAF title. More players are coming through, some at big clubs.

Nsien: I would say it's almost been two years for me with the federation. I came in with the U-16s and my first game was against Spain, at the U-16 level. Then we played England as well. The players that are coming through - it's really an exciting time to be an American and to be an American supporter of the sport. I think we can beat anyone on any day. These players that have that experience, I think it's always good for you to see your peers having this success. And they come back and they kind of share their experiences with their teammates. That rubs off. And you hope that everyone continues to grow from that and those experiences. That's something we don't really shy away from in the federation. It is sharing your story. We have probably the most diverse backgrounds in terms of soccer in the world. It's very important that we're able to talk about these things so everyone grows from it. The big part of our culture and what we do. That's always expected when these guys come back is how do you share your stories and how did you get to where you're at? This is the same with the MLS guys. They all have unique stories as well and their own backgrounds. It's always a positive mix.

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