ASN Exclusive

One month from qualifying, Varas discusses the U-20 team, release challenges, & the player pool

The United States U-20 team is a month out from a massively important tournament that will serve as qualifying for both the 2023 U-20 World Cup and the 2024 Olympic games. ASN's Brian Sciaretta spoke with the team's head coach Mikey Varas about the team's development in recent camps as well as the challenges putting together his roster for qualifying. 
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
May 15, 2022
11:55 PM

THE UNITED STATES U-20 national team is just one month away from opening a critical tournament in Honduras that will serve as qualifying for both the 2023 World Cup, but also the Olympics as well. Head coach Mikey Varas has now had four camps with his player pool and the next time he assembles with his team will be in Honduras.

With the full national team understandably getting most of the attention in this World Cup year, the U-20 team has a massive task at hand to qualify for two very important development tournaments in the next cycle leading up to the 2026 World Cup.

In particular, qualifying for the Olympics has been an elusive goal and the last time the men’s team participated in the tournament was in 2008. This cycle, however, the format is different, and the U-20 team, as opposed to the U-23 team, will be responsible for that task. It’s highly unusual in that the U-20 team begins at the 2003 birth years and younger. The 2024 Olympics will then start with the 2001 birth years and younger. This leaves many eligible players from 2001 and 2002 cheering the U.S. U-20s from the sidelines hoping they open up the doors.

The U-20 program has also been very important to U.S. Soccer over the past decade and the U-20 World Cup has been an important developmental tool in getting top prospects involved in the program to the point they are more prepared to eventually play with the senior national team. DeAndre Yedlin, Erik Palmer-Brown, Paul Arriola, Zack Steffen, Tyler Adams, Luca de la Torre, Josh Sargent, Cameron Carter-Vickers, Sergino Dest, Mark McKenzie, and Chris Richards are among the players in the senior pool right now who played in a U-20 World Cup.

Varas told ASN that he hopes to have his team selected and player releases secured by the end of May. Then camp is set to open on June 9th in Honduras.

The United States was drawn into Group E along with Canada, Cuba, and St. Kitts & Nevis. The schedule is as follows:

  • June 18: USA vs. St. Kitts & Nevis
  • June 20: USA vs. Canada
  • June 22: USA vs. Cuba

From there, the U.S. will then play in the round of 16 against an opponent from a previous tournament consisting of smaller CONCACAF teams. Then the round of eight will be a sudden-death qualifier for the U-20 World Cup. The semifinals will then serve as a one-off to qualify for the 2024 Olympics. Should the U.S. make the semifinals, that path could see them face the hosts, Honduras. The final, however, is largely meaningless.

On Monday, Varas spoke at length with ASN on a number of topics on the direction of his team about two weeks out from his roster being named and a little more than three weeks from the opening of camp in Honduras.


Brian Sciaretta for ASN:  I last spoke to you after the January camp, and since then you've had two more camps - the March camp in Argentina and then a domestic camp in April. Next up is qualifying. Let's start with the March camp in Argentina. You played Argentina to a 2-2 draw and then rallied for a 5-3 win over River Plate. You had most of your top players there. What did you take away from that trip and how did it help you evaluate and shape your team?

Varas: That camp was great. As a staff and as a group we talked about how we felt the camp was perfect because it was imperfect. There were just enough challenges and struggles and just enough good responses to those moments that it was just tremendously valuable to do it at an international level against tough competition because it helps grow a sense of confidence that things are not going to be perfect. But we had good, strong responses and strong team culture and identity that will allow us to persevere even in these tough moments.

You really saw the team start coming together in terms of a culture that we're looking for - in terms of embracing competition, having a growth mindset and being good people. Maybe in November we were just trying to sprinkle the seeds of that and now you're starting after a few camps to see it really come to fruition and the players starting to really drive the culture.

ASN: The January camp had results which reflected a defensive result. First was a 0-0 draw against the Red Bulls and then a 1-0 win over FC Dallas where you were on your backfoot for stretches. The games in Argentina were high-scoring shootouts. What has been the reasoning behind such wild differences in score lines?

Varas: I think that it's just each camp presented different challenges. The January camp where everybody is in the beginning of preseason mode, including all our players - it's natural that the games are going to have a certain flow to them when you're a week or two into preseason coming from a long break. The dynamics are always going to be different. Then you look at the opponents and they're always going to be different. Red Bull was always going to press us really high all over the field. FC Dallas took a little bit more of a measured approach in terms of their pressing. But they're really, really strong in possession and very good at keeping the ball. We knew that they were going to have different dynamics.

When you look at the Argentina trip, we're playing Argentina on the AFA grounds with Messi and the first team watching. Their team was very motivated to play and go after us. We went there very intentional with the mindset that: guys, we're not backing down from anyone. We are going to go out on the front foot, we are going to press high, we're going to press for the entire game and we're going to see what happens. Whether we come out with a good result or we come out with a few extra scars, it's going to be an incredible experience for us to keep building on our ultimate goals.

ASN: The Philadelphia Union players were a big takeaway from March. In the 2-2 draw with Argentina, Paxten Aaronson and Quinn Sullivan scored. Then in the 5-3 win over River Plate, Sullivan scored a hat trick and Jack McGlynn scored another. Combined with Sullivan's goal in the 1-0 win over Dallas to end the January camp, Philadelphia Union players have scored seven of the last eight goals for the U-20 team (six of the seven in March). Sullivan has scored five of the team's last eight goals. What would you say about Philadelphia's big impact on your team?

Varas: It was a very positive trip for them. It helped that with where we're at right now, our major strength is pressing at the moment. We're still improving each camp and each training in terms of dominating a little bit more of the ball. What we have right now is an incredibly relentless and organized press that is pretty hard to beat because we just keep pressing. I think those are within the strengths of the Philadelphia players. That's one. That has helped them. But on top of that, both of these players [Paxten Aaronson and Quinn Sullivan] are top players who take feedback well.

Both of them had feedback after the January camp that although we saw a lot of positive things, they are attackers, and they need to affect the goal. They need to affect scoring situations. I know that both of them were very intentional between camps and heading into camp that they were going to do that. And I was very proud of how they responded.

With Jack, as much as we wanted Jack to get on the scoresheet and he actually did get on the scoresheet against River Plate when he had a really, really nice goal. The main feedback after the January camp to score goals was to Paxson and Quinn. Quinn is a No. 7 and Paxten is a No. 10. Jack is a No. 8. So, Jack scoring goals is great, and he has to do that, but he has to do a lot of other things that we also provide feedback for him on.

ASN: Now the April camp was missing most of what has become your core group. Discuss the objectives going into that camp and the results in terms of what you wanted to achieve?

Varas: The intentions were to make sure we have a clear grasp of the wider pool - an expanded pool of 60 players. Because of the pandemic, there hasn't been programing for the last two years for many of these players. So, the ability to know all the players in the pool is pretty difficult - especially when you start in November and you get a couple of camps and then the qualifiers are right around the corner. We just wanted to ensure that we had eyes open, and we started building relationships with the greater pool. It provided an opportunity for some players that have been core players in the past, but they haven't been able to get called in the last couple camps to get back into the camp.

The objective was to, one, have a better evaluation of an entire pool - a 60 player pool to see if there's anybody who can break through into the roster. And two was to be really clear after having that evaluation of an expanded pool what our depth looks like. Depending on releases, we know where we can go and who we can depend on beyond maybe the first 20 players that would be selected.

ASN: Now that leads to the next question. I'm sure it's probably the toughest or one of the toughest things you have to deal with as a youth national team coach are these releases. Especially as MLS is going to be tougher with the releases than in the past. Gaga Slonina is important to Chicago. You haven't had Cade Cowell since November. Obed Vargas was with you the last two camps, but the Joao Paulo injury and Seattle's now condensed schedule due to the Champions League run makes it harder for them to part with a key player. Caleb Wiley is at Atlanta, and they have been tougher with releases. How are things going right now in terms of your discussions to have everyone available?

Varas: That's a great question. I would start with the relationships that we're building with the MLS clubs have been really positive. The MLS clubs want to support us. They want to see the country do well. They also want to see their players do well and their young players develop. From a proactive relationship standpoint, things have been really positive. Now the circumstances are always tricky, right? For Gaga, who plays every minute of every game for Chicago, at the end of the day, Chicago is a professional club that needs to win games to do well. Dates? How many games they would miss during a certain camp? A factor we had to take into consideration is during the camp, how many games might an MLS starter miss for their club? And that's something that we've been very intentional about working with clubs on. And trying to find - not to compromise but find the right mix of being released or not.

And all the clubs have been very supportive. It doesn't help that CONCACAF doesn't utilize a single day of a two-week FIFA window for the tournament. A lot of the MLS teams have four to six games during the qualifiers. That's a big chunk of their season. That being said, we're working with every single club, having proactive discussions and conversations, building that relationship, and finding the right solution. At the end of the day, the individual player development is the number one factor for both club and country when we're weighing all of these decisions.

ASN: I want to ask about Obed Vargas only because the last time we spoke, you actually revealed to me what you were talking about with him during the exit interview from the January camp. You wanted him to get minutes with Seattle, make positive impacts, and get big experiences. It's safe to say he's checked all those boxes. Now the Joao Paulo injury complicates things for Obed because he is needed by Seattle far more than anticipated. A lot is being asked of him now at just the age of 16.  What has it been like to watch his development the past three months?  Does his role in Seattle with Joao Paulo's injury change the hopes that he might be able to play with your team in June's qualifiers?

Varas: It's a resounding yes that he checked all the boxes. We're really proud of Obed and the process that he's gone through of coming in as a younger player. We put quite strong demands on him. The feedback was very direct, and we gave him plenty of support, but we certainly challenged him. He's in a club that supports young player development and believes that if you're ready and you're good enough to play, you'll play. And I really respect that. It's a similar philosophy that we have with our federation. Does it matter if he's a 2005-born, or 2004 or 2003? If he's good enough, he will play. Nothing will be given to him. He'll have to earn it. He'll have to show that he's ready. But he's done all of that.

With Joao being hurt, clearly he's their starter - and yes, that does complicate things. The approach that we're taking is that these are presenting challenges that then present opportunities. We're not trying to dwell too much on what a bummer it is. Moreso, we're looking at it as an opportunity. One, how can we create a situation where maybe Obed can still participate? And if he's not able to participate, it's an opportunity for another player in the pool to step up and help the country qualify for the U-20 World Cup and hopefully the Olympics as well.

And at the end of the day, we can look at that and we can find the silver lining that Obed, one of our top priorities for the future of our program, is playing important games week-in, week-out as a starter and we can bring another player in to help the team qualify and help that player gain experience and valuable development as well.

ASN: How is the how is the talk with the European-based players? You have a Justin Che, Kevin Parades, Dante Sealy, maybe Jonathan Gomez - what is the process for getting them released? European preseason is starting early. Historically that was always a tricky thing with the U-20 team and getting the involvement of European-based players. Many clubs have been reluctant.

Varas: I think that the timing of the tournament, again with CONCACAF not utilizing the FIFA window, actually puts a strain on the clubs and the players - even from Europe. Because basically they finished this last weekend and they're off until late June, around June 20th. Since it's a World Cup year, everyone's starting a pre-season early. So now they have this long break right now and then during the FIFA window, nothing is done.

The tournament starts June 18th, right when their pre-season is starting. What you have to understand is that a lot of these young players are looking to break into their first team and being part of an entire pre-season is really important. I think that in the future, CONCACAF should consider using that two week window because that two week window, the tournament could have ended a week before pre-season kicked off. I think all the clubs would have been very supportive. But now they're in a tricky situation where they want to be a part of their pre-season because they're not established players on their team. Every moment they get to compete with them is really important.

ASN: Regarding this, have any of the players been ruled out?

Varas: No one has been ruled out. We are just in ongoing discussions and communications. It is the same with the MLS clubs, the international clubs at the end of the day want the best thing for their player. We're in dialog right now about how that looks and if it can work out.

ASN: The last time I spoke with you also you felt like the central defense was improving despite no one in the pool there having broken through at a first team level. You said the No. 9 position was your biggest concern at the moment. How have things been going in those two fronts?

Varas: We're always optimistic because, again, these these challenges present opportunities to find different solutions for other players to step up. We still don't have a traditional No. 9 in the pool. And nobody has stepped up to say as a more traditional No. 9 that I'm more ready than the talented winger pool that we have, for example. So as of right now, we're still going to be winger heavy and use players who can fit into that position and do a good job.

ASN: In terms of scouting the opponents for qualifying - how has that been? I understand the path to the Olympics might have to run through the Honduran team in Honduras. Discuss the draw, the scouting and how you feel about the team going into the tournament?

Varas: From a scouting perspective, it's going to be a beautiful challenge because you play in Honduras in the summer. It's a CONCACAF experience. These are experiences that these young players need if we're going to fulfill our ultimate goal of preparing them for the future and qualifiers with the men's senior team. All the teams are going to be competitive in their own way. The field will present challenges, the heat will present challenges, the opponent will present challenges. The logistics of transportation and just the facilities will present challenges. And they're all ones that we welcome because we know we're going to grow tremendously during that.

From a scouting perspective, we're making sure that we scout every opponent. We're giving priority to the ones that we are for sure are going to be facing in the first round and likely in the next rounds. We will be using a pretty wide, extensive scouting network that will help us get a good idea of all the teams so that we're prepared, no matter what.

ASN: Because situations change with players, the last time you said you weren't counting on Ricardo Pepi. Is that is that still the case, even though Gregg Berhalter has indicated recently he might not be in camp with the full national team in June. I know he still has Augsburg's preseason but has there been any dialog with him given you need for a true No. 9?

Varas: All I would say is that as long as Ricardo is with the senior team and Ricardo is in the equation, then we don't think about Ricardo with the 20's. He's made that next step. But development is non-linear and fluid. It's not to say things couldn't change if it's in the best interest of Ricardo's individual development. But as of until that point, he's on the men's team and we're supporting that 100%.

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