Previewing the U.S. U-20 cycle: decent starting point but a lot of work ahead with little time
December 17, 2021
THE 2023 CYCLE for the United States U-20 national team got underway last month with the hiring of new head coach Mikey Varas and the team’s first camp, the Revelation’s Cup in Mexico. The progress of team continued in December with eight age-eligible players invited to take part in the current full national team camp. Next month the U-20 team is expected to have its second camp.
After the team was essentially dormant from all on-field activities for 22 months from January 2020 through November 2021, it is embarking on a critical eight month stretch which will conclude in the summer of 2022 when the team participates in a single tournament that will serve as qualification for both the 2023 U-20 World Cup and the 2024 Olympics (with the Olympics being a tournament the team hasn’t qualified for since 2008).
While the full national team prepares for its final two windows of World Cup qualifying and continues to be the top story for the federation, the U-20 cycle will also be important for the program’s future. In 12 months, the 2022 World Cup will be over, and the United States will be looking for meaningful competitions ahead of being a co-host in 2026.
The 2023 U-20 World Cup and the 2024 Olympics are going to be important tournaments ensure that the pipeline of young players continues to stay involved in program. The Olympics, in particular, would be a good way to build up public enthusiasm over the program ahead of the World Cup on home soil.
So, it’s important. But how does the U-20 team look six months away from this important double qualification tournament.
The answer? Pretty good.
There are already a lot of players who aren’t just first-team professionals, but impact players. In older cycles having impact players at the start of the cycle was rare.
Also, there aren’t many players who are clearly beyond the U-20 level this cycle. Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Gio Reyna were never going to play in the U-20 World Cup. Tyler Adams was never going to play in the U-20 World Cup of his age group (he only played while playing up an age group in 2017). This cycle, the only debatable player right now is Ricardo Pepi.
On the flip side, there are holes in the player pool. At the youth levels with only two birth years in a cycle, it is often hard to build a complete team with solid depth at every position. Some positions lag with coaches filling the voids with weaker players or players playing out of position.
Here is a look at the various positions and where they stand. It’s not an complete list of the player pool but it is a look at the top players and some of the players who could emerge. As with the U-20 level, the player pool can shift quickly and new players can emerge almost out of nowhere.
The 2015 cycle was the best the U.S. team has ever been in this position with Zack Steffen and Ethan Horvath both in the player pool. Since then, it hasn’t been great and the 2019 cycle featured David Ochoa playing up a cycle. Ochoa would have been on the 2021 cycle too but since he defected to Mexico, the U-20 team hasn’t produced many goalkeepers who have been first-team players at the club level.
This year’s U-20 team is at the strongest starting point for goalkeeping since 2015.
Gaga Slonina has enjoyed more attention than perhaps any other U-20 goalkeeper at the start of a cycle. In August, he became the starting goalkeeper for the Chicago Fire at just 17 and earned three clean sheets (including two against eventual MLS Cup winners NYCFC). He’s shown a nice upside and it is very rare to see a 17 year old earn a starting goalkeeping position on any first team.
This cycle has surprising depth Jeff Dewsnup, 17, has done well with the Real Monachs (and is a Real Salt Lake (homegrown) and could challenge Slonina. Chris Brady, also of the Chicago Fire, and Fulham’s Alex Borto are also strong contenders.
This should be pretty big concern for the U.S. U-20 team at the moment. The U-20 team has been successful in 2015, 2017, and 2019 with three straight runs to the quarterfinals of U-20 World Cups. That success has been built on top central defenders.
In 2015 it was Matt Miazga, Cameron Carter-Vickers, and Erik Palmer-Brown. In 2017 it was Palmer-Brown, Carter-Vickers, and Justen Glad. In 2019 it was Chris Richards, Mark McKenzie, and Abubakar Keita. If the 2021 cycle happened, the starters probably would have been Atlanta United’s George Campbell (who has shown solid promise), and Jonathan Tomkinson (who has been making the bench recently for Norwich in the Premier League). Some of those players earned caps with the full national team but all are, at worst, good professionals. That’s a high level.
The 2023 cycle has some promising central defenders but doesn’t have the strong degree of certainty the last three four cycles have had.
Justin Che has been probably the most highly rated central defender of this age group and he’s currently in camp with the full national team. The problem, however, is that he is not getting many reps at the central defense position. FC Dallas played him at right back and he played both right and central defense while on loan with Bayern Munich’s youth teams earlier in the year.
Kobi Henry has also done well to boost his stock. He played nearly 1500 minutes this year for an Orange County team that won the USL Championship. He had a pretty good Revelations Cup in November and, by virtue of that, was called up to the full national team for the current December camp. At this early stage, he should be considered a front runner for a spot on the team.
Building up depth, or hoping depth emerges, is critical in the next six months for the team. Right now, the options seem to be at the USL level. LA Galaxy II defender Jalen Neal and San Jose Casey Walls struggled at the Revelations Cup but the performances from that camp need to be taken with a grain of salt given the makeshift nature of the team and coaching staff.
But this position needs more work heading into January. Union defender Brandan Craig, Tacoma Defiance’s Cody Baker, Atlanta United's Efrain Morales, and Fort Lauderdale CF (Inter Miami academy) defender Ethan Hardin, and Wake Forest Prince Amponsah are a few players who could be within the pool in the months ahead.
The central defense pool has also been altered by the decision of two players to represent other countries. Red Bull Salzburg’s Bryan Okoh has always been tied to Switzerland and remains a part of the Swiss U-21 team. LAFC’s Antonio Leone, meanwhile, has played for the U.S. at the youth levels but has recently opted for Mexico’s U-20 team.
The U.S. U-20 team is in great shape at left back and this is the second straight cycle where it is a strength (in 2021, the U-20 team would have featured John Tolkin and George Bello whereas in 2019, Sam Vines was cut but he has progressed nicely).
For the current 2023 cycle, the starting job will likely fall to Jonathan Gomez who was recently with Louisville City but will be heading to Real Sociedad in Spain in January. There is one caveat, however, as Gomez could still opt to play for Mexico (he played in Mexican camps in 2021). While he would be in Europe, it is hard to see his club denying his release for youth camps as it would allow him to play in meaningful games throughout the year.
Kevin Paredes is one of the top players in the U-20 pool and has played as a left back for DC United when using a wingback formation. He’s also played as a winger at times and with the U.S. national team in December camp (prior to leaving injured) he played as a winger. If Gomez is on the U-20 team, sliding Paredes into the winger position will get both Gomez and Paredes on the field into comfortable roles.
Aside from those players, DC United homegrown Jacob Greene is an option and was on the roster at the Revelations Cup. Philadelphia Union II’s Anthony Sorenson, Atlanta United’s Caleb Wiley, and Inter Miami’s Noah Allen are all potential options as well.
Normally a very deep position for the United States, right back is thin for the U.S. U-20 team.
The first question will be whether Justin Che plays as a central defender or as a right back. He is likely a starter for the U-20 team at either position at the start of the cycle.
Michael Halliday made first team appearances with Orlando City this year where he played well at times and struggled at other times. Still, that is not a bad starting point for a player of his age group and he should be in the mix.
Sporting Kanas City homegrown Kayden Pierre was on the Revelation’s Cup roster and he is in the mix at the start of the cycle although he could be overtaken in 2022 if he still is with the club’s reserve team. The same could be said for FC Dallas homegrown Collin Smith who had a nice season with North Texas in USL. Smith is at a youth-friendly team in Dallas and could get looks if he continues to perform well.
Mauricio Cuevas was most recently with the LA Galaxy II but is now unattached presumably to look for a move to Europe. He remains a potentially solid option after previously playing with the U.S. U-17 team before the shutdown but he hasn’t had many games recently.
Born at the end of 2004, Erik Dueñas is one of the younger players in the current pool but has signed a homegrown deal with LAFC – where he made two appearances. Within the organization, he was coached by one of the best ever American right backs in Steve Cherundolo. He is in the middle of a long-term injury recovery but could emerge later in the cycle.
Defensive midfield is going to be important for this team but right now there isn’t a lot of depth.
This week, the New York Red Bulls signed Daniel Edelman to a homegrown contract, and it was a big move for both the player and the club. He is a highly rated U-20 player and should get first team minutes with New York next season. As a very good defensive No. 6 player, he is the best player at that position for the U-20 team and he probably will be an important part of the team.
Jeremy Garay signed a homegrown deal with DC United this past year and was part of the U.S. team at the Revelations Cup and played pretty well in the 2-1 loss to Mexico. He has also represented El Salvador but he will likely stick with the U.S. team if that road is open for him and he’s in the mix for the U-20 team.
The Seattle Sounder duo of Daniel Leyva and Reed Baker-Whiting are also under consideration. Leyva might struggle with his mobility and physicality while Baker-Whiting is very young and eligible for the following cycle.
The strength of this U-20 team lies central midfield, both the No. 8 and the No. 10, as well as the wingers.
Philadelphia’s Jack McGlynn and DC United’s Moses Nyeman are the top options at the start of the cycle. McGlynn being part of a trio of Philadelphia Union players on this team, he earned a lot of first team minutes in 2021 and should be playing even more in 2022. Nyeman will need to play more for DC and his game is still rounding out. But his passing is very good and if he can add more defense, he’ll be in good shape.
There are still positions up for grabs in central midfield. Zach Booth (brother of Tyler Booth) at Leicester City and Rokas Pukstas at the U-19 team for Hadjuk Split are in the pool but others will emerge in 2022. Kenan Hot wil have some interesting decisions ahead after leaving the Red Bulls set-up and going on overseas trials. He has spent time with U.S. youth national teams in the past before COVID and played the last half of 2021 wiith Hartford Athletic.
The heart of this U.S. U-20 team is in the attacking midfield positions. This is where the team is deepest and strongest.
Caden Clark of the New York Red Bulls (and possibly RB Leipzig) and the Philadelphia Union’s Paxten Aaronson are at the top of the list and both have shown their class this year. Clark might also drift back into a No. 8 role because he has that versatility. He’s also effective in the press – which Mikey Varas will probably look to use. But both are locks to be on the team and see a lot of minutes in big games.
Quinn Sullivan, also of the Philadelphia Union, is one of the stronger 2004-born players in the pool and he gives Varas an option at the No. 10 as well as out on the wings.
Diego Luna of the El Paso Locomotive put up solid numbers in the USL Championship and had a decent Revelations Cup where he scored a classy equalizer against Mexico. For now, he is in a good spot to start the U-20 cycle.
The Chicago Fire’s Brian Gutierrez is also probably in a good position with the U-20 team and he earned decent reviews for his performance at the Revelations Cup and should be in line for call-ups early in 2022.
Head coach Mikey Varas will probably take January and possibly the second camp of 2022 to explore deeper options. That could open the door for Schalke’s Evan Rotundo, the LA Galaxy’s Victor Valdez, or Tacoma Defiance’s Juan Alvarez – who are all on the younger side from the 2004 birth year.
This is another position of strength for the U-20 team with several players already performing well at a high level.
Kevin Paredes will likely play as winger as opposed to a left back and he would easily be a starter at left wing. The DC United homegrown was a regular starter, when healthy, at the first team level and was strong on both sides of the ball.
Cade Cowell is another player who should feature regularly with the U-20 team and could be a starter. The San Jose homegrown is very physically strong and that could be tough to stop at the U-20 level. One caveat is that he could see time at the No. 9 under Varas given the lack of options at that position.
Dante Sealy is currently on loan at PSV from FC Dallas and is a regular with Jong PSV where he has five goals in 16 appearances and 876 minutes. On top of this, he has worwked with head coach Mikey Varas at Dallas and understands his system – which should give him an edge.
There are other wingers who could play their way onto the team Christian Torres would be a strong candidate, but the LAFC winger most recently opted to play for Mexico at the Revelations Cup.
Colorado Rapids homegrown Dantouma Toure spent 2021 on loan at the Colorado Switchbacks and had a pretty good season. He recently went on training stints at Rangers and Arsenal in December and should be a player that gets a look early in 2022 with a chance of playing his way onto the team.
The center forward position for this U-20 team is very much up in the air. While it is thin, the best overall American for this age group plays the No. 9 in Ricardo Pepi.
Pepi’s involvement in this team is complicated. Right now, the full U.S. national team is his priority and he has started the team’s most important World Cup qualifiers to date. That will continue through the end of qualifying in March (assuming the U.S. team doesn’t have to play in the intercontinental playoff).
But the U-20 qualification tournament is in the summer. Is it conceivable that U.S. Soccer would decide to send Pepi to the qualification tournament to give the U-20 team every chance for success? While unlikely, you can’t completely rule it out. He wouldn’t miss any decisive games for the full national team this summer and looking ahead into next cycle, U.S Soccer is going to want its teams playing in important tournaments building up to the 2026 World Cup on home soil.
The fact that this tournament will serve as qualification for the Olympics could be a deciding factor to send Pepi with the U-20 team and end the federation’s Olympic drought. He most likely won’t play at the U-20 World Cup but the Olympics in 2024 would be a different story. This country loves the Olympics and that would be a great way to build up enthusiasm for the World Cup team.
The gap between Pepi and the next best options is wide right now.
Malick Sanogo of Union Berlin made his U.S. debut at the Revelations Cup and is an option. Once a goal scoring machine at the U-17 Bundesliga level, his numbers have declined at the U-19 Bundesliga level (two goals in nine games, 732 minutes, both goals coming in one game against Werder Bremen’s U-19 team).
Minnesota United’s Patrick Weah was once considered a back-up option but he will be sidelined until late 2022 with a torn ACL.
Missael Rodriguez was on the Revelations Cup roster as a surprising inclusion. The Chicago Fire homegrown is yet to make his first team debut but earned the Golden Boot for the U-19 MLS NEXT Cup Playoffs with a tournament-high six goals in five matches. He should remain in the mix with the U-20 team given the shallow player pool.
Tyler Wolff could also get a look and the Atlanta United homegrown (and son of Austin FC head coach and former U.S. international Josh Wolff) and his numbers were solid with Atlanta United 2 (six goals in 10 games) and he even made a few limited appearance with the first team.
Darren Yapi is a Colorado Rapids homegrown who has spent time on loan with the Switchbacks and previously played for the U.S. U-17 team. He’s now with Arsenal on a training stint and could be an option for Mikey Varas.
It’s clearly not a deep position for the U.S. team as there aren’t many options who are getting first team minutes either at the MLS level or at a similar or higher level in Europe. It might be a situation where Varas has to explore using a player out of position at the No. 9 – such as Cade Cowell.
This is very interesting team that has some players starting off the U-20 cycle in great shape. Paredes, Clark, Che, Cowell, Slonina, Aaronson, and McGlynn have all impressed at the MLS level. There are a number of positions where it looks like the U.S. team should be able to match up well with a lot of good teams.
But there are also weak areas and having a shaky central defense is probably the worst area for a youth team to be unsettled. Mikey Varas will have to manage that situation well for the team to have success. He also needs Daniel Edelman to pan out in the defensive midfield because he can help protect the backline.
The striker position is also not in great shape, but it is manageable. The possible (albeit unlikely) addition of Pepi would change that completely.
Right now, the U-20 team has to be viewed in two segments. From now through qualifying, and (if successful) from qualifying through the U-20 World Cup.
CONCACAF did the U.S. team a huge favor by having the qualifying take place in the summer and also by having it serve as qualifying for the Olympics. Few players should be denied a release to participate. MLS teams have typically been cooperative and Euro teams typical grant players a release in the summer as youth national teams give young players a chance to play meaningful games.
For this qualifying tournament, Mikey Varas should be able to have his top choice of players except for Pepi. If the U.S team is successful, the cycle can continue and Varas can build his team as new players emerge and others fade.
As with any U-20 team, the player pool changes very, very quickly. Players emerge in the matter of weeks and months, while others fade just as quickly. If you look at any previous cycle, the projected Best XI rarely resembles the Best XI come the U-20 World Cup.
Everything now, however, is about qualifying for the U-20 World Cup and the Olympics. Mikey Varas doesn’t have a lot of time and he will only have a few camps to put his team together. He has a decent starting point but a lot of work needs to be done to figure out the players who should be on the roster and to build a tactical plan and team chemistry. There should be enough talent to get it done but it’s far from a sure thing.