5917_isi_ramostab_usmntjd032516210 John Dorton/isiphotos.com
Under-20 World Cup

U-20 Roster Analysis: Stars Missing, Defenders Hurt

Christian Pulisic, Josh Perez, and Weston McKennie will not get a chance to play in the U-20 World Cup later this month, and key injuries along the backline have coach Tab Ramos in a bit of a bind.
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
May 09, 2017
7:55 PM

THERE IS NO SHORTAGE of storylines with Tab Ramo's United States U-20 World Cup roster, which was announced Tuesday. Tough decisions meant that several promising athletes did not make the final cut, several clubs refused to release key players, and there are injuries that have left others in doubt.

Despite all of that, Ramos believes he has a team that can compete at the prestigious youth tournament, which begins May 20 in South Korea.

Expectations are high for this team thanks to its triumph in the CONCACAF Qualifying Tournament—the first ever for this age group—but that competition highlighted several key flaws within the squad. The U.S. team unleashed more shots than any other team in the tournament but it still struggled to score from the run of play. The central midfield has been bolstered by Gedion Zelalem and Derrick Jones but neither has played much with the team during this cycle.

Sebastian Saucedo

On a positive note, several key players heading to Asia are now seeing regular MLS minutes, including Brooks Lennon, Danny Acosta, Sebastian Saucedo, and Tyler Adams.

Josh Sargent Makes the Cut

The biggest story on this roster release is the inclusion of Josh Sargent, the captain of the U.S. U-17 team and somebody who impressed at the recent U-17 World Cup qualifying tournament. In previous cycles, FIFA prevented players from playing in both the U-20 and U-17 World Cup in the same year. That rule has changed and Sargent, 17, will now be able to play in both—although Ramos said there was a chance Sargent might not play in the upcoming U-17 World Cup as he might have “outgrown” that age group.

In a March interview with ASN, Ramos said he was concerned with his team’s lack of goals in World Cup qualifying—despite winning CONCACAF. Forwards Jeremey Ebobisse and Emannuel Sabbi both struggled to finish from the run of play and Sargent’s involvement is a reflection of the lack of quality center-forwards in the player pool right now.

Josh Sargent

It would not be surprising to see Sargent get significant minutes in South Korea as Ramos is talking about him as if he were a special talent. This tournament will be a big test for Sargent, who will be asked to raise his game against older and more sophisticated defenders.

Sargent has yet to sign with a professional club although European teams have been circling the past year and he will be free to move abroad when he turns 18 next February. The safest bet is that he signs with a club either in Germany or the Netherlands.

Schalke & Fiorentina altered Tab's plans

Christian Pulisic was always a longshot to join this team due to his involvement with Borussia Dortmund and the full U.S. national side. But other key players were also denied a release.

Schalke, in particular, changed the dynamic of the squad. Ramos had made it pretty clear that he wanted Nick Taitague and, most of all, Weston McKennie for this team but the Bundesliga club would not release either American. Under FIFA rules, clubs are never required to release players for youth national teams. Haji Wright was another potential option although Ramos seemed lukewarm regarding his involvement.

Schalke isn't just being stubborn without cause: The club just qualified for the Bundesliga U-19 playoffs—thanks in part to a game-winning goal scored by McKennie. Typically clubs let players go to the U-20 World Cup if they are only involved with the club’s youth teams but Schalke takes the U-19 team very seriously and are willing to deny their players the opportunity to play in the U-20 World Cup.

"We didn't get any cooperation from Schalke at all, at any time, with their players," Ramos said. "Both Weston McKennie and Nick Taitague were guys that we would have liked to consider. Schalke was pretty straightforward in terms of [saying], 'Our U-19s are more important than your national team, and so they're going to stay here."

McKennie is a gifted box-to-box midfielder who likely would have been a starter and a key part of the U-20 team. Taitague is a very highly rated prospect but is young and remains eligible for the 2019 U-20 World Cup.

Ramos also indicated that Italian side Fiorentina had proved challenging in its handling of Josh Perez.

Josh Perez

"We had very little cooperation from Fiorentina," Ramos said, though he acknowledged a minor injury to Perez may have been a contributing factor. "A player that we had pre-selected to come to the U-20 World Cup, except we haven't had an opportunity to see Josh with us, I think, in over a year now. He hasn't been released, and that's really difficult."

Ramos said it was a warning sign for young players looking to move abroad that it is not a given their clubs will release them for youth national team duty. Ramos said most of the clubs were cooperative and singled out Tottenham for being eager to release Cameron Carter-Vickers to allow him a U-20 World Cup opportunity.

Injured defenders are key

The U-20 team is built around its defense—it suffocated its opponents en route to the CONCACAF title. In its 1-0 win over Mexico in that tournament, the United States held El Tri without a shot on goal.

But this roster has many concerns along the backline. Yes, Carter-Vickers made the roster but he is nursing a knee injury and Tottenham has ruled him out for the remainder of the season. Marlon Fossey has also been dealing with an injury for Fulham. Justen Glad has not played since suffering an injury in the CONCACAF U-20 final in early March and only started sprinting last week. Erik Palmer-Brown has been with Kansas City’s USL team since suffering an injury in the CONCACAF final.

Justen Glad

Ramos said that he hopes Carter-Vickers will be back to full training next week and it remains to be seen about Glad.

Injured players can be replaced ahead of the first U-20 World Cup game and perhaps Ramos is bringing these players in primarily to evaluate their recovery. But even if the entire group turns out to be healthy, several of the players might be rusty as well.

Ramos addressed the issue in a call with the media on Tuesday and added that there is a chance Glad or Carter-Vickers might not recover in time for the World Cup.

That would be a huge blow because this team needs its backline to have any kind of chance for success in South Korea.

Kunga’s inclusion is Curious

This roster features one true head-scratcher: winger Lagos Kunga. The Atlanta United academy player only earned his first U-20 call-up just last month in London. Even without a professional contract, he beat out several professional players who had spent significant time with the team throughout the cycle.

“He's a younger player that is coming through for Atlanta United who has a lot of energy, speed, and can take players on,” Ramos said. “He's an honest worker. He just has all the tools, I believe, to make a lot of progress of the next one-to-two years. I think he can help us here. Obviously that's why he's on the team.”

It is hard to say when Kunga caught Ramos’ eye to even make the preliminary roster because if it was in 2016, he would have made the roster for a previous camp. Either way, he must have been a standout at the London camp.

What to expect from Zelalem?

One of the most interesting players on the team is Gedion Zelalem. Two years ago, he was a prized dual-national recruit for Jurgen Klinsmann who said he was ready to help the full national team at that time. He played up a cycle for the U.S. U-20 team at the World Cup and looked to be in the future plans for Arsenal.

Two years later, he arrives at the U-20 World Cup after two second-tier loans to Rangers and VVV-Venlo—neither of which worked out. His club situation is up in the air and he has yet to find a situation the past two years where he can contribute on a regular basis

Despite the poor club situation, Zelalem has been training with the team in California and Ramos likes what he has seen, adding that this cycle he sees the German-born Zelalem as a important part of the team.

"Fitness-wise, he's in a good place, and playing-wise he looks very good," Ramos said. "Coming in, I was a little bit concerned with his form and what that would look like, but after having seen him for the last three or four days here at practice, I'm convinced that he's ready to do a great job."

"We're going to rely on him a lot," he added. "Now he's on the older side of the age group and he needs to be one of our leaders. We expressed that to him. He has to be someone that makes a difference for us."

Significant cuts

Beyond Perez, Taitague, Wright, and Pulisic, who were not released by their clubs, Ramos elected not to call the following players.

Jonathan Lewis: The New York City FC winger looked strong in qualifying when given the opportunity but has been passed over since March.

Marco Farfan: The left back from Portland earned four starts in MLS and played very well but the fact that he never participated in any camp was likely his downfall. He was invited to the London camp in April but the Timbers did not release him.

Mukwelle Akale: The attacker for Villarreal youth teams was involved with the team at times throughout the cycle and played well at the London camp. Ramos touched upon cutting Akale on Tuesday, saying this was a hard decision for him.

Brandon Vasquez: After the U-20 forwards struggled in U-20 World Cup qualifying, Vasquez seemed like a potential option since he has been a regular with U.S. youth national teams and was starting to get minutes with Atlanta United. 

What do you think of the roster? Do you like the young Yanks' chances in South Korea? Share your take in the Comments section below.

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