U.S. U-20 analysis
United States U-20 Group Stage preview for U-20 World Cup and Olympic qualifying
The United States national team will open the group stage of the 2022 CONCACAF U-20 championships on Saturday night in Honduras. It is a very important that will serve as qualification for both the 2023 U-20 World Cup and 2024 Olympics in Paris. ASN's Brian Sciaretta previews the Group Stage portion for the U.S. U-20 team.
June 16, 2022
THE UNITED STATES U-20 national team will open their CONCACAF Championship tournament on Saturday in a massively important tournament that will serve as qualifying for both the 2023 U-20 World Cup and the 2024 Olympic games.
ASN had a long piece to accompany the roster release last week.
But here is the U.S. team’s schedule for Group E
- June 18: United States vs. St. Kitts and Nevis in Tegucigalpa (4:00pm EST)
- June 20: United States vs. Canada in Tegucigalpa (8:30pm EST)
- June 22: United States vs. Cuba in Tegucigalpa (8:30pm EST)
If the United States wins Group E, it will face Nicaragua in the Round of 16. If the U.S. team finishes second, it will face the third place team from Group G (Panama, El Salvador, Guatemala)
The Round of 16 team would take place on June 25 in Tegucigalpa.
Should the U.S. team win in the Round of 16, it will face the winner of the runner up of Group H (Honduras, Costa Rica, Jamaica, and Antigua & Barbuda) and the third-place team of Group F (Mexico, Suriname, Haiti, Trinidad & Tobago) in the quarterfinal – with the winner qualifying for the 2023 U-20 World Cup. The most likely case for that game would be Costa Rica, but a lot could change.
This quarterfinal game would take place on June 28 in San Pedro Sula.
If the U.S. team prevails in the quarterfinal, it will then play in the semifinal game for a spot in the 2024 Olympics in Paris. The most likely opponent would be the hosts in Honduras.
This semifinal game would take place on July 1 in San Pedro Sula.
The final is largely meaningless and would take place on July 3 in San Pedro Sula.
How the U.S. could approach the Group Stage
The games are every other day (similar to what they were in 2018, the last time CONCACAF held a U-20 qualifying tournament. In that tournament held in Florida, head coach Tab Ramos heavily rotated his squad during the group stages - and it made sense.
The problem, however, is that in this tournament, there is no ability to augment the roster after the group stages at will. In 2018, Ramos was able to make a series of changes. Here, head coach Mikey Varas can only make replacements after the group stages for injury purposes.
The toughest group stage game is in the middle with the easiest coming first and the second toughest coming at the end.
The most likely approach is that Varas will want to have his best lineup for Monday against Canada with the ability of keeping some key players available for the third game.
The U.S. team has 19 players (Obed Vargas will arrive for the knockout stages) including two goalkeepers. Among the field players, Varas can only swap eight players maximum. So, two field players will always have to start consecutive games and it is extremely unlikely that any player starts three straight games.
It seems like Varas probably knows his core. A good bet is that he looks to sub the core into the first game. Per the tournament rules, the teams will get to make a maximum of five substitutions over three stoppages for the tournament. That should give him the opportunity to keep his team fresh.
If the U.S. team can secure a healthy lead in the first half against St. Kitts, he can gradually introduce some players who will start for the Canada game into the game in the second half. Then develop some chemistry and have momentum heading into the Canada game.
Canada might have to field more regulars for its opener against an unknown Cuban team.
Pending on the U.S. team’s result against Canada, Varas can then decide how to play the final game against Cuba. If Varas team has six points after the first two games, and a healthy goal differential (which is the tiebreaker, not head-to-head), he can then make a decision then as to how to play the Cuba game for the Group stage finale.
It would seem as if the best-case scenario is to play the group stage while using the best players as little as possible for the knockout stages ahead.
To relist the roster here it is again:
GOALKEEPERS (2): Christopher Brady (Chicago Fire FC; Naperville, Ill.), Antonio Carrera (FC Dallas; Frisco, Texas)
DEFENDERS (6): Noah Allen (Inter Miami CF; Miramar, Fla.), Brandan Craig (Philadelphia Union; Philadelphia, Pa.), Mauricio Cuevas (Club Brugge/BEL; Los Angeles, Calif.), Marcus Ferkranus (LA Galaxy; Santa Clarita, Calif.), Michael Halliday (Orlando City SC; Apopka, Fla.), Jalen Neal (LA Galaxy; Lakewood, Calif.)
MIDFIELDERS (9): Paxten Aaronson (Philadelphia Union; Medford, N.J.), Alejandro Alvarado Jr. (FC Vizela/POR; Los Angeles, Calif.), Caden Clark (New York Red Bulls; Wayzata, Minn.) Daniel Edelman (New York Red Bulls; Warren, N.J.), Diego Luna (Real Salt Lake; Sunnyvale, Calif.), Jack McGlynn (Philadelphia Union; Middle Village, N.Y.), Rokas Pukstas (Hajduk Split/CRO; Sillwater, Okla.), Niko Tsakiris (San Jose Earthquakes; Saratoga, Calif.), Obed Vargas (Seattle Sounders FC; Anchorage, Alaska)
FORWARDS (3): Cade Cowell (San Jose Earthquakes; Ceres, Calif.), Quinn Sullivan (Philadelphia Union; Philadelphia, Pa.), Tyler Wolff (Atlanta United FC; Braselton,Ga.)
But that still leaves a puzzle. How will the team lineup? How will the versatility of the players factor into how Varas will use them?
Upon the roster announcement, Varas said that the team is very flexible. For example: while only three forwards are listed, he said players such as Paxten Aaronson and Diego Luna can also float into the attack. There are others too. Caden Clark can play on the front line, as can Niko Tsakiris.
In goal, Chris Brady is the No. 1 but he might not start the first game against St. Kitts. Instead, Antonio Carerra might see time.
Right back, will be a rotation between Mauricio Cuevas and Michael Halliday – who are both natural right backs. Cuevas has been in camp with the U.S. U-20 team more often but Halliday had a strong camp in April to make a case to be part of the team.
There is only one natural left back on the roster in Noah Allen. Allen should be the starter in all the important games this tournament. As to who is Allen’s back-up or rotate with him, that isn’t particularly clear, but it could be one of the two right backs or one of the central defenders.
Central defense options are known, but are one of the concerns on this team. Brandon Craig and Jalen Neal are likely the starting pairing. Marcus Ferkranus will certainly see time and have an opportunity to build his case. Defensive midfielder Daniel Edelman can also play central defense in an emergency situation.
The midfield is an area of the field where Varas will have plenty of options. And while he lists nine midfielders on the roster, most of them can provide cover on the wings or even at center forward (such as Caden Clark).
And on target ???? pic.twitter.com/C7ozYMdRG0— U.S. Soccer YNT (@USYNT) June 17, 2022
For now, the starting midfield trio is probably Daniel Edelman at the No. 6, Jack McGlynn at the No. 8, and Paxten Aaronson at the No. 10.
Diego Luna and Caden Cark could very well end up being starters in key games, but both those players bring versatility. Caden Clark could start out on the wing or in forward. Diego Luna can do that as well, although he might start at the No. 10 if Aaronson starts on the wing.
It could also change once Obed Vargas arrives as it seems likely that if U.S. Soccer is going to go through the effort of striking a deal with Seattle, then Varas has plans to play him.
Alejandro Alvarado, Niko Tsakiris, and Rokas Pukstas are three players who should also factor into the team and could even start the opener. All are versatile and can cover multiple midfield positions.
The frontline lists three forwards in Cade Cowell, Quinn Sullivan, Tyler Wolff. Cowell and Sullivan should factor in heavily. Sullivan has been the team’s most productive offensive player this cycle. Cowell, meanwhile, has been among the better 2003-born players in MLS this cycle. He is big, strong, and physical – which should be tough to stop. Wolff is a bit unknown has he is still somewhat new to the team this cycle.
Here is how things could lineup.
Predicted XI vs. St. Kitts: Carrera; Halliday, Ferkranus, Neal, Cuevas; Alvarado, Puktas, Tsakiris; Wolff, Clark, Luna
Predicted XI vs. Canada: Brady; Cuevas, Neal, Craig, Allen; Edelman, McGlynn, Aaronson; Sullivan, Clark, Cowell
The XI for Cuba will mostly come down to results, performances, health, suspensions, etc. If the team wins its first two, Varas will probably start resting and thinking ahead to the knockouts. If he needs a win against Cuba, he will shift to the best XI
Knowing the opponents
The U.S. team’s first opponent is St. Kitts & Nevis which is expected to be the weakest team in the group. All of its players play domestically with the exception of Micaah Garnette who plays for St. John’s University in New York, and the team has never advanced out of the group stages of the region’s U-20 championship. In 2018, St. Kitts & Nevis posted its greatest ever U-20 result with a 2-1 win over Canada in Florida.
The second opponent is Canada which faced even more difficulties getting players released than the United States did (most notably from MLS teams). In total, 14 of Canada’s 20 players are based in North America while five are from Europe and one is from South American. The five European-based players are still at the youth levels, and none have made their first team debut.
For Canada, this is an interesting test for the development of players from the Canadian Premier League, which is now in its fourth season. Six of the players on the team come from the CPL. The remaining eight domestic players are come from within the various levels of the country’s three Canadian MLS teams.
Canada is a country that is improving quickly in soccer. The most important point, however, is that Canadian teams seem to play greater than the sum of their parts. Regardless of the release issues, the U.S. should expect a team that will fight hard and play with a chip on its shoulder.
Canada’s U-20 team played two friendlies against Costa Rica in April with Canada winning once, 3-0, while Costa Rica won the rematch days later, 1-0.
Cuba is the U.S. team’s final opponent in the group stage. As always, they’re a tough team to figure out as stats on the island nation’s league are tough to come by. In total, 19 of Cuba’s players play domestically. Dairon Reyes, who is based in MLS with Inter Miami, and already has five caps and one goal with Cuba’s full national team.
The United States was given a pretty favorable draw, although the knockout rounds could very well be tricky with Costa Rica and hosts Honduras looming as the likely opponents for the big qualifying games.
For instance, the Honduran U-20 team has historically been very good and the program boasts an all-time record of 72 wins, 18 draws, and 28 losses having scored a total of 242 goals while allowing just 115. Honduras has qualified for the last three U-20 World Cups in 2015, 2017, and 2019 and has made the tournament eight times overall (with the team suffering an embarrassing 12-0 loss to Norway in 2019 when Erling Haaland scored nine goals). Meanwhile, the program is one of the most consistent teams to qualify for the Olympics in the CONCACAF region.
When you combine that with the fact Honduras is hosting the tournament, it should only make the team even stronger.
Meanwhile, Costa Rica is historically also strong at the U-20 level. The team has qualified for nine U-20 World Cups and have an all-time record of 51 wins, 17 draws, and 21 losses – scoring 197 goals and conceding 91.
What’s at stake?
Quite simply, a lot is at stake in this tournament. Youth national teams have historically been very important to the men’s side of U.S. Soccer over the past two decades. When you look at the current senior national team, most of the players have represented the U.S. program at a U-20 World Cup (Steffen, Dest, Richards, McKenzie, Adams, Arriola, Sargent, Weah, Yedlin, Carter-Vickers, Palmer-Brown, etc).
What makes it so valuable is that the CONCACAF region isn’t great, but qualifying for a youth World Cup gives players the experience of playing in a major tournament with good teams from across globe. These players get to experience group stages and knockouts against teams from Europe, Africa, Asia, and South America.
On top of that, now there is the Olympics. The United States has been absent from the Olympics since 2008 when a good team consisting of Stuart Holden, Maurice Edu, Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, Sacha Kljestan, Michael Parkhurst and Brad Guzan all used the tournament to make a transition to the full national team.
This U-20 team has the ability to qualify the team for 2024 (with the United States automatically having qualified for 2028 as the hosts). Olympic soccer is not considered major for Europe, but it is for South America, Africa, CONCACAF, and Asia. It is still a great competition.
It’s important because if this U-20 team success to book a spot in Paris, it will then reopen the U-23 team and will include the 2001 and 2002 birth years. These are two birth years who lost the U-20 experience due to COVID and the Olympics would include them as well as players from the current U-20 team.
On top of it all, the Olympics would be a great way to build up enthusiasm for the program two years ahead of hosting the World Cup. It’s not the full national team, but competing in Paris could help some players build cases to be part of the national team and could get the American public excited over the program.