Ahead of Marbella camp, Varas discusses the U-20 player pool and challenges of the World Cup roster
March 17, 2023
THE UNITED STATES U-20 national team will head to Marbella, Spain for three tough friendlies in its final camp ahead of the U-20 World Cup which opens in May. ASN spoke at length with head coach Varas Varas on the roster for this camp and the overall player pool two months ahead of the World Cup opener on May 20th.
In Marbella, the U.S. team has a tough schedule:
- Wednesday, March 22 - U-20 MYNT vs. France U-20 - 11 a.m. ET
- Saturday, March 24 - U-20 MYNT vs. England U-20 - 11 a.m. ET
- Tuesday, March 28 - U-20 MYNT vs. Serbia U-21 - 9 a.m. ET
The roster contains many of the team’s top players including Paxten Aaronson, Jack McGlynn, Quinn Sullivan, Gaga Slonina, and Kevin Paredes. It also includes promising players who are making strong pushes in recent months such as Darren Yapi and Owen Wolff.
But a big topic for this roster and for the World Cup will be releases. This roster is missing notable MLS-based players such as the team’s usual captain of Dan Edelman of the New York Red Bulls, defender Jalen Neal who has broken into the LA Galaxy’s starting lineup, and Atlanta United’s Caleb Wiley who is the league’s Player of the Week.
Here is the roster along with a long Q&A with Varas about the state of the team.
GOALKEEPERS (2): Antonio Carrera (FC Dallas; Frisco, Texas), Gaga Slonina (Chelsea/ENG; Addison, Illinois)
DEFENDERS (7): Brandan Craig (Philadelphia Union; Philadelphia, Pa.), Mauricio Cuevas(Club Brugge/BEL; Los Angeles, Calif.), Marcus Ferkranus (Los Angeles Galaxy; Santa Clarita, Calif.), Jonathan Gomez (Real Sociedad/ESP; Keller, Texas), Michael Halliday (Orlando City SC; Apopka, Fla.), Thomas Williams (Orlando City SC; Titusville, Fla.), Joshua Wynder (Louisville City FC; Louisville, Ken.)
MIDFIELDERS (5): Alejandro Alvarado Jr. (Vizela/POR; Los Angeles, Calif.), Jack McGlynn (Philadelphia Union; Middle Village, N.Y.), Rokas Pukstas (Hajduk Split/CRO; Stillwater, Oklahoma), Obed Vargas (Seattle Sounders FC; Anchorage, Alaska), Owen Wolff (Austin FC; Austin, Texas)
FORWARDS (5): Paxten Aaronson (Eintracht Frankfurt/GER; Medford, N.J.), Diego Luna (Real Salt Lake; Sunnyvale, Calif.), Kevin Paredes (Wolfsburg/GER; South Riding, Va.), Quinn Sullivan (Philadelphia Union; Philadelphia, Pa.), Darren Yapi (Colorado Rapids; Denver, Colo.)
ASN Interview with Mikey Varas
BRIAN SCIARETTA for ASN: How happy were you with the roster you were able to assemble for this camp? It seems obvious some guys weren't released, but you've got most of the key group. What are your thoughts on on this roster and the games ahead?
Mikey Varas: The roster is strong. We feel really confident that we have top players. Some players weren't released and everybody has a different individual circumstance why they weren't released in terms of whether they're injured or just a non-release because they're playing with their club. But our focus is on the strength of the roster we have now and playing a tough competition.
ASN: And just getting into the roster, some things are interesting tactically too. For example, Darren Yapi. You haven't been playing with a No. 9 too often this cycle. If he plays well, how much could that benefit the team just by having the ability to fill that position? Does that give you the ability to play with a different look?
Varas: Yes, it would. You have to go to the World Cup with as many different tools as possible and weapons as possible to give yourself the best chance of competing. And from the beginning of the cycle, I've always stated we want to play with a No. 9. It's not that we don't want to play with a No. 9, but we want to make sure we put the most talented and ready players on the roster.
So, if a perfect No. 9 profile is not performing up to the standard, we won't put one in just to have one. Now Darren is taking great next steps for this club, and he's earned this opportunity and we're really excited to see him play. In Marbella, we're going to give him plenty of chances. We're hopeful that he can provide a different dimension to the team that I think will really give us a boost.
ASN: Obed Vargas has missed a lot of time. I know he was so important to the team early in the cycle but he hasn't played meaningful minutes since last June because of an injury. What are you expecting from him after missing so much time?
Varas: Obed is a player we believe in long term. I think that's the most important message here. In the short term, which is the U-20's, he had an unfortunate injury that took him out of qualifiers. Otherwise, he would have played an important role. He would have kept playing with Seattle and he probably would have been in a different position than he's in right now. What we want to do now is bring him back in so that we can see him, see what progress he's made, and see where he's at with his return and also help him kind of springboard that improvement.
He's coming back from an injury and these kinds of experiences often give the players confidence to go back into their clubs. We hope that he is at a level that he was at before. At the end of the day, the midfield is a really competitive group to make. There's no guarantees for Obed. But long term? We see him as a long term projection for our senior team. We want to make sure we take care of him.
ASN: How have you seen the beginning of the MLS season go for your players there? I can only assume Jalen Neal, Chris Brady, Cade Cowell, Brian Gutierrez, and Caleb Wiley weren't released because they've all been playing regularly - which is great for your team. Has the start to the season been mostly positive for your players?
Varas: Answering that question from the perspective of the whole roster and not just the players who were not released - of course it's always incredible when you see the young players playing and getting opportunities. I think it shows a clear evolution of where we're at as a country and a league. When I was with FC Dallas in 2019, there was only a handful of U-20 eligible players getting consistent minutes. And now you see not only U-20 eligible players, but you see actually U-18 eligible players, a lot of 2005's that are starting to break through.
So, we're in an important moment in our country. I think now the next step is coaches are giving these opportunities and clubs are providing playing time. Now it's about who takes advantage of those minutes and who actually makes a difference in the games versus just getting into the games. That's the next test for the players. It'll be a strong message that we continue to deliver to the players that if you're getting playing time in MLS, that's amazing. Make sure that you're impacting the game so that your coaches continue to give you that playing time and you put yourself in the best position to make the national team in the future.
ASN: When you talk about being a difference maker, I guess we can assume Caleb Wiley has done a good job in that regard. He's getting a lot of hype now and was the league player of the week last weekend. I know he's not on this roster, how encouraged are you with his development lately?
Varas: To tell you the truth, we've always seen it. What we're seeing now in recent weeks, for us is no surprise. We've always rated Caleb as a player with extremely high potential. He's in constant discussions between myself and the senior staff. Caleb's ceiling is higher than any of us even know. I am happy to see it happening and coming to fruition. No surprises for us. Caleb is a top player and a top human being.
ASN: In terms of releases, I know it's touch and go. Without getting into specifics, are you feeling positive with MLS-based players that, come May, that these guys are going to be released to play even if they're not in this camp or are starting for their clubs?
Varas: It's too early to tell. To be honest, I think it depends. Every club is different. Some clubs have very, very clear philosophical structures, others do not. What I can say is that we're in clear communication with everybody. Nobody's off the table. And we're going to work until the end to make sure we have the most competitive roster possible. Once that roster set, we're going to be confident in the guys we have, and we're going to go 100% with them.
But at the end of the day, I think if clubs look at it from a holistic standpoint, when a national team calls, it's an honor. Right? And for me, from my philosophical standpoint, it's a no brainer to answer that call. It's a once in a lifetime experience for these players. They'll never be able to play in a U-20 World Cup ever again. And from their development standpoint, they're going to get to play the best teams in the world.
Some of these players, it's a historical fact, will never get to play for the national team ever again after this step because it gets harder and harder as you go up the pyramid. So, let these guys have that moment. Then it's great for the club because the club gets exposure for their talent at the highest international level. The players' values go up if they have good tournaments, and it can be an enormous sense of pride for the club's developmental program. That's something that we really honor because they do the daily work with the players. So it's giving them a lot of credit with how they do it. But it's a little bit too early to tell. What I know is that we will leave no stone unturned, and we'll continue to work with the clubs in a proactive way to ensure we have the strongest roster possible.
ASN: Two players who have made the biggest strides in Europe over the past several months are Kevin Paredes and Rokas Pukstas. Rokas is now an integral part of Hajduk Split and Kevin is typically the first offensive sub off the bench for Wolfsburg. Are you confident in their release? Beyond that, in the big picture, what have you seen with their development?
Varas: I am really proud of them. Both of them, again, similar to Caleb, no surprises to me in just knowing their mentality, knowing who they are as people, and the kind of competitors they are, but also what kind of talent they have. They're taking the next steps in their club and doing a great job. In terms of their releases, European teams always release in FIFA windows. For the World Cup, it's still an ongoing discussion with all clubs. It's very similar to MLS.
I think in Europe, all of them have a philosophical structure but they all have different philosophical structures. Some clubs are going to release no matter what, because they prioritize the players value going up over anything else. And some clubs prioritize the fact that they need to qualify for Europe or they need to finish a certain place in the table. All of them do, obviously, but where they prioritize that will tell the final story of who we get from Europe. But again, all the clubs are proactively communicating with us and doing a great job of working to see what we can do.
ASN: This is your last camp before you name the World Cup roster. What do you want? To what degree do you want to know your roster after this camp? How set do you want to be with a roster and the alternates in case specific players aren't released? Discuss your philosophy on roster construction and where you want to be after this camp.
Varas: That's a great question. We have probably a pool of 40 players that were comfortable going to the World Cup with. Then 28 players that we think if these 28 guys are on the roster, we have a very strong team. What I would say is we probably will have a core of 12 to 14 after this camp that we want to have really, really solid and say that if we can have their releases confirmed, and we already know we want them in, we'll feel really good about that.
After that, it'll probably be about monitoring players at their clubs and having that continued ongoing discussion and dialog with the club leaderships. Because there are, for example, at the centerback, midfield, and winger position, there's a lot of competition. There are more talented players than we're allowed to bring.
At the end of the day, we're going to leave players who are good enough to play in the U-20 World Cup at home. It's a guarantee. We know this. So, what we'll want to do is take our time there and really monitor the players, see how they're doing in their clubs before we make any final decision with them. But we will have a core of probably 12 to 14 and then get those last 6-7 players or 7-8 players a little bit closer to the deadline.
ASN: How is it having Gaga Slonina back? Now he brings a little bit of senior national team experience into this group along with his progress at Chelsea. I know he's been in and out of your group because of releases, but what is it like to have him back in terms of his maturity and what does he offer to the table?
Varas: That's a great point about the senior experience. And I'll go one step further. We had Jonathan Gomez, Paxten Aaronson, Jalen Neal, and Cade Cowell and Gaga all with that experience and I think that's going to pay dividends. That's a huge, huge credit to Anthony and his staff for providing those players that opportunity.
But we're really happy to have Gaga back. We have two elite goalkeepers between him and Brady and we know these guys are top goalkeepers and have huge potential. And so with Goga, he brings leadership. He brings a certain winning attitude and professionalism. Our culture is already really strong and all he's going to do is continue to strengthen it. We're really excited to have him in this camp. I know he's really excited. He's been very proactive in communicating with myself and the staff, and he's really excited to be part of this journey with us.
ASN: There are two players eligible for your team who have had serious interest from other national teams. Inter Miami's Benjamin Cremaschi was with your team last year and then played for Argentina's U-20 team in December. Then Espanyol winger Luca Koleosho has spent time with various U.S. youth teams but is now in camp with Italy's U-19 team. Can you tell us what the latest is, on your end, with these players.
Varas: They're both two very talented players. We'll start with Benja. He is a 2005. I've let him know that in the next cycle, he's a very, very important player for our U-20's. For this cycle, he still has an opportunity to play his way in. That'll depend on these next few months. A lot can change with players in terms of playing time at a first team level and how they adapt to that. We can't forget that we invited Benja into a U-20 camp already. We invited him in before Argentina did, and that was a camp that we did side by side with the men's national team.
I think Benja is pretty clear on how we value him and how we see him for our future. I know our U-19 coach Marco has done an incredible job of communicating with the family and also letting them know. So, Benja is someone for the future. He still has a chance now, but we have to take that step by step at the moment.
Then with Luca, it's a different story. Luca has decided to play with Italy. I feel really good about the process that we went through to make sure that Luca understood how we value him and how badly we wanted him in our program. Everyone from talent ID to federation leadership to senior men's national team was involved in multiple calls with him and his family. And we laid out our process and our plan for him. And unfortunately, he decided to play with Italy in the current moment. And that's a choice that we have to respect because it's a choice he made.
At the end of the day, we want players in this process who are all in and want to play for the United States. It's an incredible honor to play for your country. And it's something that I personally reflect on every day. And every time you put on this crest, it could be my last moment. And when it is my last moment, I'm going to have no regrets because it's such an honor and responsibility. And so right now it's about turning the page on that and just focusing on all the guys who are ready to give their blood, sweat and tears to make our country proud.