U.S. U-20 analysis
Projecting the U.S. U-20 World Cup team and looking at the current player pool
October 04, 2022
LAST WEEK THE UNITED States U-20 team wrapped up a relatively successful Revelations Cup where the team convincingly defeated Peru and Paraguay while losing a close game to Mexico despite controlling almost the entire game.
Coming off winning the 2022 CONCACAF U-20 Championship to qualify for both the 2023 U-20 World Cup and the 2024 Olympics, this team is in great shape and head coach Mikey Varas has correctly identified already most of the team he will take to Indonesia next year for the U-20 World Cup which will run from May 20 – June 11, 2022.
There is still a lot of time where things could change, of course, as youth soccer is prone to sharp fluctuations in form. But compared with U.S. U-20 teams of the past, it is easy to see where this team is heading.
There also isn’t too much time for things to change. The U.S. U-20 team will likely hold a camp in conjunction with MLS-based players who are in the senior national team pool. But players who are in the MLS playoffs will be limited (and that will be an important part of the team missing). Then there will likely be a January camp, a March camp, and then a pre-World Cup camp in May. The early end to the MLS season in 2022 due to the World Cup only has one camp in the early 2023 season for players out of the picture to build their case.
But all things considered, Varas probably can safely narrow down his player pool to 30 players right now to select his team. He can, of course, expand it if there is a late emerger but he doesn’t need to scramble.
As of October 2022, here is what I project the 21-player U.S. U-20 World Cup team will be along with thoughts of why I think the current players are inside of the roster, why I think they’ll be released, and who I think could be pushing for an inclusion in the months ahead.
Projected U.S. U-20 World Cup roster
Goalkeepers (3): Gaga Slonina, Chris Brady*, Antonio Carrera
Fullbacks (4): Mauricio Cuevas*, Caleb Wiley*, Jonathan Gomez, Justin Che
Central defenders (3): Brandan Craig*, Josh Wynder, Jalen Neal
Midfielders (6): Daniel Edelman*, Obed Vargas, Jack McGlynn*, Caden Clark, Paxten Aaronson*, Alejandro Alvarado
Attackers (5): Quinn Sullivan*, Diego Luna*, Cade Cowell, Kevin Paredes*, Brian Gutierrez
The * denotes players I believe are core members and essential to the team.
The U-20 World Cup requires three goalkeepers to be selected. Chris Brady was the top starter in the CONCACAF Championships and at the Revelations Cup. He is going. The big discussion will center around Gaga Slonina who was selected for the CONCACAF Championships but was not released by Chicago. Now that he will be heading to Chelsea after this season, I think it increases his chances for being released to the U-20 World Cup. It will be during the European off-season and since he will not be a Chelsea starter, the club will want him to get these games. He becomes an obvious lock.
The third goalkeeper will either be FC Dallas homegrown Antonio Carrera or Fulham’s Alex Borto. This is a coinflip but given Carrera was there in qualifying, we can give the edge to him but it is a total tossup.
Marucio Cuevas plays for the reserve team of Club Brugge (Club Nxt in Belgium’s second tier) but is highly regarded by Mikey Varas. He was a co-captain in the CONCACAF Championships and has been a regular member.
Caleb Wiley and Jonathan Gomez are the top two left backs in the U.S. U-20 player pool although neither were there in the CONCACAF Championships due to release and commitment issues. Instead, Noah Allen was brought in and played relatively well.
But Gomez looks to be in the U.S. camp now and it that looks like an easy decision given that Mexico failed to qualify for the U-20 World Cup and the Olympics while the U.S. is in both. Given that he is not in the first team at Real Sociedad and the U-20 World Cup is in the Spanish offseason, a release should be easy. Caleb Wiley outperformed Gomez at the Revelations Cup although it is a neck and neck battle who starts in Indonesia. The good news for Wiley is that Atlanta United seems to be softening its stance in releasing players for important youth national team events.
Justin Che is in a tough situation with his club on loan at Hoffenheim and he likely will make a move in January. He’s not a lock to make the U-20 World Cup team (Michael Halliday is his prime competition at right back) but he provides cover as both a back-up right back and a backup center back. This allows Varas a comfortable choice to bring only three central defenders.
At the CONCACAF Championships, the Revelations Cup, and pretty much for this entire cycle, Varas has used Marcus Ferkranus, Brandan Craig, and Jalen Neal as his three central defenders. Thus far they have gotten the job done.
Brandan Craig has been the best of the bunch and he was a top performer at the Revelations Cup. In addition to defending, his set piece deliveries have been a big source of the team’s offensive chances. Jalen Neal has also played well with this team. While Varas would love for Neal to start getting minutes with the Galaxy, for now he is on the team.
One issue that is emerging is the rise of Josh Wynder at Louisville City who is playing terrific soccer and will likely make a huge move to Europe next year. Wynder is highly regarded and even captained the U.S. U-19 team last month at the Slovenia Nations Cup. Wynder, a 2005-born player, is actually eligible for the next U-20 cycle but he is the top central defense prospect in U.S. Soccer at the youth national team level. If he forces his way onto the team, which seems like it has a good chance of happening, Marcus Ferkranus is likely the one forced out. Ferkranus hasn’t been bad for the U.S. U-20 team this cycle, but he could be the odd-man out.
Some of the midfielders pick themselves at this point as obvious locks. Starting defensive midfielder Daniel Edelman wears the team's captain’s armband whenever he is on the field. Jack McGlynn is one of the team’s best players. Paxten Aaronson might not play in the midfield, but for now I have him as a No. 10 and he was the leading scorer and the Player of the Tournament at the CONCACAF Championships.
Obed Vargas is in neck and neck battle with Rokas Pukstas for the other No. 6 behind Edelman. Varas has spoken so highly of Vargas and Varas kept a spot open for him in the group stages during the CONCACAF Championships (playing with only 19 players) that it seems like Vargas has the spot to lose. But Vargas hasn’t played since June due to a back injury and whether he makes the team will come down to his recovery in 2023. He’s a young player, born in 2005 and is eligible for next cycle, but if he recovers well, he seems like he’d be in the driver’s seat. Otherwise, it is Pukstas.
Caden Clark hasn’t played a lot of minutes with the Red Bulls but has been doing better in recent months. He is still a versatile player who gives Varas cover in different roles and has been there throughout the cycle.
Alejandro Alvarado was solid in the CONCACAF Championships but didn’t have a good Revelations Cup. His minutes at Vizela are irregular and he is still searching for a role. He’s still on the inside of the bubble of the U-20 team but his grip probably isn’t strong if other players continue to emerge (Niko Tsakiris is certainly one who could be aiming for Alvarado’s spot).
Like in the midfield, some of the attacking picks are obvious. Quinn Sullivan has been the team’s leading scorer all cycle and continued to play well at the Revelations Cup. Diego Luna might not be a starter and his defense and pressing aren’t great, but he creates chances effectively with this team. Kevin Paredes wasn’t released by Wolfsburg for the CONCACAF Championships, but Varas has spoken very highly of the former DC United homegrown winger. The U-20 World Cup is in the Bundesliga offseason and Wolfsburg would probably be happy to see Paredes get important minutes during this time frame.
Brian Gutierrez played well at the Revelations Cup and Varas wanted him for the CONCACAF Championships, but Chicago didn’t release him. A big factor for Gutierrez is that he is also playing great soccer with Chicago to end the season. He is setting himself up for a big 2023 season. When looking at the trajectory of players, he’s one on the rise.
Cade Cowell is a player that could be in a bit of trouble. I still have him on the team but his season at San Jose has been decent, but not spectacular. The issue for him is that Varas still has been opting to go without a No. 9. But if Varas wants to opt to resume his look for a No. 9 or bring in another attacker (or even another midfielder, which could then list Aaronson as an attacker), it puts Cowell as the player potentially to get bumped. When looking at his performances at the CONCACAF Championships, he seemed to be behind Sullivan, Aaronson, Luna. Then when looking at the form of Paredes and Gutierrez at their clubs and at the Revelations Cup, he might be drifting towards the outside.
Still, Cowell is talented and is very physically strong. That could make him very difficult for defenders to contain him at the youth level such as the U-20 World Cup.
There are two players who aren’t quite yet in the pool but are clearly good enough. There are just other issues surrounding them. If situations change they become players who could play a huge role in Indonesia.
Ricardo Pepi: The Groningen forward is focused on trying to make the full national team’s World Cup roster and has been very good since moving to the Eredivisie at the end of the summer window. Mikey Varas was Pepi’s coach at the FC Dallas academy. If Pepi wants to play for this team next summer and U.S. Soccer agrees, it would instantly give this team the No. 9 it needs.
Luca Koleosho: the Espanyol winger has already made his debut in La Liga. Born and raised in Connecticut and developed in New York, Koleosho would be a likely instant starter on the wings. But he also has Canadian citizenship through his mother (who was born in Canada to Italian parents). Canada has been in hot pursuit of Koleosho and invited him to camps in June and then last month in September (he did not appear for Canada in any friendly).
U.S. Soccer is in pursuit of Koleosho but Canada’s card is to invite him to the World Cup. If they don’t it becomes wide open because Canada can’t offer him a spot at the U-20 World Cup or the Olympics because they didn’t qualify for either. The U.S. team, however, qualified for both. The fact that Koleosho is still yet to play for Canada makes it seem like it is unlikely he makes their World Cup team for Qatar. But we will see.
Key Bubble Battlers
There are still several players with a very good chance to make the U.S. U-20 World Cup team outside of the ones I listed above. Here are the main ones I see right now with a realistic chance of being on the U-20 World Cup team next year.
Niko Tsakiris: The San Jose homegrown midfielder is young (born in 2005 and eligible for the next U-20 cycle) but was with the team for the CONCACAF Championships and the Quakes denied his release for the Revelations Cup. The addition of Gutierrez and Paredes to the team (neither were at the CONCACAF Championships) bumped him from my team, but he has been playing great soccer recently. He is within striking distance of making it to Indonesia.
Obviously a bad night in a bad season for the San Jose Earthquakes last night... but this is a wonderful pass from Niko Tsakiris (17).— Tom Bogert (@tombogert) September 25, 2022
Excited to see the impact of Luchi Gonzalez on Tsakiris, Cade Cowell, Cruz Medina & others next year. A lot of talent coming through the academy pic.twitter.com/wALuTNl8hQ
Rodrigo Neri: The Atletico Madrid U-17 forward is also on the young side as a 2005-born player who is eligible for the next U-20 cycle. But he has really stood out for the U.S. U-19 team this year and should be an option for Varas if he wants to resume looking at options who can play the No. 9.
Rokas Pukstas: The Hadjuk Split option is a bench option for the first team in Croatia. He was good at the CONCACAF Championships before his injury. His Revelations Cup performances were uneven. As a No. 6, he’s behind the captain, Dan Edelman. It then comes down to either him or Obed Vargas for the backup No. 6. Vargas is highly regarded but has been injured since June. It will come down to how Vargas returns from injury and how Pukstas plays in Croatia.
Marcus Ferkranus: The LA Galaxy product (now on loan with the Phoenix Rising) has been part of the U.S. U-20 team all cycle. He’s done relatively well but he could be the odd man out should Varas turn to the highly regarded 2005-born central defender Josh Wynder.
Jackson Hopkins: The versatile DC United attacker gives Varas another option at the No. 9 even if he is better on the wings. Hopkins was an injury replacement for the CONCACAF Championships and then on the Revelations Cup. He should have more opportunities with the U-20 team in coming camps and he should continue to play for DC United. But he has work to do to get to Indonesia.
Noah Allen: The Inter Miami left back got the job done at the CONCACAF Championships, but he is clearly behind Caleb Wiley and Jonathan Gomez – which is why he was with the U-19 team last month and not at the Revelations Cup. His chances of heading to Indonesia take a big upswing if there is an injury, or if there are release issues.
Esmir Bajraktarevic: the young New England Revolution midfielder spent time with the U.S. U-20 team earlier in the year. He has a smooth left foot and has been very good with the U.S. U-19 team lately. Mostly likely he is one for the 2025 U.S. U-20 team (he was born in 2005) but he's a talent to watch and could make a push for this team.
Matthew Halliday: The Orlando City right back was behind Mauricio Cuevas at the CONCACAF Championships but still played important minutes. The backup right back spot will likely be between him and Justin Che. It’s not an unwinnable battle for him as Che’s club situation isn’t great. But Che has an edge in versatility.
Alex Borto: The Fulham youth goalkeeper was the backup at the Revelations Cup and could be neck and neck with Antonio Carrera for the third keeper spot. If Slonina or Brady aren’t released, he has a great shot to go to Indonesia.
Darren Yapi: The Colorado homegrown forward has been playing in MLS Next Pro this year with Colorado 2. He is yet to play for the U.S. U-20 team but seems like an likely pick should Varas opt to resume looking at No. 9 options in coming camps.
Tyler Wolff: The attacker was part of the CONCACAF Championship team but was a distant backup. He seems like a long shot at this point given the consistently improving U-20 player pool, and he is now on loan from Atlanta United to SK Beveren in Belgium’s second tier. He’s in the mix given his familiarity with the team but he would really need to play well in Belgium to get to Indonesia.
Kobi Henry: The centerback recently made a move from Orange County SC to Stade de Reims in France where he plays with their reserve team (Reims B). He was part of the U.S. U-20 team early in the cycle but faded after the March camp in Argentina. He has work to do and the emergence of Josh Wynder is yet another obstacle for him to make it to Indonesia. But it’s not impossible for him should he start playing well in France.
Help from the U-19 team?
The U.S. U-19 team recently had a great tournament at the Slovenia Nations Cup where they defeated Malta, Croatia, and Scotland for a perfect nine points from three games. That team consists mostly of 2005-born players who are eligible for the following U-20 cycle but who are still a year too old to play with the U.S. U-17 team. There are a few 2004-born players in that squad but the base of the team is a look towards the 2025 U-20 World Cup.
Aside from Josh Wynder and Rodrigo Neri (who are the most likely to get promoted from the U-19 team to the U-20 team this cycle), there are a few others to follow.
Inter Miami midfielder Benjamin Cremaschi and Orlando City attacker Favian Loyola were both excellent at the Slovenia Nations Cup. It would take some injuries and release issues for them to sneak into the U-20 team this cycle, but they are very much players to watch.
Owen Wolff has played quite a bit under his father at Austin FC and a promotion to the U-20 team this cycle is unlikely but possible.
Philadelphia Union academy forward Marcos Zambrano-Delgado was also effective with the U-19 team in Slovenia and he benefits from the U-20 team still possibly needing a forward plus the overall positive impression Mikey Varas has with players coming out of the Philadelphia organization.
Varas seems pretty satisfied with his current U-20 fullback options, but if the situations changes, Reed Baker-Whiting had a good camp in Slovenia and offers cover at either fullback position. He will likely be a starter to begin the 2025 cycle. Alexander Freeman is one of the few top U-19 players who is not eligible for next cycle as a 2004-born player, but he has been solid for the U.S. U-19 team and could be an attacking right back option should injuries and release issues force Varas to dig deeper into the pool