Youth National team
The 2021 U.S. U-20 World Cup team - what could have been?
May 04, 2021
THIS MIGHT HAVE been the week where the U.S. U-20 World Cup first begun to assemble ahead of the 2021 World Cup. Unfortunately, we’ll never know as the announcement came on Christmas Eve that the tournament had been not only postponed, but cancelled, due to COVID-19.
That thereby ended the cycle before even qualifying could take place. In total, there were two camps this cycle – once under former manager Tab Ramos in the fall of 2019 and then a second in January 2021 under manager Anthony Hudson.
We will never know exactly how that team would have come together as Hudson never got to see the team progress in camps throughout the cycle. What we have seen, however, is very positive strides taken by players within this age range in 2020 and now at the start of 2021.
Based on historical evidence, we generally have an idea of who would have been released and who would not have been.
As someone who has covered the U-20 national team for well-over a decade, here is how I would have seen the team coming together in a world without COVID-19.
Releases and Injuries
In recent years, we’ve seen players not called up to the U-20 World Cup team even though they would clearly make a first-choice squad.
In some cases, this is due to clubs not wanting to release key first-team players. It is important to remember that with youth tournaments clubs can always deny a release, even when the tournament takes place in the summer or in the international window (releases are mandatory only with senior call-ups in international windows).
In other cases, this is due to U.S. Soccer needing players for full national team duty. This year the U-20 World Cup would have coincided with the Nations League.
In the 2017 and 2019 U-20 World Cups, Josh Sargent, Tyler Adams, Christian Pulisic, and Weston McKennie were all not included in U-20 teams because of senior national team duty (Adams and Sargent went to one World Cup playing up a cycle but missed out the second cycle).
Moving forward in future cycles the number of times a player will be unable to play with the U-20 team because of the full national team will probably decline since the U.S. team is so young, it will be tougher to force those players out. There will, however, always be club conflicts.
This cycle we still see several players who probably wouldn’t have gone to the U-20 World Cup due to the need to be with the full team for the Nations League. For those reasons, we are taking the following players off the table:
Gio Reyna, Yunus Musah, Bryan Reynolds.
In terms of club releases, the most logical player who would be denied a release is Johnny Cardoso since the Brazilian Serie A schedule starts. He was released for the Olympic qualifying tournament but that only saw him miss State Cup games. The Serie A games are far more important.
On the flip side, and perhaps it would be wrong to do so, but we are going to keep George Bello on the team despite Atlanta United’s reluctance to release players.
As far as injuries, the most notable player we have to remove is Aidan Morris. The talented Columbus Crew defensive midfielder will miss the 2021 season with a torn ACL that he suffered in April in the CONCACAF Champions League. He definitely would have made the World Cup roster.
There is also uncertainty over the health of Ulysses Llanez who missed Olympic qualifying due to an ankle injury he picked up in camp. But given the fact he has barely played the past 12 months (and hasn’t really been with a club since January), he probably wouldn’t make the roster right now regardless.
Given what we mentioned above, here is the 21 player roster ASN would have had for the 2021 U-20 World Cup.
1) David Ochoa (Real Salt Lake)
2) Chituru Odunze (Leicester City)
3) Damian Las (Fulham)
4) Julian Araujo (LA Galaxy)
5) Ian Hoffmann (Houston Dynamo)
6) Leonardo Sepulveda (Salamanca UDS)
7) Owen Otosowie (Wolverhampton)
8) Justin Che (Bayern Munich)
9) George Bello (Atlanta United)
10) Taylor Booth (SKN St. Poelten)
11) Tanner Tessmann (FC Dallas) (Team Captain)
12) Leon Flach (Philadelphia Union)
13) Caden Clark (New York Red Bulls)
14) Cole Bassett (Colorado Rapids)
15) Jose Gallegos (San Antonio FC)
16) Gianluca Busio (Sporting Kansas City)
17) Cade Cowell (San Jose Earthquakes)
18) Cameron Harper (New York Red Bulls)
19) Konrad de la Fuente (Barcelona)
20) Matthew Hoppe (Schalke O4)
21) Ricardo Pepi (FC Dallas)
With every roster there are always tough players to leave out and touch decisions to be made.
Indiana Vassilev would have had an uphill climb to make this roster despite having made Premier League appearances in 2020 with Aston Villa. His two loan spells to Burton Albion and Cheltenham Town have just not shown enough compared with the competition.
Matko Miljevic was another player people had hopes for after making his debut in 2019 with Argentinos Juniors in Argentina’s Primera. But he also hasn’t played game since February 2020 due to both COVID and a dispute with his club. He has talent, but this summer can’t get here quick enough for him.
Bryang Kayo, Charlie Kelman, Jacob Akanyirige, Joe Scally, Kobe Hernandez-Foster and Nico Carrera are also all players who were on the inside of the mix at one point or another but fell behind the competition recently.
As former U.S. U-20 head coach Tab Ramos would always tell his players at the end of every cycle – many of the players he cut would go on to become the best players from that age group.
That always turned out to be true as players such as even in 2019, Brenden Aaronson, Sam Vines, Daryl Dike, and Nicholas Gioacchini were never on that year’s U-20 World Cup team (Aaronson and Vines were among the last ones cut.
Notes on the Roster
In total, it would have been a good roster with most of the field players now being first team regulars. It also would have been a much better constructed team than the U-23 team that failed to qualify for the Olympics – mostly due to the fact it had mostly all defensive midfielders.
This team U-20 team, unlike the U-23 team, would have actually had a positive blend of players in the midfield with Booth and Flach playing No. 6/No. 8 roles. Tessmann would have beend a dedicated No. 8. Clark and Busio would have been more No. 8/10 hybrids while Gallegos would have been a true No. 10.
The wingers also would have been a source of strength with Cowell, Harper, and de la Fuente all leading the way.
Matthew Hoppe and Ricardo Pepi would have been a nice combination of center forwards for this tournament.
In terms of defense, six defenders is a low number but in this case, Flach is also a competent left back to backup Bello. Flach played left back in the only camp under Anthony Hudson in January 2020. Ian Hoffmann still awaits his first-team debut but there are high hopes for him in Houston and he is a competent player who can back-up at several positions – in this case right back.
Central defense, unfortunately would be the biggest challenge to assemble a team. Unlike recent cycles, the numbers are no there in terms of first-team regulars. Due to his enormous upside, Justin Che would likely get the nod for this team despite being so young.
Probably the most controversial decision of the roster involves Owen Otasowie who is listed as a defender – his second position. The English-American is primarily a midfielder but can play central defense. Due to the needs of the team and a shallow player pool at his position, there is a very strong argument that he would need to play here to bring some experience and professionalism in this important area of the field.
In terms of birth years, the 2001 is a strong class. The 2002 birth year, however, is not great. George Bello, Gianluca Busio, and Gio Reyna are the most exciting American developed prospects from that birth year while Yunus Musah was a big recent addition to the 2002’s.
Each U-20 World Cup cycle has two birth years. At that point, you can add players but you have to go players eligible for the following cycle. In this case, the 2001’s make up the overwhelming majority. The 2002’s are very little - the two backup keepers in Las and Odunze, along with just Busio and Bello make up the entire 2002 contingent.
The good news for the U.S. team is that the 2003 birth years has a large number over very impressive prospects who are ready to contribute at this level right now – despite being eligible for the 2023 U-20 World Cup. This is set up to be one a very strong birth year – and with the 2002 birth year not producing much – dipping down into the next cycle makes sense.
Four players on the roster are 2003-born with Red Bull star Caden Clark leading the way followed by Cade Cowell, Ricardo Pepi, and Justin Che.
In total you would have the following breakdown:
2003: (4) – playing up a cycle
How would it have done?
This is pretty simple. The team would have gone as far as central defense would have taken it. The Aidan Morris injury certainly hurts as he was likely the starting No. 6, but the backups certainly would be viable.
The last three U-20 teams each advanced to the quarterfinals with outstanding central defenders playing a big part of winning tight games against good teams. In 2015 it was Matt Miazga, Cameron Carter-Vickers, an Erik Palmer-Brown (the latter two playing up a cycle). In 2017 it was Cameron Carter-Vickers, Erik Palmer-Brown, Justen Glad. In 2019 it was Chris Richards, Abubacar Keita, and an injured Mark Mckenzie. That entire list above consists of players who are all either above average professionals, with many now at various levels of the national team player pool.
This group does not have that. Otasowie isn’t really a central defender. Che has an enormous upside but is young. Sepulveda is at a low level in Spain. Araujo could fill in if there is an emergency but he is a fullback.
If the central defense plays well, this team could have gone very far. If not, it would have struggled.
The rest of the team is extremely balanced. The midfield has all the different positions covered from attacking, to defensive, to all points in between. The wingers are solid. Up top, Hoppe has Bundesliga experienced and Pepi is young but has a big upside. Fullbacks in Bello and Araujo are also very experienced and promising. As a goalkeeper, Ochoa also boasts U-20 World Cup experiences.
It’s a shame that this team will never play together and U.S. Soccer should hopefully resume its youth national teams soon with a focus on 2023 because the class of 2003-born players is solid. But the 2001 and 2002-born players will all miss out on this experience.
From the looks of what this team could have looked like, they had a good chance of doing well and impressing.