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U-20 Spotlight

The U-20 Look Ahead to World Cup Qualifying

The senior United States national team is not the only squad set on qualifying for the World Cup in 2013. Both the U-17s and the U-20s will attempt to do so as well. Josh Deaver examines Tab Ramos' U-20s.
BY Josh Deaver Posted
January 11, 2013
5:43 AM
The U.S U-20 side, coached by former national team veteran Tab Ramos, is fresh off a long but somewhat disappointing campaign. 2012, which included seven training camps, six friendlies and two tournaments, saw the squad sputter initially, before ending the year with a 5-6-1 record. But that was the past.

It's time to turn the page on last year, both literally and figuratively. In late February, the team will look to rectify recent failures at the U-20 CONCACAF Championships. The tournament acts as the World Cup qualification process for the region, and the Americans need to advance at least to the semifinal round in order to punch their ticket, which will require playing six games in 12 days.

Next week, the squad will convene for a final, eight-day training camp in Puebla, Mexico, the site of the upcoming tournament. The team will train at the Estadio Olímpico C.U., site of their group stage matches, in an attempt to acclimatize themselves to the altitude and pitch conditions before closing camp with two friendly matches against Panama.

Before the qualifying process begins in earnest, let’s introduce you to some key players in the squad who hope to reverse the fortunes of U.S youth in 2013.

Boyd Okwuonu, CB/RB, University of North Carolina
The FC Dallas academy product started all 26 games in his sophomore campaign, anchoring the Tar Heels dominant 12th ranked defense. Okwuonu was also one of only three players to be called for every U20 camp in 2012, starting 11 of 12 matches and leading the squad in minutes played. Featured at both right and center defense, the Oklahoma-born Nigerian-American is a trusted member of Ramos’ roster. Okwuonu was set to be an integral part of the U.S backline in qualifying even before fellow defender Will Packwood's horrific injury.

Juan Pablo Ocegueda, LB, Unattached (formerly of UANL Tigres)
Don’t let the “unattached” label scare you away, Ocegueda is a skilled outside back. Ocegueda was also called into every camp of 2012, second in minutes to Okwuonu. A surplus at the position rather than lack of skill contributed to his departure from Tigres, and the 19-year old should have no problem attracting a new contract. For the U-20s, Ocegueda has emerged as a consistent presence and is likely the first-choice starter, although standout leftback Sean Cunningham of Norwegian champions Molde has not yet had the opportunity to compete with the young Mexican-American in 2012. After a strong year, Ocegeuda will seek to cement his roster spot in the upcoming camp.

John Anthony Brooks, CB, Hertha Berlin (ASN No. 71)
Perhaps the most talented defender in the player pool, Brooks remains a wildcard. Brooks was first called into the U-20 squad in October but chose instead to stay with Hertha where he has transformed into a starter for the club. Brooks did not play a single minute for the United States in 2012. The defender saw time with the German U19 and U20 squads in 2012 but has stated numerous times that the United States remains the first option in his international career. There are reports that Brooks could possibly join the team for qualifying in February but nothing has been confirmed. If he comes, he will be one of the best players on the team.

Caleb Stanko, MF/CB, Freiburg
Nearly two years since departing the U.S Soccer Developmental Academy for a trial with Bundesliga outfit Freiburg, Stanko has emerged for both club and country. Stanko is a frequent starter for the reserve team in the German forth division and is earning rave reviews as a centerback and defensive midfielder. He didn't represent the United States before 2011 but the Michigan native was called by Ramos several times in 2012 and played every minute of October’s Marbella Cup. Stanko has perhaps one of the higher ceilings in the U-20 player pool and is certainly a player to watch going forward.

Wil Trapp, MF, Columbus Crew
Before signing a homegrown player deal with Columbus Crew, Trapp spent the last two seasons with collegiate powerhouse Akron. He started all 45 matches during his tenure, earning All-MAC First Team and NSCAA All-American Third Team honors in his final season. In 2012, the former No. 1-ranked freshman logged significant minutes for the U-20’s as a defensive midfielder, featuring in seven matches and picking up a pair of assists. Given the stiff competition at his position, including Stanko, Trapp will have to continue his impressive form in order to lock up a spot on the roster.

Benji Joya, MF, and Daniel Cuevas, MF/F, Santos Laguna
The similarities between the Torreon-based pair are striking. Both California natives, both eligible for Mexico, both chose to go professional in lieu of college opportunities, and both ended up at Santos Laguna. They are both large parts of the U.S U-20's attacking force. Cuevas, present for every training camp, and Joya have started six of the previous seven matches together while combining for three goals and three assists. In 2012, while Joya received limited first team minutes for Santos Laguna, Cuevas found it difficult to break into the U-20 side. At the onset of the new LigaMX season, however, both are consistently featuring for the Santos reserves and training with the first team. Expect both to be highly involved in the U.S attack going forward.

Jose Villarreal, MF, LA Galaxy
In what was a breakout year for the young midfielder, Villarreal emerged late in the 2012 MLS season as a frequent substitute for LA Galaxy. Appearing in 14 games, including time in the CONCACAF Champions League, the 18-year old impressed, scoring a pair of goals in his limited minutes. While called into only three camps, the homegrown product emerged as an integral part of the U-20 attack late in the year, leading the team in scoring for the year with four goals in as many games. Deployed primarily as a creative midfielder or on the left wing, his speed, athleticism, and nose for goal will be key for the U.S in the group stage and beyond.

Mario Rodriguez, F, FC Kaiserslautern
Much like Villarreal, Rodriguez established himself late in 2012 as a legitimate scoring threat for Tab Ramos’ side. First called up in July for the Milk Cup tournament, the North Hollywood native featured six times in 2012, registering three goals and an assist. A product of the LA Galaxy academy, Rodriguez was not signed to a homegrown player deal like teammates Villarreal and Jack McBean, and instead moved overseas, landing with FC Kaiserslautern in the German second division. While he has still yet to break in to the club’s dominant U19 side, Rodriguez is strong center forward who could feature prominently in the coming months.

Josh Deaver is a former academic turned soccer obsessive. Follow him @USFootballGuy for daily updates and musings.


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