U.S. U-20 analysis

U.S. U-20's exit the World Cup with Uruguay loss but players look for big next steps

The book is now complete for the 2023 United States U-20 team and it ends with yet another World Cup quarterfinal loss. The team might have lacked a memorable win, but it was a good team and many of the players will now look to take big steps moving foward. ASN's Brian Sciaretta writes about it here. 
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
June 05, 2023
10:05 AM

THE UNITED STATES U-20 team is out of the World Cup following a 2-0 loss to Uruguay. It was the fourth straight cycle the team has been eliminated in the quarterfinal of the tournament. The loss was a disappointing end to an otherwise successful cycle.

Head coach Mikey Varas’s starting lineup was somewhat surprising in that he didn’t start either of the late arrivals in Rokas Pukstas or Kevin Paredes. He also had team captain Daniel Edelman and Jonathan Gomez on the bench.

The U.S. team began the game strong with a few promising bouts of possession but conceded in the 21st minute on a beautifully orchestrated counterattack. Justin Che’s tackle came up empty and Anderson Duarte was able to redirect a short cross from close range.

The U.S. lost control of the game for most of the remainder of the first half. In the second half, the U.S. team gradually reset itself. Paredes replaced the struggling Owen Wolff on the wings and Varas looked to shake things up.

But in the 56th minute, a failed clearance from Josh Wynder ended up in his own net to give Uruguay a 2-0 lead.

The U.S. continued to push forward but, as was the problem for the team all tournament, they struggled offensively. Only in this game, Uruguay was more together defensively and was able to keep the U.S. team off the board.


The team’s legacy


In one sense, the U.S. team made the most of a favorable draw. Ecuador wasn’t at their traditional excellent youth levels and Slovakia was one of the weaker European teams in the tournament. After that were two opponents form Oceania in New Zealand and Fiji. Then the U.S. got thrown into a game against a true U-20 contender.

"You can only play who you got in front of you," Varas said. "If you drop points against Fiji, Slovakia or New Zealand, nobody says, 'It's OK.' It's a World Cup and there's a lot of pressure to win every single game, and I think the boys did tremendous in this tournament. We just weren't on our best tonight."

Evaluating youth World Cups depends on perspective. If the perspective is to want to see a program flex its muscle on an international stage, this tournament was slightly disappointing. By no means was it a failure, but there were no signature moments compared with the past.

There was no win over Messi’s Argentina like in 2005. In 2007, the U.S. team beat Brazil and Uruguay teams who had players who would anchor their respective senior teams for decades. In 2015, the U.S. team upset Colombia. In 2019, the U.S. team upset a very good French team in the knockouts.

In that sense, the tournament won’t be remembered for the U.S. team having any iconic moments.

On the other hand, if you look at youth World Cups from a very big picture, this U.S. team showed itself to be worthy of an overall positive upward trend. A very strong showing in one youth World Cup or Olympics can be similarly misleading. There have been examples of teams such as Ukraine or Mexico doing well in selected youth tournaments but also not really registering much of a difference in the strength of their overall program.

Consistently positive youth championships over a prolonged period of time tell a more positive story than any random tournament. The U.S. is generally performing well at the youth levels these days and the trend now goes back a decade.

Of course, it would be better to mix in a few semifinal appearances into that pot of quarterfinal runs. But the better story is still consistency.

It was always tough to foresee a long run by this U.S. team. Paxten Aaronson was instrumentally valuable to the team all cycle. The absences of Brian Gutierrez and Jalen Neal, and the late arrivals of Paredes and Pukstas all hurt. A failure to get players released hurt many teams but Eintracht Frankfurt’s decision to not release Aaronson was made very late and close to the roster deadline.

But when considering the strength of this class of players from these birth years, you can include Aaronson, Gutierrez, Neal, and even Ricardo Pepi.

But on top of it all, this team walks away with another very important accomplishment aside from winning CONCACAF and making the final eight of a World Cup – this team ended the U.S. team’s failure to qualify for an Olympic games on the men’s side. Next year, the U.S. U-23 team will participate in the 2024 Paris games and it will be the first time since 2008 the team has played in that tournament. This team is reason why that happened.

There are positives certainly to take away from this team, but it would have been better to see it play better against Uruguay.


Players near pivotal moments


As always, after a youth tournament the focus will now shift back to how the players perform at their clubs. We will learn a lot about the players soon. Many times, players who look to have very bright futures at a youth World Cup can quickly fall into a bad place (in 2019, many pegged Sebastian Soto, Uly Llanez, Chris Gloster, and Konrad de la Fuente for stardom and all faded quickly). There are also players who live up to expectations and players who surpass expectations.

Moving on from this tournament, many players are pushing themselves into important moments. Here are six players I think are at the top of the list.

  • Caleb Wiley seems to be one who is important to watch. He is a consistent starter at Atlanta and is surrounded by talent there. At some point, he will earn transfer interest. But he can play now, get better, and then be selective as to where he goes next.
  • Cade Cowell had an up and down tournament. He was active, he got himself into dangerous positions, worked hard, but also wasted a lot of chances. If he can become more clinical, he will have a bright future.
  • Rokas Puksas: he midfielder only joined the team after the group stage. But he’s coming off a good season for Hajduk Split where he earned a starting job and won the Croatian Cup. Hajduk offers a good spotlight for a young player and if Pukstas continues to play well, he won’t be at Hajduk for too much longer.
  • Brandan Craig: Also had a good tournament and his distribution from central defense and his free kick taking was important. But can he get minutes in Philadelphia, or will he try to look elsewhere?
  • Jack McGlynn: Also a player who can pass well and he has seen regular minutes with Philadelphia. He is also looking into a period where legitimate offers could come in for him. But would he be best spending another year developing physically in Philadelphia?
  • Gaga Slonina: He’s obviously not going to be sold by Chelsea anytime soon, but he is in a position where he is playing to get interest among teams looking to get a keeper on loan. That is likely going to be the case for a few years.

Meanwhile, players like Obed Vargas and Josh Wynder (who is heading to Benfica) should be back with the U.S. U-20 team as they were playing up a cycle this year. The next cycle seems promising with he 2005-birth year impressing - including dual nationals Noel Buck and Benjamin Cremaschi who will both be important for the U.S. program to avoid letting them slip away.

After them, it is the 2006 birth year which are the players on the current U-17 team.

Even beyond the players, there is also the question about Mikey Varas? Will he remain in the U-20 role? Will he move up to coach the U-23 team? Will he become a full-time assistant? Or will he leave U.S. Soccer and look to join the club ranks.

The Olympic job could be intriguing – if he wants it.


Focus now shifts to Olympics


Many of the U-20 players are still not ready for the jump to the full national team. Ricardo Pepi was part of this class, and he made the jump before the cycle even began. Of the players currently in this U-20 pool, Paredes seems closest and Aaronson could sneak in there if he starts playing for Eintracht Frankfurt. Gaga Slonina could make if he can return to first-team minutes.

The failure to qualify for the Olympics for three cycles, however, is over. When the U.S. team used to qualify regularly, it was a very important tool for U.S. Soccer to 1) build interest in the program given the popularity of the Olympics and 2) serving as a way to bridge the gap between the youth levels and the full national team for key players. In 2000, Josh Wolff, Landon Donovan, and John O’Brien benefitted enormously and were on the 2002 World Cup team two years later. In 2008, it was Maurice Edu, Charlie Davies, Michael Bradley, Benny Fielhaber, Jozy Altidore, and Stuart Holden who used the tournament to go from limited U.S. national team players to essentially full-time U.S. players.

This will still be a tough jump for many of the players on this U.S. U-20 team. The Olympics is a four-year tournament, and these players will have to compete for spots on the 2024 U-23 Olympic team with players of the 2001/2002 birth years.

While normally the older age group is heavily favored, in this case the 2003/2004 birth years have a huge advantage because COVID eliminated the key youth opportunities for the 2001/2002 age groups. The 2003/2004 group will be much more prepared.

Varas spoke about this following the U-20 loss to Uruguay.

"All of these hard moments are what ends up making you better later,” Varas said. “We know that they'll all have a good chance of succeeding at the next level, which is the Olympic team and the senior team… If these guys stay hungry and relentless from an individual standpoint. I think the sky is a limit for a lot of them."


Still, some of the 2001/2002-born players will have an advantage.

Caleb Wiley will have to compete with John Tolkin at left back. Even assuming Gio Reyna and Yunus Musah go to the Copa America instead of the Olympics, the current U-20 midfielders will have to compete with established professionals like Aidan Morris (who might bolt for Canada) and Tanner Tessmann or Gianluca Busio. There are also the three overage selections the coaches are allowed to make.

The likely guess is that the U.S. U-23 camps will begin in the fall and that many of the more important players from this U-20 team will have a chance to complete. But the question now is what they learned from the good and the bad in Argentina.  

"Something that we spoke about in the locker room immediately after was," Varas said, "I hope that this pain that we feel right now — because this one is not going to go away anytime soon — is something that we reflect on deeply that we gain something from it. That we use that as a catalyst to pursue greatness as individuals. I really believe in this group from a mentality perspective."

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