In the last two segments of this series we took at look at the 2001 and 2002 age groups. Today we are going to take a look at the 2003 age group. This age group will comprise the core of the 2023 u20 World Cup cycle where they will be looking to not only make a deep run in the tournament, but go on and win the entire thing. The 2003 age group is potentially the best age group that the United States has produced and is on track to be even better than the 2000’s who produced players such as Josh Sargent, Timothy Weah, Sergiño Dest, Chris Richards, Richie Ledezma, Alex Mendez, Chris Gloster, and more. In this article we will take a look at the cycle’s strengths and weaknesses, highlight the top players in this age group, take a look at the depth chart for the 2003 age group, and rank the top 25 players in the age group.
The 2003’s are the creme de la creme for youth national team age groups. Every single position does not have just one good player but at least two or three players who will have very good professional careers, some positions are even four or five players deep. The age group has numerous players with the ability to go overseas and play in the top European leagues and the players that are in the second or third string of the depth chart even have the potential to become stars in MLS and a few may actually develop into European level players. Players that are in the top 15 of this age group would likely be top four or five players in other age groups, this age group is that talented. A few players to particularly pay attention to in this cycle are Moses Nyeman, Jonathan Gomez, Ricardo Pepi, Daniel Leyva, and Elton Chifamba but there are other prospects that have some serious promise as well which will be highlighted later on.
The attack for this age group in particular is notable compared to other cycles. The strikers have four players will special talent in Ricardo Pepi, Patrick Weah, Sam Sarver, and Matthew Roou and are only matched by the depth of the 2000 cycle. The wingers are even deeper than the forwards with Dante Sealy, Chris Garcia, Fabrizio Bernal, Kevin Paredes, Patrick Bohui, Cade Cowell, and Tyler Freemann. Cade Cowell has already made his Major League Soccer debut which would make him a guaranteed starter for most age groups and is not even a top five winger for this age group. When the cycle is at full-strength, they will be impossible to keep out of the back of the net.
The midfielder also have extraordinary depth compared to other youth national team age groups. The attacking midfielders are also very deep with Moses Nyeman, Jonathan Perez (who is also an amazing winger), Paxten Aaronson (who may end up being even better than his older brother and USMNT player, Brendan Aaronson), and Selmir Micsic. The center midfielders are stacked with Elton Chifamba, Caden Clark, Javier Casas, and Colby Quinones while the defensive midfielders are equally deep with Daniel Leyva, Tarun Karumanchi, Jack McGlynn, and Sota Kitahara.
The depth does not fall at all with the defenders who are also loaded with talent. The fullback strength for this age group is easily the best of any youth national team age group with Jonzathan Gomez, Mauricio Cuevas, Anthony Sorenson, Noah Hall, Michael Halliday, and Jacob Greene. The center backs are the one spot that does not have notable depth yet but yet again has more potential players than any other age group with Casey Walls, Justin Che, Dante Huckaby, Eric Kizner, Marcus Fernakus, Jalen Neal, Jalen Calloway, Israel Carrillo, and Niklas Dossmann.
What is truly remarkable about the age group is that there is only one foreign based player relevent in the cycle in Niklas Dossmann who is already pretty low in the center back depth chart. There are currently no other players in Europe that have emerged in this age group which means that over the next three years there will be even more players with high ceilings that will break out and stake their place in the 2003 player pool. You can typically bet on one or two foreign based players to break into a youth national team age group’s depth chart.
Of the u20 eligible age groups, the 2003’s are the best age group that the United States has and it is not even close. What matters now is these players breaking into their first teams and getting minutes in Major League Soccer or heading abroad to Europe and finding minutes in a major European league. When you take a look at the 2003 age group and add in the best 2004 and 2005 players then you are looking at a team that has a very realistic shot at winning the 2023 u20 World Cup and should be disappointed if the team does not reach at least the semifinal. The 2023 u20 cycle at full strength would likely beat the five previous u20 cycles (three of them who made quarterfinal runs in 2015, 2017, and 2019) by two or three goals at least. The 2003 age group went undefeated during their u16 cycle during 2018 and 2019 with a record of 8-3-0 (w-d-l) and is showing no signs of slowing down from there. Nothing is a guarantee for youth players, but USMNT fans should be very excited about the potential of this age group long term as they will be relevant in USMNT rosters all the way until the 2034 World Cup.
For such a strong age group, there is a weak spot for the 2003’s and that is the goalkeepers. The United States has historically produced amazing goalkeepers but this age group is the outlier in a negative way for the post millennium age groups. Eliot Jones, Anthony Ramos, and Gavin Krenecki are the three best goalkeepers in this age group but it is very likely that none of the three will be relevant for 2023 u20 cycle or the USMNT long term. The best goalkeeper that has played in a 2003 youth national team game has actually been Gabriel Slonina who is born in 2004 who is a very deep goalkeeper age group. When your only weak spot is in a position that has historically been the USMNT’s strength and is very deep in other age groups then the lack of depth in this age group is something fans should not be worried about.
Players to watch in the 2003 age group
Moses Nyeman has long been regarded by many as the best prospect in the 2003 age group. Moses is a Liberian born player who is currently in the process of getting his American citizenship while currently playing for DC United in the MLS and Loundon United in the USL. Moses is an attacking midfielder who is fast, strong for his size, an elite passer, an elite dribbler, has a nose for goal, has an elite soccer IQ, and also is very adept defensively. Moses is a player who has a ceiling of being a true star in Europe and a floor of being a very good player in Europe.
The only weak part of Nyeman’s game is his size. Moses currently 5’5 135lbs so he is likely going to be the smallest player on the field in every game he plays in. Moses will be a late bloomer as DC United will be tentative of playing Nyeman and risking an injury until he ads more muscle to his frame. Even as a late bloomer fans should not cool down on Moses as a prospect, this kid could very well be the solution to the USMNT’s long problem at the 10 position. Realistically, even though Nyeman is undersized, he is ready for first team action with DC United as he will very quickly prove to be too good for the USL as he dissects opposition defenses every single game. Expect Moses to be a regular in the DC United squad by the end of the 2020 MLS season regardless of how short it may be due to COVID-19. Moses will take longer to develop and won’t be a USMNT player by 2022 but this kid is on track to be one of the first names on the USMNT team sheet for a very long time.
Jonathan Gomez is a player who many consider to be the USMNT’s best left back prospect along with Kobe Hernandez-Foster. Jonathan Gomez is another superstar in the making that has been developed by the FC Dallas academy. Gomez has every tool that you could dream about having in a left back. He is quick, smart, an elite 1v1 defender, an amazing dribbler, can play a pin point cross, and is the best attacking fullback in the youth national team system. The only difference between Gomez and Kobe Hernandez-Foster is that Kobe is a bit better of a defender and more athletic while Gomez is a better attacker and cleaner on the ball.
Jonathan Gomez has recently left the FC Dallas academy and has signed with Louisville City FC in the USL Championship where he will be playing under former u17 national team coach, John Hackworth. Gomez was punished by FC Dallas for making his intentions known that he was going to leave for Europe when he turns 18 and was played at the u17 level where he is age eligible but far above the level of play. As a result of that Gomez decided to leave his childhood club and sign for Louisville City where he will play at a higher level for the next year and a half then he would have at North Texas SC who is in the USL League One. FC Dallas is playing checkers while Jonathan Gomez is playing chess.
European clubs are hot on Jonathan’s trail as he will be a first team ready player when he turns 18 in 2021 and will instantly improve any Bundesliga side that he is in. Jonathan Gomez is not likely to be a USMNT player for the 2022 World Cup cycle as it will likely take him until 2022 to break through in Europe but he constant call up in the 2026, 2030 and 2034 World Cup cycle rosters. Jonathan Gomez and Kobe Hernandez-Foster should give USMNT a sense of relief as we finally have some true left back talent in the pipeline.
Ricardo Pepi burst onto the youth national team scene in 2018 when he scored an absurd 19 goals in 8 games in the Development Academy. Ricardo Pepi is a tall, lanky striker from FC Dallas with a goal scoring ability rarely seen in prospects worldwide. Ricardo Pepi was a locked in starter at striker for the 2019 u17 World Cup cycle while playing a year up. It does not matter what level Pepi is playing in, he is going to find a way to score goals if his team can get him the ball. Pepi is fast, strong, makes intelligent runs off of the ball, and is a lethal finisher within 30-yards of the net. My favorite quality of Ricardo Pepi’s is his work rate. Pepi will be one of the hardest workers that you see in a game whenever he is on the field and has routinely been lauded by coaches and teammates for his work rate over the last three years.
Ricardo Pepi has the second highest ceiling in the USMNT striker pool after Josh Sargent. Pepi will be a key player for the 2021 u20 World Cup cycle and should he find MLS success in the next two years could potentially break into the USMNT who’s striker depth is very thin while there are very few quality forwards in good form. Pepi turns 18 in January next year and will likely have clubs be bidding for his services the day he turns 18 and could very well be playing in Europe in the later half of 2021 as FC Dallas have the striker depth to be able to sell Pepi and still stay afloat. Ricardo Pepi will be playing in the MLS this year backing up Zdeněk Ondrášek (also known as Cobra) and could very well win the starting position for FC Dallas if he can score goals at the same rate that he has in the USL, DA, and youth national teams.
Daniel Leyva was the other 2003 born player to have a major impact in the 2019 u17 World Cup cycle while playing up a year. Danny is a defensive midfielder at the Seattle Sounders and while he may not be the most exciting player, can control the entire flow of the game with the ball at his feet. Danny was a consistent call up for the u16 youth national team in 2018 but really burst onto the scene after a very successful preseason with the Seattle Sounders. Leyva was brought along to the Sounders preseason training camp with nine other academy players and was the only academy player to remain with the team for the last half of the preseason and was quickly signed to a homegrown contract by the Sounders.
Danny is a extremely intelligent defensive midfielder with a large passing range, veteran level composure, and the natural defensive instincts needed to succeed as a defensive midfielder at the highest level. When on his game, Danny can take control of a game no matter what level he is playing at including against full-grown men at the MLS level. Danny’s main weakness is a lack of athleticism which was exposed at the recent u17 World Cup. Danny is not the quickest player, or is even quick at all. To succeed, Danny needs to be paired with a center mid who can cover a lot of ground in a game (like Elton Chifamba… hint hint) while Danny stays central, puts out fires, and pulls the strings. When Danny was paired with Adam Saldana at the u17 World Cup it quickly showed that you need to have a more athletic midfielder next to him or your team will get overrun quickly. Luckily for Danny, the USMNT has numerous young players like that in Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, Paxton Pomykal, and more.
Imagine a combination of Tyler Adams and Darlington Nagbe, that is how you can describe Elton Chifamba. Elton is a athletic midfielder who plays in the Columbus Crew academy. Elton has a great passing range, has a high soccer IQ, can put out fires anywhere on the field, and is press resistant. While Chifamba still has a ways to go until he is at the defensive level of Tyler Adams and doesn’t quite have the same engine that Adams or Nagbe do, the potential is there.
When a team wants to deploy a midfielder that can quickly win back and keep possession then Chifamba should be one of the first names in the roster. While not a player who can go in and pick apart a defense, Chifamba is a good offensive player who is capable of making deadly plays in the final third while helping his side dominate in possession. The largest barrier for Chifamba’s development is his club situation. His future intentions are relatively unknown and the Columbus Crew do not have a USL team so Chifamba will be stuck playing at the u19 DA level for the time being which he will soon outgrow this year. Chifamba will have Darlington Nagbe ahead of him in the Crew’s depth chart if he chooses to sign for the MLS side so he should realistically be looking to head over to Europe because Nagbe will be a very tough player to push out of the lineup. For more information, check out Dillon Payne’s article going even more in depth on Elton Chifamba here.
Jonathan Perez currently represents Mexico but has been in United States youth national team camps in the past so until he completely rules out playing for the USA, he belongs in this list. Perez is currently the best player for the Mexico 2003’s and has the definite potential to push either Moses Nyeman or Dante Sealy out of the 2003’s first choice lineup. Perez also is great friends with dual nationals Uly Llanez and Alex Mendez who currently side with the United States so there is a chance that they can persuade him to come back to the USA youth setup. Even though Moses Nyeman is the best prospect in this age group currently, Perez is a player who could very quickly jump up the ranks as his potential is limitless. Jonathan Perez has recently signed a homegrown contract with the LA Galaxy and is yet another superstar prospect that was groomed by Brian Kleiban.
Jonathan Perez is a versatile player who is an amazing winger and even better as an attacking midfielder. Perez is a super skillful player on the ball, can fleece defenders 1v1 at will, can routinely pick out dangerous passes from out wide or centrally, and also has an incredibly accurate shot from anywhere inside 30 yards. Perez’s only weakness is that like Nyeman, he is one of the smaller players on the field and will need to put on some muscle to succeed at the next level.
Perez does have a major career roadblock in front of him because he signed a contract with the notoriously youth unfriendly LA Galaxy. The Galaxy have a long standing track record of being terrible with developing young players so this is a worry seeing Jonathan Perez, Mauricio Cuevas, and Cameron Dunbar all sign first-team contracts. Perez does have the talent to break into the LA Galaxy first team but Guillermo Schelotto will have to break the Galaxy coaching trend of never giving youth a real chance and actually let Perez do his thing at the MLS level which is will soon be ready for before the end of 2020. Even though Perez currently ranks 6th in this age group currently, he should be looked at as a player that could very well move up to the top over the next few years.
Mauricio Cuevas is the other top tier 2003 prospect that Brian Kleiban has produced out of Los Angeles. Cuevas has an even larger uphill battle than Perez because not only is he in the same position as being in the notoriously youth unfriendly LA Galaxy, he also has Julian Araujo ahead of him in the right back depth chart which is a massive obstacle where one of the two will have to move to a different club either domestic or abroad if they both want to reach their ceilings. Cuevas and Araujo are very different right backs and both affect the team in different ways. While Julian Araujo is a more natural defender who is an average player going forard, Mauricio is a fantastic player going forward and is an average defender.
Mauricio’s strengths are in his skills on the ball and his athleticism. Mauricio is without a doubt the best crosser in the full back pool in the youth national team system. He can hit a cross on a dime on 99 out of 100 attempts. Cuevas is also a very good dribbler and is pacey enough to get up and down the right flank with ease. Cuevas will have to work on becoming a better 1v1 defender and his defensive positioning if he ever wants to overtake Julian Araujo in the LA Galaxy and USMNT depth chart. Both should not necessarily be viewed as weak points in his game as they are very common for players his age and will develop over time. Mauricio Cuevas has a higher ceiling than Julian Araujo but it all depends on how LA Galaxy handles the development of both players. Realistically, Mauricio Cuevas needs to head over to a lower table Bundesliga side when he turns 18.
Most hardcore followers of the Development Academy are familiar with Caden Clark after he lit up the u19 DA playoffs with Barca Academy while playing three years up. Clark was named to the USSDA Playoffs Best XI by TopDrawerSoccer after scoring three goals in three games while playing up an age group. Clark used his hot streak over the last year to leverage a move to the New York Red Bulls where he signed a USL contract with NYRB2 where he will spend the next year playing before he moves up to the first team. The most notable part of Clark’s game is his soccer IQ. Clark is good with his feet and knows how to find the right pass but his ability to read the game and process what to do before he receives the ball is what makes him truly stand out. Clark’s time at Barca Academy was well spend rounding out his game to make him a player that you can count on playing as an attacking mid, center mid, or forward.
Clark could be a starter for the 2003 age group depending on the type of team they play against. While Elton Chifamba is a player who you can count on to help you beat a team that is more offensively talented, Clark is a player that this age group could rely on to come in and unlock a packed in defense. Clark being at New York Red Bulls is what makes him a prospect to watch as the Red Bulls have a great track record of properly developing young players (see Matt Miazga and Tyler Adams as recent examples). Clark is a player who could break out over the next two years and emerge as a top USMNT prospect.
Dante Sealy is the son of former FC Dallas Scott Sealy and the apple did not fall far from the tree. Dante oozes with skill and has the IQ of a player who’s father was also a professional soccer player at FC Dallas like Dante currently. Dante was the standout for me at the most recent 2003 youth national team tournament where they won the 2019 Nike International Friendlies where Sealy led the team to beat the USA u17 b-team and the Turkey u16 national team and draw against the Netherlands u16 national team. Sealy is a skillful dribbler, makes intelligent runs off of the ball, an incredible athlete, a good finisher and has a fantastic passing range due to a high IQ and vision which is a result of being under his father’s tutelage for many years.
Sealy like Jonathan Perez, has a very good chance to climb the ranks in this age group but has to become more consistent in his performances. At the youth levels he has looked like a man among boys over the last year and at the USL level he has looked like a boy among men. Part of this does result from him being so young and still developing physically so his play in 2020 will need to reflect that he can handle playing against much older and stronger competition. Sealy is a player that has a good chance at playing up a u20 cycle for the current u20 national team as he is the best winger in the 2003 age group and is better than all of the 2002 wingers except for Gio Reyna who is almost a guarantee to not have any involvement for a youth national team ever again except at the Olympics in 2020 and 2024. If Sealy can keep producing like he does at the youth levels in the USL this season then Luchi Gonzalez will no doubt let him prove himself at the MLS at the first opportunity. Because of his club situation, Dante should be viewed as a top tier USMNT prospect.
Casey Walls is currently the best center back in the 2003 age group. His combination of size, soccer IQ, and technical skills for a center back are what help him stand out. Casey signed a homegrown contract with the San Jose Earthquakes in November 2019 and is the highest ceiling prospect in the clubs system currently. What truly stands out about Casey’s game is his passing from the deep position, Casey is the best passing center back in the entire youth national team pool.
The weakness in Casey Walls’ game is that he is not the fastest player. He makes up for this weakness by being very intelligent with his positioning but he is not a player that you should expect to run down a pacey forward. Casey does have a good shot at breaking into the Earthquake’s lineup sooner rather than later as Matías Almeyda does have the mentality of if you’re good enough, you’re old enough. If Walls can prove in minutes with Reno 1868 in the USL in 2020 then don’t be shocked if Walls is pushing for first team minutes in mid-2021 or early 2022. Walls should be a consistent call up for the 2003 age group and is one to watch as he develops long term.
Chris Garcia is a player who just appeared on many fan’s radar as he recently signed a first team contract with Real Salt Lake earlier this year. Chris is a lightning fast winger with the dribbling skills to roast a fullback consistently throughout a 90 minute match. Out of all of the top players in the age group, Chris is the most raw but also has a very high ceiling as he has all of the key qualities that you would want to see in a winger. Chris also is very physically gifted for his age so he could push for minutes quickly at a club who historically has been very good with playing their homegrown players.
Chris Garcia’s weakness is that like Dante Sealy, he can be inconsistent. This is something that is very common for a 17 year old player as he still has to get down the mental side of the game which will come as he becomes a more experienced professional. With Chris being at a club with numerous other homegrown players who will help show him the way, fans should be very optimistic about Chris’ future.
Yes, you were correct when you looked at that last name and thought “is he related to George and Tim Weah?”. Patrick Weah is the nephew of George Weah and the cousin of Tim Weah and is good enough to represent the family name with pride. Like both George and Tim, Patrick’s first quality that you will notice is that he is an eye popping athlete. Patrick has the combination of both size and speed that coaches dream of having in a striker. To put it lightly, Patrick is too good for the u17 DA where is currently playing. He literally looks like a man among boys. However, being a physically gifted athlete is not only why he is rated so high, Patrick also has the skill to back it up. Patrick is a fantastic dribbler and a competent finisher just like both George and Tim Weah.
There is one major weakness in Patrick’s game which is his movement off of the ball. Like most 16 year old players, Patrick has not quite figured out how to efficiently move off the ball and playing at a level where he is physically and technically superior than everyone else, he doesn’t have to which is detrimental to his development. Once Patrick has been at the club for a year which will happen next summer, Minnesota need to immediately sign him and loan him to a USL team where he can play against players that can actually give him a challenge. If Patrick is kept at the u19 level next year, then Minnesota United is failing him. Check out Dillon Payne’s article breaking down Patrick Weah here.
The depth chart for the 2003 age group
The best defensive back line for this age group is Mauricio Cuevas on the right, Jonathan Gomez on the left, and Justin Che and Casey Walls as the center backs. Cuevas and Gomez will provide an extra spark out wide that will take this team’s attack from being great, to being fantastic. Walls and Che will anchor the back line and will boss the opposition’s forwards while also being able to comfortably keep possession for the team. Should any of the back four need to be subbed off then their backups could all come on and the team would not lose a step as the depth is that good. Even if any of the first two options among any of the back line positions are hurt then there is no reason to worry as Jacob Greene, Jalen Neal, Markus Fernakus, and Michael Halliday can step in with no problem.
The best midfield to run out is Daniel Leyva as the 6, Elton Chifamba at the 8, and Moses Nyeman as the 10. This is a midfield that would dominate in possession, cover the back line well, and create danger in the attack. If you want a team that will be more dangerous in the other team’s half against a team that will sit back and defend, then you could start Caden Clark at the 8, or move Moses Nyeman to the 8 and start Jonathan Gomez as the 10. There are numerous ways that you could set this midfield up, all will likely lead to success. Javier Casas, Jack McGlynn, and Paxten Aaronson are right on the bubble for this roster and fans should not be surprised to see any of them be included in a first choice roster for this age group.
The attack for this age group is what I really think is significant. The best forward trio to run out is Dante Sealy and Chris Garcia on the wings with Ricardo Pepi up top. Both Sealy and Garcia can create danger out wide with ease and feed Ricardo Pepi all the service he needs to put the ball in the back of the net multiple times a game. This attack would have pace, would be technically sound, and if any of them needed to come off the pitch, then Fabrizio Bernal, Kevin Paredes, and Patrick Weah would be able to come on and be equally dangerous in the final third. Not only is the second string good for this roster but the third string players (Patrick Bohui, Sam Sarver, and Cade Cowell) are all good enough to be a threat for the other team if they step on the field. Cade Cowell has already made his MLS debut and is the fourth choice right winger (Jonathan Perez would be played over Cowell at right wing).
The 2003 age group should have the highest expectations that a youth national team cycle has ever had. In 2023, if this group does not make it to at least the semi final then USMNT fans should be relatively surprised. Not only is the first choice roster for this age group good, but the second and third strings would are also filled with incredibly talented players. This age group’s depth all around is abnormally good for a youth national team.
When you move the best 2004 and 2005 players like Antonio Leone, Evan Rotundo, Fede Oliva, Malik Sanogo, Nati Clarke, Chris Brady, Gabe Slonina, Allan Rodriguez, Kenan Hot, Gage Akalu, Leo Torres, and more into the cycle then you are looking at a group that will likely be favored to win in any game that they are in regardless of the competition’s skill level. This age group is special and is likely to yield numerous USMNT players in the future.
I would like to give both Charlie Kennan (@charlie_kennan) and ChuckMe92 (@ChuckMe92Soccer) for collaberating with me to create both the lineup and the top 25 ranking. If you are not following either of them then you are missing out, both of these guys are are two of the most knowledgeable sources for information on the domestic and foreign USMNT youth player pool. I highly recommend that you give them a follow.
The Top 25 Ranking for the 2003 Age Group
- Moses Nyeman- Attacking Mid/Center Mid (DC United)
- Jonathan Gomez- Left Back (Louisville City FC)
- Ricardo Pepi- Striker (FC Dallas)
- Danny Leyva- Defensive Mid/Center Mid (Seattle Sounders)
- Elton Chifamba- Center Mid/Defensive Mid (Columbus Crew)
- Jonathan Perez- Attacking Mid/Winger (LA Galaxy)
- Mauricio Cuevas- Right Back (LA Galaxy)
- Caden Clark- Center Mid/Attacking Mid (New York Red Bulls)
- Dante Sealy- Winger (FC Dallas)
- Casey Walls- Center Back (San Jose Earthquakes)
- Chris Garcia- Winger (Real Salt Lake)
- Patrick Weah- Striker (Minnesota United)
- Justin Che- Center Back (FC Dallas)
- Fabrizio Bernal- Winger (San Antonio FC)
- Tarun Karumanchi- Defensive Mid/Center Mid (San Jose Earthquakes)
- Kevin Paredes- Winger/Attacking Mid (DC United)
- Sam Sarver- Striker/Winger (Columbus Crew)
- Matthew Roou- Striker (Shattuck-Saint Mary’s)
- Dante Huckaby- Center Back (Philadelphia Union)
- Patrick Bohui- Winger/Striker (Philadelphia Union)
- Noah Hall- Right Back (Columbus Crew)
- Anthony Sorenson- Left Back (Philadelphia Union)
- Cade Cowell- Winger (San Jose Earthquakes)
- Paxten Aaronson- Attacking Mid (Philadelphia Union)
- Tyler Freeman- Winger/Attacking Mid (Sporting Kansas City)