In our last three articles we broke down the 2001, 2002, and 2003 USMNT USYNT age groups, in this age group we will take a look at the 2004 youth national team age group. The previous three age group breakdowns covered the age groups that will comprise the 2021 u20 World Cup cycle. The next two breakdowns of the 2004’s and 2005’s will highlight on the core age groups for the 2021 u17 World Cup cycle and the age groups that will provide depth for the 2003’s in the 2023 u20 World Cup. In this breakdown we will look at the strengths and weaknesses of this age group, highlight the high potential players, take a look at the current 23-man depth chart for the 2004’s, and look at the top 25 ranking for this age group.
It should be noted for the 2004 and 2005 age groups that things will constantly change over time. Prospects who are currently at the top of their age group will get jumped as other players have breakout seasons or hit a period of excellent form. There is often a trend of completely unknown players during a u17 cycle breaking through and becoming key players for a u20 cycle. Examples of this are Chris Richards, Richie Ledezma, and Johnny Cardoso. The main takeaway’s from these articles are what USMNT USYNT players are currently standing out among their peers and are there any players who fans should be paying close attention to with long term potential.
There are four main areas of strength in this USMNT USYNT age group: defensive and center midfielders, wingers, center backs, and goalkeepers. Each of these positions have players with high ceilings and solid depth that if one player was hurt then another player could step into the team and fill the spot without the level of play suffering. The USMNT USYNT 2004 group is overall pretty average compared to the other u20 eligible age groups but does have a few notable high ceiling players. The three standout players so far in this age group are Malick Sanogo, Antonio Leone, and Evan Rotundo but like other age groups, there are a few other players who have also separated from the pack.
The biggest strength in this cycle is definitely in the midfield. In particular, the defensive and box-to-box midfielders are notably deep. Do you remember watching the 2019 u20 and u17 World Cups and seeing the midfield getting run over by physically superior teams? Well, don’t expect to see this happen often with the 2004 age group as they have very athletic players who also possess solid technical skills. The defensive midfielders are loaded with Allan Rodriguez, Aethan Yohannes, Cooper Flax, and Brendan Lambe who are all amazing players and would have improved the 2019 u17 World Cup squad. The center mids are even better with Kenan Hot, Rokas Pukstas, and Zack Booth who are all players with the potential to play in Europe someday. After watching the midfield get smoked at the u17 World Cup last November, seeing the quality in this age group’s midfield is a relief.
The wingers are another position of notable strength for this age group. There are four wingers that I feel have particular talent that can really have special careers if they keep their head on the group and grind to get first team minutes. The four wingers that make me consider this position to be a strength are Federico (Fede) Oliva, Darren Yapi, Leo Torres, and Quinn Sullivan. When the last u17 cycle took Griffin Yow, Andres Jasson, and Ethan Doubellaere to the u17 World Cup then I am particularly optimistic about the 2004’s wingers because these four players, as well as Osvaldo Cisneros, Luis Lima, and Kaile Auvray, would have started over the 2002 wingers as they are all more talented players.
The next two positions of notable strength are the center backs and goalkeepers. The center backs for this cycle are loaded with Antonio Leone, Brandan Craig, Nigel Prince, Thomas Williams, Efrain Morales, Cody Baker, Jonathan Dadzie, Alejandro Cano and Samuel Jones. The 2002 cycle was so thin at center back that Kobe Hernandez-Foster had to slide over and fill in because they could not confidently play two center backs from their age group, the 2004’s will not have this issue luckily.
The goalkeepers for the USMNT USYNT 2004 age group are the most likely position to carry over into the 2023 u20 World Cup cycle. This is not because the 2003’s goalkeepers are bad, this is because the 2004’s goalkeepers are great. This age group has Chris Brady, Gabriel Slonina, Jeff Dewsnup, Fred Emmings, Damian Alguera, Antonio Carerra, and Donovan Palomares. This is arguably the best goalkeeper cycle that the United States has produced outside of the 2002’s who had players like Damian Las and Chirutu Odunze.
The 2004’s have a lot of promise in these positions and should make USMNT fans very excited to tune into their progression over the years. Will any of the afromentioned players make the jump up to the 2023 u20 cycle? That one will remain to be seen as the 2003’s are stacked but there are tons of players with USMNT potential in this age group.
The weak spots in this USMNT USYNT age group are the fullbacks, attacking mids, and strikers. The fullbacks in the 2004 age group are by far the worst of any youth national team cycle in a very long time. The best of this group is Erik Duenas who could have a good career with LAFC but if I was a betting man, I would not bet on any of the full backs to progress any further than the current u17 cycle. Luckily, Nati Clarke (the best 2005) has superb athleticism that allows him to play any where on the back line and should be relied upon to start at right or left back for the 2021 cycle.
The attacking mids and strikers both have one player each who could turn this weakness into a strength but the depth behind those players is concerning. For the attacking mids, that player is Evan Rotundo. Rotundo is a special player but if he does not pan out then Victor Valdez is the next who, although he is a good player, I believe does not have a USMNT or European ceiling. The best striker is Malick Sanogo and it is not even close but after Sanogo it is all question marks. If I am the, hopefully soon to be hired, u17 head coach then I am looking at the 2005’s for strikers because Italo Jenkins could easily play up a cycle and then some.
The standout players for the 2004 age group
The best player for this age group is easily Malick Sanogo. Sanogo is the highest profile multi-national in this age group as he is eligible for the United States, Germany, and the Ivory Cost and all three countries will be trying hard to get his allegiance. Sanogo is fast, strong, makes intelligent runs, and is an elite finisher. In 21 games at the German u17 level this season, Sanogo has 16 goals and 7 assists in 21 games. Union Berlin have also hired his father, Boubacar Sanogo, to train the youth strikers in their academy so being an elite forward runs in Malick’s veins.
Malick is the player in this cycle that fans should be looking to for a Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna type breakthrough. Malick is at a club where he will get moved to the first team early as Union Berlin do not have a reserve team so he will quickly be brought into first team training which will only help accelerate his development. if Malick Sanogo decides to choose the United States over Germany then he will become an automatic starter at the u20 level and could even usurp Ricardo Pepi for the 2023 u20 cycle, he is that good. Sanogo will most likely not be a player to count on for the 2022 FIFA World Cup but should be one to watch for the 2026, 2030, and 2034 World Cups.
Antonio Leone will be the largest dual-national battle that the United States will have for the next few years and this is because Leone is currently the least committed high profile dual-nat to the United States. Tony is a hulking center-back who is an elite defender for his age. Tony can also distribute well from the back and is a aerial threat as well. If is rare that there is a consensus notion that a player is a top prospect in a u17 cycle as a center back but this is a very consistent opinion of Leone. He is a lock in the back four for this cycle and is one of the two best center-back prospects to be involved in a u17 cycle since the early-mid 2000’s cycles (the other is Nati Clarke, a 2005). Leone is not the fastest player but is fast enough to keep up at the men’s level already and should be the first homegrown signing in LAFC history.
Sadly, we may lose Antonio Leone to Mexico for this cycle as there have been numerous reports that Leone was very unsettled after being benched at the last u17 youth national team tournament in England. That tournament in my opinion was more meant for evaluating the pool than playing the best prospects but being benched will never end up making a prospect happy and for good reasons. This is concerning because Mexico rolled out the red carpet to Antonio in December when he was brought into a u17 camp and was given the arm band in multiple games. Leone most recent call up was to Mexico for a short camp in early March. Whoever is chosen as the coach for this cycle should be flying to his doorstep with their first move with a promise to start every game and wear the arm band.
This is most likely the first player that will come to mind when you think of the current u17 youth national team and the 2004 age group and for good reason. Evan Rotundo is one of the most exciting prospects in the youth national team pool and this is because not only is he a flashy and skilled prospect, he is a number 10 which is currently vacant for the USMNT. Rotundo is an attacking mid who has elite vision, elite passing, and can punish a back line with both feet in a split second. When you look for players on the field, Rotundo will be the hardest to find at first because he will be the smallest player, but his skill and high soccer IQ will immediately standout. While most youth national team level players are often one or two steps ahead of the game, Evan is four or five steps ahead at all time. His off the ball movement, one touch passing, and ability to hide his decisions are second to none and make him an elite prospect who has rightfully gained recognition for it world wide.
While Rotundo is an exciting prospect, there is one glaring weakness in his game, Evan is not the most athletically gifted player. Evan may have the best vision and IQ in the entire u20 pool but he will likely be one of the slower and weaker players on the field in every game he plays. On defense, Rotundo will be a liability in a team that has to defend with numbers behind the ball. However, if you can pair Evan with two other midfielders who are solid defensively and can cover a lot of ground then Evan will be your team’s best player as he will be able to freely navigate spaces and dissect the other team with ease.
Evan should not be looked at as a player who will break through in the fashion that Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna have as he will take longer to physically develop but Rotundo is on track to be a full-time Bundesliga level player by the time he turns 19 or 20 years old which is still notable. In Germany, Evan will bulk up and better develop his dribbling skills to he can eliminate defenders in even more ways at the next level which is his last major offensive quality to still develop before he becomes elite at his position. Currently, Evan is a member of the San Diego Surf u19’s and has been widely reported to be heading abroad (has even been confirmed by Evan on his Instagram but his future destination in Germany is still unknown). Evan’s landing spot in Europe is huge and if he can find the right team then the USMNT will be looking at their first big time number 10.
Fede Oliva is a highly promising winger who is currently playing at Athletico Madrid in Spain. Fede is the same style of player as Gio Reyna but is not as explosive in his first step so he does not blow by players as easily. Fede is a physically imposing winger with fast feet, a great cross, and a good finishing ability. Highly rated in the Athletico Madrid system, Fede will be one that is highly likely to move up into the next u20 cycle and further in the youth national team system. While Fede may not have the ceiling of a Athletico Madrid first team player (very few players around the world do), Fede will likely have a very long career in the Spanish La Liga.
Fede’s weakness is that there is not a quality that is truly elite in his game yet. Fede is well rounded and is great at most things but has not turned one of them into a true standout factor which is needed to make it at the highest levels. If Fede can improve his speed or become an elite dribbler then he could very well become a player who may have the quality to break into a team like Athletico Madrid. But, if Fede does not develop any elite aspect to his game then his ceiling may end up being a mid-table La Liga player (which is not a bad thing by the way). Fede can reach the USMNT but has a lot to improve on if he wants to displace guys like Pulisic, Reyna, Uly Llanez, and Tim Weah long term.
Brandan Craig is currently the best 2004 at the Philadelphia Union academy and is my favorite prospect in their system currently. Brandan is a very versatile player who is currently being converted into a center back by the Philadelphia Union because he won’t stop growing (he is easily 6 feet tall and will continue to grow still). Much like Joe Scally, Craig grew up as a right back and defensive midfielder which allowed Craig to develop into an elite passer and a valuable asset driving forward. With Brandan Craig being turned into a center back, his game has to adapt because the weakest quality he has is his defense as he is beatable 1v1. This is likely to be something that the Philadelphia Union constantly work on with him as he will be an automatic first team starter once he becomes a solid defender at a young age similar to Justen Glad with Real Salt Lake.
Craig is such a good prospect because he can play defensive mid, right back, and center back and still manage to be one of the best 2004’s in all three positions which is something that most prospects can’t do. Craig does have access to a European passport so it will be interesting to see if he decides to head abroad or stay a the Union. In the past, Craig has trained with numerous European clubs including Liverpool and Bayern Munich. When Craig starts to put on muscle and sharpens his defensive ability he will be an elite prospect and European clubs will be hunting to give him a fast pass to their first team. He is a player with a bright USMNT future.
Kenan Hot is one of the most underrated prospects in the 2004 cycle. Most people do not think of Kenny when they think of the top 2004’s but they should. When comparing Kenny’s game, just imagine Michael Bradley but more reliable on defense and better dribbling. Kenny is currently at the New York Red Bulls who have a great track record with their prospects and Kenny has also received interest from a number of European clubs as well. Kenny has a fantastic passing range, has a soccer IQ that is amongst the best of all youth national team center mids, is the most composed prospect in the 2004 age group, is unusually good at finding the back of the net for a center mid, and has bite defensively. Kenny is one of the more likely prospects in this age group to blossom long term and become a USMNT player.
Playing soccer is in Kenny’s blood as well. Many New York Red Bulls die hard fans will immediately recognize the last name Hot because Kenny is the cousin of former u17 youth national team standout and Red Bulls homegrown Sacir Hot. With a good family background who knows the right steps to take, a club that is good at developing young players, and a skill set that is ideal for the senior level, Kenny is a elite prospect.
Winter / Spring Highlight Tape pic.twitter.com/aubJJ7knHj— Kenny Hot (@KenanHot16) March 26, 2020
Allan is my personal favorite prospect in the 2004 class but that is because he is the first major American professional soccer player to come out of the South Bend/Elkhart area (where I am from as well), the best player historically from the same area is Femi Hollinger-Janzen who managed to have 32 appearances and 2 goals for the New England Revolution. Allan Rodriguez recently signed a contract with the Chicago Fire and is the best prospect at the club currently and will hope that the new ownership will lead to a long and prosperous career for him.
Allan is a pit bull on the field. Allan may not look like the most mobile player but will manage to consistently shut down the other team’s attack time and time again. Allan will always be the most frustrating player for other teams to play against because he rarely loses the ball and is a beast defensively. The weakness in Allan’s game is he is not the most athletic player and it is unknown how he will transition to the first team level but people also said that about him playing with the youth national teams and then he ended up being the standout at the 2019 Concacaf u15 Championships, so don’t doubt this kid’s abilities. If Allan can improve his lateral quickness and develop the ability to create plays from the deep lying position then he will quickly jump over to Europe as he would become one of the best 6’s in the Bundesliga. Allan is a dual-nat concern because Mexico are actively inquiring about his desire to play for El-Tri and Allan would be a massive lost for the USMNT pipeline.
It is not often that Charlie Kennan is bullish about a prospect, but when he is you should listen to him and Darren Yapi is one of those prospects. Yapi currently plays for the Colorado Rapids and is almost a guarentee to be their next homegrown signing. Darren is an intriguing player because he has a very good chance of breaking into the MLS level within the next year and a half because the Rapids like to play young players and Darren Yapi is already a first-team ready player physically. Yapi also has the technical skills to match his superb athleticism which make him a can’t miss prospect.
Yapi has the same weakness that the majority of physically unstoppable wingers his age have, he still has to improve his soccer IQ. Right now Yapi does not always make the right plays because he does not have to at the Development Academy level where he is a man among boys. To put it lightly, Yapi is a bully in the Development Academy. At the senior level, Yapi will need to be more creative in his approach to taking defenders on and combining with other attackers. If Colorado can teach Yapi how to make better runs off of the ball and when and when not to take a player on then Yapi will go far in the professional game and likely to a German side.
Watch Darren Yappi bully kids on his Hudl page here.
Like with Charlie Kennan, when Adam Belz (@Scuffed on twitter and host of the Scuffed podcast) singles out a player in an age group then you need to take that player seriously as the last player Belz championed was Richie Ledezma and if you are reading this far into the post then you know the quality of Ledezma. Like Richie Ledezma, Leo Torres will come up through the USL with San Antonio FC. Leo Torres is a younger and just as skilled Uly Llanez. Leo is a skilled winger who loves taking players on 1v1 and making plays by either cutting in or serving the ball in from out wide.
Like Uly Llanez and Richie Ledezma, the largest battle that Leo Torres will face to break into a first team is developing physically and athletically as Leo is a undersized player as well. Leo will be given minutes with the San Antonio first team this year so he will be given more time than other prospects to adjust to the professional level which is why Leo is an A+ prospect. Leo’s ceiling is still yet to be determined but if he ended up in Europe I would not be shocked.
Every youth national team age group has a kid from a random state where no one expects a soccer star to be from and this cycle’s player is Rokas Pukstas from Stillwater, Oklahoma. Pukstas is one of the most well-rounded center mid prospects in the youth national team systems. It is very possibly that Pukstas becomes a starter for this u17 cycle and pushes Kenan Hot back to the starting 6 role. Pukstas is a cerebral center mid with a pristine first touch who can cover a lot of ground and make plays in the final third. While most people thought Allan Rodriguez was the standout player at the Concacaf u15 Championships, I thought Pukstas was the other player deserving of recognition.
Rokas is a player bound for Europe as he has recently left Sporting Kansas City for Barca Academy at Casa Granda, Arizona, where he will be searching for an opportunity in Europe. Rokas currently needs to work on becoming an elite passer as that will be key for him breaking into the next level. Pukstas is one of the most technically gifted midfielders in the youth national team pool and will consistently be one of the more underrated prospects until he lights up the u17 World Cup next October.
When you look at a prospect with a high ceiling, fewer have a higher ceiling than Quinn Sullivan. Sullivan currently is in the Philadelphia Union academy where he is one of two 2004 born players (the other being Brandan Craig) to be promoted to the Union u19’s and will likely be a USL player within the next year. Sullivan has the same athletic tools and skill that Gio Reyna is gifted with and has a high soccer IQ to go along with it. Quinn is a roaming 10/winger who drifts between being out wide and cutting in an creating danger Sullivan is either raved or completely passed over by USMNT USYNT die hard fans. Last season, Sullivan dominated the Development Academy with 19 goals and 6 assists in 20 games but this season his production has slipped which is why he is not ranked higher.
If Quinn carried the same rate of production in the later half of 2019 he would be in the top five players for this age group and a lock starter. His largest flaw is consistency as he moves into the older age groups. He is still an elite play maker but he needs to start having that skill reflect in the stat sheet. If Sullivan can polish his end product then he will be quickly promoted to the Union first team where he would have a Brendan Aaronson like breakthrough.
A 23-man depth chart for the 2004 USMNT USYNT age group
Overall this USMNT USYNT cycle is pretty average based and will need help from the 2005’s if they want to succeed in the 2021 u17 World Cup. Going into the 2023 u20 World Cup I do not see many of these players pushing out the 2003’s but the players who we’re previously highlighted have the best shot at doing so. The strengths in this roster lie in the midfield and the attack where there is real quality and can do some serious damage at the u17 international level.
The USMNT USYNT defense is led by Chris Brady who in my opinion is the best goalkeeper in the age group and has surpassed fellow Chicago Fire goalkeeper Gabe Slonina. The fullbacks are weaker for this age group the starters should be Erik Duenas on the right, and Tristian Viviani on the left. I would not be shocked to see Nati Clarke start at either right back or left back for the 2021 u17 World Cup cycle for USMNT USYNT. The center back pairing for this age group may be the strongest that a USA u17 youth national team has ever seen as there are two actual center backs with long term potential which is even more rare than a competent left back for the USMNT USYNT. If either Antonio Leone or Brandon Craig get hurt then both Thomas Williams and Nigel Prince could both walk into the lineup and we would not have to worry.
The success of the u17’s USMNT USYNT midfield completely rides on the form that Evan Rotundo shows that day as he is the creative spark for this team. The best support to Rotundo would be Kenan Hot and Allan Rodriguez who can both keep possession and break up the other team’s attack allowing Rotundo to focus on creating up top. If Rotundo gets hurt then Victor Valdez would be tasked with stepping in which would help defensively but would hurt the team offensively. Aethan Yohannes and Rokas Pukstas are amazing backups and could very easily push into starting roles as well. Should any of the six midfielders get hurt then Zack Booth would be the replacement as he can play the 6, 8, and 10 at a high level.
The offense for this USMNT USYNT cycle will really depend on if Malick Sanogo chooses to play for the United States or Germany. Should Sanogo choose the good guys then this attack would be lethal as he would be paired with Darren Yapi and Federico Oliva and would be just as good if either Leo Torres or Quinn Sullivan were put into the linup. The attack would drop in quality without Malick Sanogo but Christian Torres would be the next man up. For the actual u17 cycle, I would not be surprised if Italo Jenkins is actually moved up an age group and moved into the backup striker role as he would still be the most athletically dominant player on the team.
The top 25 players in the 2004 age group
- Malick Sanogo- Striker (FC Union Berlin)
- Antonio Leone- Center Back (LAFC)
- Evan Rotundo- Attacking Midfield/Winger (San Diego Surf)
- Federico Oliva- Winger/Striker (Athletico Madrid)
- Brandan Craig- Center Back/Right Back/Defensive Midfield (Philadelphia Union)
- Kenan Hot- Center Midfield/Defensive Midfield (New York Red Bulls)
- Allan Rodriguez- Defensive Midfield (Chicago Fire)
- Darren Yapi- Winger/Striker (Colorado Rapids)
- Leo Torres- Winger/Attacking Midfield (San Antonio FC)
- Rokas Pukstas- Center Mid/Attacking Midfield (Barca Academy AZ)
- Quinn Sullivan- Winger/Attacking Midfield (Philadelphia Union)
- Zack Booth- Center Midfield/Attacking Midfield (Real Salt Lake)
- Chris Brady- Goalkeeper (Chicago Fire)
- Aethan Yohannes- Defensive Midfield/Center Midfield (AZ Alkmaar)
- Nigel Prince- Center Back (Atlanta United)
- Gabriel Slonina- Goalkeeper (Chicago Fire)
- Eric Duenas- Right Back (LAFC)
- Christian Torres- Striker (LAFC)
- Thomas Williams- Center Back (Orlando City FC)
- Victor Valdez- Attacking Midfield (LA Galaxy)
- Jeff Dewsnup- Goalkeeper (Real Salt Lake)
- Osvaldo Cisneros- Winger/Striker (Sporting Kansas City)
- Justin Reynolds- Right Back/Left Back (Chicago Fire)
- Tristian Viviani- Left Back (San Jose Earthquakes)
- John-Carlos Cortez- Left Back (New York Red Bulls)
If you enjoyed this article please take a look at the breakdowns of the 2001, 2002, and 2003 articles as well as following David Kerr (@dkerr0118) on Twitter for more information on the USMNT United States youth national team prospects!