Today officially marks one year away from the 2021 u20 World Cup which kicks off on May 20, 2021 in Indonesia. The u20 World Cup is the target event for the 2001 age group of the youth national team but will also feature the standout players from the 2002 and 2003 age groups. 2019 saw a very up and down year for the YNT’s as the u20’s made a quarterfinal run in the best YNT display that the United States has seen yet. This amazing display was followed up by the worst performance in youth World Cup history by the u17’s who managed to score a whopping one goal in three matches and crashed out of the World Cup with one draw and two very bad losses. The only other terrible youth World Cup performance I have seen was the 2015 u17 World Cup who also only managed one point in three games but still managed to yield Christian Pulisic and Tyler Adams (the age 1998 age group also produced Weston McKennie and Reggie Cannon by the way so remember that development is not linear).
With the previous u17 cycle being the 2002’s who will play a part in this u20 cycle fans are wondering how good this cycle will be. I think that the cycle is actually on track to be a very good team that has some real quality and may actually be as good as the previous u20 cycle. Even though the 2002’s are a very weak age group, the 2001’s are a very strong age group. I do not expect many 2002’s to carry over from the previous u17 cycle. I think we will see maybe three or four players carry over which is very common for a u20 cycle. I think this cycle actually has the talent that there was an A, B, and potentially even C team that they would be good enough to make it to the final in qualifying, we are that much better than every other team in the region for this cycle.
Today will be looking at each position in the u20 pool and breaking down who the top players are and who I expect to make this team in a year. Keep in mind that things change rapidly at this age group. There will be players who get hurt and fall off, there will be players who come into good form, and there will be players who hit a spell of bad form. Remember that Edwin Cerillo was not in the picture at all for the previous u20 cycle until he broke into the FC Dallas first team with around a month left before the u20 World Cup and then he ended up making the team. There could be a similar situation to happen in this cycle. But with that being said, let’s dive into the player pool.
The goalkeeper depth for the u20’s is the best that I have ever seen in a YNT. In my opinion, there are five goalkeepers who have potential to make the squad for this cycle: David Ochoa, Chituru Odunze, Luca Lewis, Damian Las, and John Pulskamp. Normally in a u20 cycle you see a goalkeeper play an age group up (a 2003 playing with the 2001’s) but the depth is so good for this group that this will not be a thing for the current cycle.
The starter for this age group is David Ochoa. David is by far the most talented keeper in the depth chart as he is very good at every aspect of his game and is exceptional with his feet compared to the other goalkeepers. David was the best goalkeeper who even managed to start in goal for two matches during the previous u20 World Cup in 2019. The last goalkeeper to be as talented as David Ochoa at the u20 level was Zack Steffen, and look where Steffen is at now. David has already won the USL Championship as a teenager and is the heir to the starting goalkeeper spot at Real Salt Lake.
The youth national team players who will be competing for the other two goalkeeper spots are Chituru Odunze, Luca Lewis, Damian Las and John Pulskamp. While I do not consider any of these four to be quite as talented as David Ochoa, I do think all of these players are truly exceptional prospects. In my mind, the top two are Chituru Odunze and Luca Lewis. Both Odunze and Lewis were called up to the recent camp that was supposed to take place in March and appear to be the guys that Anthony Hudson rate highly. Damian Las and John Pulskamp are the two other goalkeepers that I think should also be given a look because they are both great players and are good enough to tend the net at this level.
Top option: David Ochoa (Real Salt Lake)
In the pool: Chituru Odunze (Leicester City FC), Luca Lewis (Torino FC), Damian Las (Fulham FC), John Pulskamp (Sporting Kansas City)
For this u20 cycle, right back is one of the weaker positions overall. The best youth national team option currently is Julian Araujo who will also likely be the captain of the team. Julian was a late injury replacement for the previous u20 World Cup and is one of the strongest locks for this age group. Julian told both his club and country that he will suit up for the u20’s instead of playing for the Olympic team (the u23’s) as he wants to be a leader for this cycle. Julian will be a rock defensively for the team and will be able to safely put out any fires.
After Julian is where the pool gets tricky as there is no player who could be considered a guarantee to make the team. Currently, all signs are pointing to Ian Hoffmann being the backup right back as he has been the only right back called up in all three u20 camps so far this cycle. Ian was also one of the recent top performers of the January camp which was the last time this group was able to meet.
The player who has the potential to jump Ian in the depth chart is Mauricio Cuevas who is the best right back in the 2003 age group. Mauricio is a standout at almost every level he plays in. When he was with the u17’s for qualifying last year he held his own playing a year up and when playing in the USL Mauricio looks even better. With a year to work on his game and physically mature, Mauricio could be one of the players who manages to play up a u20 cycle.
Top options: Julian Araujo (LA Galaxy), Ian Hoffmann (Karlsruher SC)
Young player to watch: Mauricio Cuevas (LA Galaxy)
In the pool: Cameron Duke (Sporting Kansas City), Joe Scally (NYCFC), Tayvon Gray (NYCFC)
Unlike right back, the left side of the backline is loaded. With the USMNT left back depth being pretty depressing, this is the group who could realistically change that in the next two or three years. The youth national team top option is the easiest roster choice in this cycle, Kobe Hernandez-Foster. It is truly a shame that center backs emerge on a later timeline and forced Kobe to have to play as a center backs with the u17’s because watching Kobe play as a left back in mind blowing. The weakest part of Kobe’s game is defending 1v1 but this is something that will improve over time and is something most defenders struggle with (remember, Sergino Dest also struggled with this at the u20 World Cup and now he is wanted by Bayern Munich and FC Barcelona). This is the left back that the people who rage troll the Ussoccer social media accounts have been waiting for.
There are two other players who are competing for the second left back spot. The current backup is Travian Sousa who currently plays overseas at Hamburger SV. Travian is a very athletic attacking left back who like Kobe, glides down the touchline and can terrorize a defense. Travian is a player who may get his first team chance with the German leagues now using five substitutions in a match.
The other left back to watch out for is Jonathan Gomez. Jonathan is another top tier FC Dallas product. Just how good is Jonathan? There are quite a few people who actually think that Jonathan has an even higher ceiling than Kobe does and for good reason, Jonathan is one hell of a player. Jonathan is a better defender going forward and is just as good on the ball. Kobe is more athletic and is more effective going forward but both are elite left back prospects. When looking long term for the 2026 and 2030 World Cups, if neither have any major injuries then they are both guarantees to make the USMNT. Jonathan is behind Travian currently because he does have to mature physically to keep up at the older levels as he is a 2003 and the two year age gap does make a big difference at this level.
Top options: Kobe Hernandez-Foster (Wolfsburg), Travian Sousa (Hamburger SV)
Young player to watch: Jonathan Gomez (Louisville City FC)
In the pool: George Bello (Atlanta United), John Tolkin (New York Red Bulls)
First we will take a look at the left center backs. For the first time in a u20 cycle, we have two actual left center backs which we have not had in a while. Both Leo Sepulveda and Bobby Pierre are left footed and prefer to play on the left side of the back line which is very uncommon for American center backs. The best out of the two is Leo Sepulveda and this is because Leo is a much better player playing out of the back. Leo’s downside is that his decision making defensively needs to improve and he still gets stuck in. Bobby however is not as good possessing the ball but is a better overall defender but I still prefer to have Leo in the 11. Leo will have a year to develop as a defender now that he is officially moved up to the Salmanaca first team. Bobby Pierre also brings u17 World Cup experience where he represented Haiti and was the sole reason that Haiti did not spend all three games constantly picking the ball out of the back of their net.
The starter on the right is already locked up for the youth national team. When you make an appearance for a top ten Premier League side when they aren’t having an injury crisis then you get an immediate locked in starting role. Owen also fits the style of play perfectly as this team will look to play a more possession style as he is good enough on the ball that Wolverhampton also play him as a 6. The backup currently is George Campbell. George is an absolute unit and a very good defender. However, playing out of the back is not George’s strong suit which is the only thing that separates him and Otasowie. If there is any injuries to either George or Owen, then there are quite a few reserve options who will be able to step in for the team.
Top options: Owen Otasowie (Wolverhampton), Leo Sepulveda (SD Salamanca), George Campbell (Atlanta United), Bobby Pierre (Real Salt Lake)
In the pool: Jacob Akanyirige (San Jose Earthquakes), Nico Carerra (FC Dallas), Jonathan Tomkinson (Norwich City FC)
In my opinion, the 6 is the strongest position in the u20 youth national team pool. The reason for this is because both Johnny Cardoso and Taylor Booth are phenomenal prospects. For the longest time, Taylor Booth was a very safe starter for the 2001 age group and then out of no where Gregg Berhalter finds Johnny Cardoso in Brazil and Taylor no longer has the spot locked up. Realistically, these two are pretty even overall and it will boil down to who is on a bigger hot streak at the time. The biggest difference between the two is that Johnny is better defensively while Taylor is a better distributor. When looking to out possess the other team and dominate the midfield, both of these players are very good options.
The depth at the 6 is also very good for the youth national team. The two main options that will be given a look in this cycle are Leon Flach and Danny Leyva. Both Leon and Danny were called into the March camp so they are both getting the looks they deserve. Danny may not be ready physically for the u20 level and could look like a fish out of water like he did in the u17 World Cup. To succeed at the u20 level Danny would need to be paired with a physically imposing center mid… like Tanner Tessmann. Because Leon is two years older, I believe he would be the first player taken if either Johnny or Taylor are hurt.
Top options: Johnny Cardoso (Internacional), Taylor Booth (Bayern Munich)
Young player to watch: Danny Leyva (Seattle Sounders)
In the pool: Leon Flach (St Pauli)
The 8 is another position that excites me but not quite as much as the 6. I am very excited about the players in this position but they don’t have any players quite at the level of Johnny Cardoso or Taylor Booth. The best option at this position in my opinion is Tanner Tessmann. Tanner was someone I had written off in this cycle when he announced he was going to Clemson and quickly got burned when he signed with FC Dallas, was thrown into the starting lineup in the first two matches, and was fantastic in both appearances. Tanner can cover ground with ease and has a great passing range and will be essential in controlling the midfield at the u20 level.
The other option I believe separates from the pack of the 8’s is Cole Bassett. Cole is one of the many underrated prospects to come out of the Colorado Rapids. Cole, like Tanner is a very physically gifted player who covers ground well. The difference between Cole and Tanner is that Tanner is better on the ball, has a better passing range, and is more dangerous in the attack. However, if Cole needed to sub in or if Tanner got hurt then the u20’s would still be fine and I would be confident that they could steam roll almost any team they play.
The reserve options are very notable just because of how much boom or bust potential both have. The first reserve option is Bryang Kayo. Bryang is more physically gifted than both Tanner and Cole but is not quite as good on the ball as either. However, in Germany Bryang will be pushed harder to polish his skills and could very well play his way into the roster.
Moses Nyeman is the other reserve that I think has a chance to make this team. Moses is not like the other three 8’s on the youth national team because he is not the most physically gifted player (he is 5’6 125 on a good day). However, Moses is much better on the ball than the other three and it is not even close. Moses also has bite and will make the hard tackles when needed as shown in his Loundon United matches. If Moses can hit the weights and start to make some appearances for DC United (play the kid Ben Olsen!) then he could easily jump into the roster, the kid has that much potential even as a 2003.
Top Options: Tanner Tessmann (FC Dallas), Cole Bassett (Colorado Rapids)
Young player to watch: Moses Nyeman (DC United)
In the pool: Bryang Kayo (Wolfsburg)
Attacking midfield is another very strong position for theyouth national team. This has the potential to be the strongest position in the pool but also is not very likely to as Gio Reyna is on track to skip the u20 level and head to the USMNT. At this point you all know who Gio Reyna is and the qualities he brings so I don’t need to say why he is the starter here. But, with the u20 World Cup, the Gold Cup, the Olympics, and potentially World Cup Qualifiers there is going to be a lot of games jam packed into the summer of 2021. With Gio not just being a starter for the u20’s but the Olympic team and the USMNT then there will have to be competitions he misses out on.
Should USMNT fans have to worry about the u20’s even without Gio Reyna? Not at all, and that is because of Jose Gallegos. Jose Gallegos is this u20 cycle’s edition of Richie Ledezma, the kid who popped up out of no where playing in the USL with loads of talent. However, Jose is even more unique than Richie because he did not actually play in the Development Academy. Jose should serve as an example to players out there that you don’t have to play in the top tier youth leagues to end up as a professional soccer player. If there is a USL team near you, give them a chance to help make your dreams come true! Jose has grit, he has the skill, he has the vision, and he has the playmaking ability in his gene’s. This is a kid who should be a real break through at the u20 World Cup.
Assuming Gio does not play with this youth national team, there will need to be a backup for Jose. In my opinion, that backup should be Thomas Roberts. Thomas has almost all of the skill as Jose but is not quite as athletic. Thomas has consistently produced at every level he has played at and was one of the standouts in the early parts of this u20 cycle. When Paxton Pomykal and Jesus Ferreira move on from FC Dallas, Thomas should fill in quickly and effectively.
There is one other player who could become part of the player pool but I am unsure of the actual possibility of this happening. The player I am talking about is Efrain Alvarez. There are a couple reasons for him to join the youth national team. The first is would Efra leave the Mexico setup to play for Anthony Hudson? I am pretty doubtful of this because of Anthony Hudson’s not so great coaching track record and the ideal coach for Efra not being involved in the USA setup. Another reason is would Efra be willing to file a one time switch so quickly after making a u17 World Cup final run with Mexico and permanently seal who he plays for? If he does then does he not feel like he has a future in the Mexican national team system? If Efra feels valued, then why would he file a one time switch and leave after being given everything he wants by the Mexico federation? The only thing that I could see not making Efra debate switching is him not getting called into the early Mexico u20 camps. But at the same time of not getting called into the Mexico u20’s, would Efra make the USA u20’s who are a lot more talented and have a lot more depth at his position? If he wouldn’t then there is no chance he files the one time switch and moves into the USA setup. I think there is a very good chance of convincing Efra to switch long term, but I do not think it would be smart for Efra to switch so early until Mexico has completely closed the door on him.
Top Options: Gio Reyna (Borussia Dortmund), Jose Gallegos (San Antonio FC)
Young players to watch: Caden Clark (New York Red Bulls), Johnny Perez (LA Galaxy)
In the pool: Thomas Roberts (FC Dallas), Matteo Ritaccio (Liverpool), Marcelo Palomino (Houston Dynamo)
Unlikely dual national: Efrain Alvarez (Mexico, LA Galaxy)
The reason I listed Gio Reyna with the attacking midfielders is because the wingers are exceptionally talented for this cycle. Tab Ramos’ mentality for the youth national team was that you should always want to play as many good player as you can, even if it means one is not in his strongest position but can still benefit the team. With both Uly Llanez and Konrad De La Fuente in this group, the wings are going to be fast, skilled, dangerous, and unstoppable.
Uly is one of the hottest USMNT prospects currently and I think he will end up being with the team being in a similar situation that Tim Weah was with the last group. If Uly is given the chance to play with this team, Uly will be a force and will quickly draw the eyes of the world. Konrad is a player with a lot to prove this cycle. I actually came away impressed Konrad after the last tournament and this is an opinion that is not shared with many. The reason for this is because Konrad held his own and was still confident on the dribble and beating defenders as a 17 year old in a u20 World Cup. With two more years of development at La Masia, Konrad will be playing with a chip on his shoulders and I think Konrad will be in for an electrifying tournament.
The third winger that I am taking for this youth national team is Cameron Harper. Cam is not as technically sound as both Uly and Konrad but makes up for it by being ridiculously fast. Cam will be faster than any full back at this level and has the dribbling ability to beat defenders easily. Cam could make his first team debut for Celtic before the u20 World Cup happens and has been the top standout with the u20’s early in the cycle so far. If Uly is withheld from the team then expect Matko Milijevic to step in. Matko will bring the flair you often see from South American wingers who were born with a ball at their feet.
Top options: Uly Llanez (Wolfsburg), Konrad De La Fuente (FC Barcelona), Cameron Harper (Celtic)
Young player to watch: Dante Sealy (FC Dallas)
In the pool: Matko Milijevic (Argentinos Juniors)
This is the only weak spot in the youth national team. The best player in this group is Ricardo Pepi who I don’t think is actually ready for the u20 level because he did not have a very good u17 World Cup. However, compared to the other options Pepi is by far the best at connecting with defenders and being clinical in front of the net. Ricardo Pepi is a top tier striker prospect but as a 2003 he will be playing an age group up against much older and stronger center backs who will be better than almost anyone he will face off against in the MLS.
The other striker I would take for this youth national team is someone who may not actually be a striker long term and that is Indiana Vassilev. Indy can literally play in every position and if you have not watched a youth world cup, versatility matters when choosing a 21-man roster. Indy has played as a 6, 8, 10, winger, and striker over the last three years and has excelled at every position. However, many fans at Aston Villa believe that his best position is either up top as the 9, or on the left wing. Due to Aston Villa being one of the only clubs to never release film of their youth teams anywhere online, we will have to take the club’s die hard supporters word for where he currently plays. Indy also made his Premier League debut as a 10 and made another appearance as a striker. Indy’s versatility to play six different positions will be key for this team.
The other striker options are all less than thrilling for the youth national team. The best of the group is Charlie Kelman who has been doing well with Southend United. The fourth option would be Matthew Hoppe with Schalke and the last option before there is a massive drop off is Johan Gomez at Porto. None of these players excite me and I don’t see any of them having a USMNT future but because the roster depth is so thin at this position, all are still in the running to make this team.
One player could turn this position into a strength but in my opinion is a pipe dream and that is Folarin Balogun. Folarin is on track to be a first team player for Arsenal as early as next season and has been a prolific goalscorer for the Arsenal academy at every single level. However, all signs are pointing to Folarin leaning towards England as he does not have any photos on his Instagram from when he played with the Ussoccer u18 YNT and he also only follows one person who has any ties to Ussoccer and that is Owen Otasowie (who is a English dual-national). Folarin would turn the USA into a powerhouse at this level but that is not looking like it will happen.
Top options: Ricardo Pepi (FC Dallas), Indiana Vassilev (Aston Villa)
In the pool: Charlie Kelman (Southend United), Matthew Hoppe (Schalke), Johan Gomez (FC Porto)
Unlikely dual-national: Folarin Balogun (Arsenal)
The ideal 21-man youth national team roster for this age group
The idea of this youth national team is to be a possession based team with attacking prowess similar to the previous u20 World Cup team. Like the last u20 cycle, this group should make teams play their game. This team should control the tempo and momentum of every game they play in no matter who they are lining up against. So what should the expectations be with this group? If at full strength, this team should be expected to make at least a semi-final run. Anything less would be a disappointment. If the youth national team does not have Gio and Uly, then they should still be expected to make it to the quarterfinal like the three previous u20 cycles have done.
So how does this youth national team compare to the previous cycle? The defense overall is not as solid as the last backline of Chris Gloster, Mark McKenzie (or Aboubacar Keita who filled in), Chris Richards, and Sergino Dest. The midfield however is a much better group than the last cycle. The last group kept possession well but struggled to turn possession into goals and that won’t be the case with this group. The 2019 midfield was also relatively easy to play through (see the quarterfinal against Ecuador) which won’t be the case with this team. The offenses of both teams are about equal. The previous u20s had better strikers but this group has better wingers so it balances out. If both youth national teams played each other, the score would be just about even. There is one difference between the two cycles and that is depth. The current u20 cycle would be able to qualify in Concacaf with their c-team. In fact, USA already beat the Mexico u20’s with a majority second and third choice roster (some players in the camp are realistically not even good enough to be third choice players).
So how would this group do against the u20 teams who were not developed in the 10-month season DA? This youth national team would likely slaughter all of them except for the 2007 World Cup team which contained players like Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, and Freddy Adu. The 2007 would only lose by 2 goals most likely, the gap in level from what the USA used to developed compared to now is that big, things are changing. Every other u20 team the USA has sent out would get fleeced by 3 or 4 goals at least by this side, including the 2015 and 2017 teams who both made quarterfinal runs. The future is bright.
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