The long-awaited return of the U-20 World Cup is just a few days away, and after months of speculation, the tournament is finally set to go ahead in Argentina. The United States will be one of 24 teams vying to be crowned U-20 world champions, and to win a trophy that hasn’t been awarded since 2019 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite several key absences, Mikey Varas’ team is still considered one of the strongest ever sent to the tournament by the U.S., and they’ll be on a mission to make a statement to the rest of the world.
What is the U.S.’s history in the U-20 World Cup?
The U.S. has traditionally performed well at the U-20 level and has reached the quarterfinals of the last three editions in 2015, 2017, and 2019. The Americans have only missed qualification once since 1995, and since 1989, they’ve reached the knockout stages in 11 of the 13 editions of the competition. Their best finish was 4th place in 1989 led by Kasey Keller and Chris Henderson, and while they’ve consistently gone far in the tournament, that remains the only semifinal appearance for the U.S. in history.
Each of the last few U-20 cycles has produced at least a few senior national team players, and the majority of the current senior team played for the youth national teams at some point. Current USMNT players who shone at the U-20 World Cup in recent cycles include Sergiño Dest, Chris Richards, Mark McKenzie, Tim Weah (2019), Tyler Adams, Josh Sargent (2017), Cameron Carter-Vickers, Erik Palmer-Brown (2015 and 2017), Matt Miazga, Paul Arriola (2015), Zack Steffen, Kellyn Acosta (2013 and 2015), DeAndre Yedlin (2013), and Sean Johnson (2009).
Who will the U.S. face?
The U.S. was drawn as the top-seeded team in Group B alongside Ecuador, Fiji, and Slovakia. Naturally, Ecuador stands out as the biggest test among the group stage opponents; they were the team that knocked out the U.S. en route to a third-place finish in 2019, and boast one of the top young talent pools in the world. Slovakia will also prove a difficult test, having drawn the U.S. earlier this year and qualifying out of a crowded European region. Fiji, admittedly, should be a cakewalk; they qualified as the second-placed team in Oceania, who are granted two berths for competitions such as these.
All three of the U.S. group matches will be held at Estadio San Juan del Bicentenario. The newly-renovated 25,000 seater stadium in San Juan, Argentina, has hosted a few big games in the past, including a 2022 World Cup qualifier between Argentina and Brazil. It is one of the four Argentine venues for the competition, with the others being at Estadio Único Diego Armando Maradona (La Plata), Estadio Único Madre de Ciudades (Santiago del Estero), and Estadio Malvinas Argentinas (Mendoza).
The tournament will be played between May 20th and June 11th.
Who is on the U.S. roster?
The full roster selected by coach Mikey Varas is listed below. All players born January 1st, 2003, and later were available for selection, barring those who are injured or were not released by their clubs:
GOALKEEPERS (3): 21-Alex Borto (Fulham/ENG; South Plainfield, N.J.; 2/0), 12-Antonio Carrera (FC Dallas; Frisco, Texas; 4/0), 1-Gaga Slonina (Chelsea/ENG; Addison, Ill.; 5/0)
DEFENDERS (7): 17-Justin Che (Hoffenheim/GER; Dallas, Texas; 6/0), 5-Brandan Craig (Philadelphia Union; Philadelphia, Pa.; 10/1), 2-Mauricio Cuevas (LA Galaxy; Los Angeles, Calif.; 13/1), 14-Marcus Ferkranus (LA Galaxy; Santa Clarita, Calif.; 11/0), 13-Jonathan Gomez (Real Sociedad/ESP; Keller, Texas; 6/0), 3-Caleb Wiley (Atlanta United FC; Atlanta, Ga.; 5/0), 4-Joshua Wynder (Louisville City FC; Louisville, Ky.; 2/0)
MIDFIELDERS (7): 6-Daniel Edelman (New York Red Bulls; Warren, N.J.; 10/0), 10-Diego Luna (Real Salt Lake; Sunnyvale, Calif.; 16/4), 8-Jack McGlynn (Philadelphia Union; Middle Village, N.Y.; 16/2), 20-Rokas Pukstas (Hajduk Split/CRO; Stillwater, Okla.; 12/1), 15-Niko Tsakiris (San Jose Earthquakes; Saratoga, Calif.; 5/3), 18-Obed Vargas (Seattle Sounders FC; Anchorage, Alaska; 4/0), 16-Owen Wolff (Austin FC; Austin, Texas; 3/1)
FORWARDS (4): 9-Cade Cowell (San Jose Earthquakes; Ceres, Calif.; 7/2), 11-Kevin Paredes (Wolfsburg/GER; South Riding, Va.; 6/2), 7-Quinn Sullivan (Philadelphia Union; Philadelphia, Pa.; 15/7), 19-Darren Yapi (Colorado Rapids; Denver, Colo.; 3/0)
Who won’t be there?
A point of controversy over the last few months has been the release of players for the U-20 World Cup. Several of the top players in the 2003/2004 age group were not permitted by their clubs to miss league games to go to the tournament.
The most notable absence, for this reason, is Brian Gutiérrez, who has had a breakout season for the Chicago Fire and has been their best attacking player so far in 2023. This tournament would have been a great opportunity for him to showcase himself on the global stage, but his importance to the club came first. Paxten Aaronson, who won the Golden Ball and the Golden Boot at the CONCACAF U-20 Championship last year, was not released by Eintracht Frankfurt after earning numerous first team appearances this Spring. The third likely starter who wasn’t released was Jalen Neal, who would have been the team’s most experienced defender and most important center back.
A few other players won’t be there either. Ricardo Pepi is age-eligible but was not brought as he has graduated to the senior national team. CONCACAF Championship Golden Glove winner Chris Brady could have possibly pushed for the starting goalkeeper job, but as he is the starter in Chicago as well, he was not released. Noel Buck, an ‘05, was arguably a roster snub, as he is enjoying an excellent season with New England. Alex Alvarado didn’t make the cut after shining at the CONCACAF Championship. Caden Clark, Michael Halliday, Noah Allen, Thomas Williams, and Jackson Hopkins are some other players who have been involved previously during the cycle but didn’t make the final squad.
Kevin Paredes and Rokas Pukštas will both join the team late and arrive in time for the knockout stages. They were not released by their clubs, as Wolfsburg have key matches in the hunt for Europe, and Split has a Croatian Cup final. Cade Cowell is suspended for the first match due to a suspension picked up during a brawl at the CONCACAF Championship.
Who are the players to watch?
Despite a few key absences that lower the ceiling of this team, there are still several players who have very bright futures in front of them, and are certainly worth keeping an eye on during this tournament.
Gaga Slonina is the big blue-chip talent of this cycle. The Addison, Illinois native and Chicago Fire Academy product had a steller 2022 campaign in MLS, keeping 12 clean sheets, and earned a blockbuster $15 million transfer to English giants Chelsea. His game is very well-rounded, as he is competent with his feet in addition to his strong shot-stopping ability. While he has some areas to improve, particularly his decision-making, Gaga is well on his way to becoming one of the best goalkeepers in the world, and could soon challenge to break into the senior USMNT.
Perhaps the most talented outfield player in this group is Kevin Paredes, who has already broken into top-half Bundesliga club Wolfsburg. Had some poorly-timed injuries not gotten in the way, there’s a very real shot that he would have made the 2022 senior team World Cup roster, and he was even close to making the Gold Cup roster as far back as 2021. The dynamic winger, who can play on either side or as a left back, will have the opportunity to showcase his excellent dribbling ability and clinicality in the final third if the U.S. advances to the knockout stages.
Left back is arguably the strongest position on the roster. Not only was Caleb Wiley released for the tournament by Atlanta United, but Jonathan Gómez is also a part of the group to head to Argentina. Wiley has had a phenomenal start to the season with Atlanta, breaking into their lineup and registering numerous goal contributions. After making his senior USMNT debut with a brief cameo against Mexico last month, he’ll be looking to raise his stock even further at the U-20 level, whether that be at left back or on the wing. Gómez’s momentum has slowed down over the last year and a half, but he is still a tremendously talented player, who will be very valuable for this group.
In addition to Slonina, Wiley, and Gómez, there is one other player with senior men’s national team appearances: Cade Cowell. The 19-year-old has had his ups and downs in his young career, but should still be a dangerous player at the U-20 level. His pace and athleticism bring something different to the U.S. attack, and he’s shown in friendlies that he can play on the international stage. His San Jose teammate, Niko Tsakiris, was a surprise inclusion since he was recovering from a long injury layoff. He was born in 2005, and is one of three players in the team playing up a cycle.
Joshua Wynder is one of them. The Benfica-bound Louisville City center back is America’s top defensive prospect at the moment, and he has forced his way into this team over the last few months. Breaking into a team two years up, especially as a center back, is not a small feat, and this World Cup will be a great opportunity for Wynder to showcase himself ahead of his European move. Obed Vargas, of the Seattle Sounders, is also only 17, and he just came back from a months-long back injury. Vargas, who was born in Anchorage, Alaska, is a great midfield talent who broke into the Sounders team over a year ago and helped them win the CONCACAF Champions League when he was just 16.
The Philadelphia Union trio of Brandan Craig, Jack McGlynn, and Quinn Sullivan are all likely starters. McGlynn in particular is worth keeping an eye on, as he has broken into Jim Curtin’s starting XI for an immensely talented Union team that reached MLS Cup last season. Roka Pukštas has improved leaps and bounds since the CONCACAF Championship last year, and is now a regular starter for Hajduk Split in Croatia; in this tournament, he’ll be playing for a move to a bigger European league, and there’s no doubt scouts from the top five leagues will be watching. One-time Bayern Munich loanee Justin Che returns to the group; he’ll likely play right back and will be hoping to get back on most peoples’ radars after failing to break in with Hoffenheim over the past twelve months. He still has the talent to be a top defender, but he hasn’t had the opportunity to prove it yet.
How will the U.S. line up?
Are there any players from other teams to keep an eye on?
Many countries had the same release issues that the U.S. had for this tournament; in fact, France had as many as 28 players blocked from participating. Nonetheless, several top prospects will be in Argentina this month.
One player the U.S. will have to contain will be Ecuador’s Kendry Páez. The 2007-born midfielder just celebrated his 16th birthday last week but is already a first team player for Independiente del Valle, and the teenage sensation has agreed to join Chelsea when he turns 18. 19-year-old Nilson Angulo is another Ecuadorian player to watch out for, as he has broken through with Anderlecht and has been capped by the senior national team.
Italy are bringing Simone Pafundi to the World Cup; the 17-year-old became the third youngest player in history – and the youngest in over a century – to debut for the Italian national team when he appeared against Albania last November at 16. Chelsea loanee Andrey Santos will captain Brazil at the World Cup having made his senior international debut earlier this year. England are bringing several familiar names as a part of their squad, most notably Chelsea prospects Carney Chukwuemeka and Harvey Vale. Liam Delap and Canada-born Daniel Jebbison are also included. The host, Argentina, will be led by Máximo Perrone, a Manchester City prospect who was called up to the senior national team in March.
Yáser Asprilla is one of Colombia’s top prospects. The Envigado product now plays for Watford in the Championship, for whom he appeared 37 times this season, and he’s been capped twice by Colombia. A trio of U.S.-born players will join him in Colombia’s team: Juan Castilla, Devan Tanton, and Fernando Álvarez. Both Castilla and Tanton have represented U.S. teams in the past, while Álvarez was born in New York City but is also eligible for Mexico.
CONCACAF nations are littered with Americans, and while Mexico didn’t qualify this time around, the delegations from Guatemala, Dominican Republic, and Honduras include plenty of U.S.-eligible players. The most significant are FC Cincinnati’s Arquimides Ordóñez (Guatemala), Inter Miami’s David Ruiz (Honduras) and Edison Azcona (Dominican Republic), and Houston’s Xavier Valdez (Dominican Republic), who is particularly notable as he was called up by the U.S. earlier in the cycle.
A few other Americans are scattered elsewhere. Japan’s star center back, Anrie Chase, is U.S.-eligible, as he is the son of an American father. The Stuttgart defender has trained with Japan’s senior team, so it currently seems unlikely he’ll ever represent the United States. The Israeli team is the reason that the tournament was moved last-minute from Indonesia to Argentina, and they contain one American-born player; El Yam Kancepolsky of Hapoel Tel Aviv was born in Honolulu, ensuring that with the help of Obed Vargas, both Alaska and Hawaii will be represented at this World Cup.
How can I watch?
The group stage matches will be held this week, on May 20th, 23rd, and 26th. The matches will be shown on Fox Sports networks and on Telemundo. All networks are subject to change.
U.S.A. vs. Ecuador – May 20th – 2pm ET – Fox Soccer Plus/Telemundo
U.S.A. vs. Fiji – May 23rd – 2pm ET – FS2/Telemundo/NBC Universo
U.S.A. vs. Slovakia – May 26th – 2pm ET – FS2/Telemundo/NBC Universo