Sadly the 2021 u20 and u17 World Cup cycles have been cancelled due to COVID-19. This is very unfortunate for all the players and families who were involved in the cycle, but all the players still retain their Youth National Team (YNT) eligibility as all players will still be contending for a spot on the 2024 Olympics rosters which will consist of players born in 2001 and later. It is sad to see these players miss out on a lifetime opportunity, but all the players involved in these cycles will now have more time to establish themselves at their clubs and continue growing their budding professional careers. They’ll also be look at the 2023 u20 and u17 cycles.
Now, it is time to look to the future. The new YNT cycles are officially underway and folks, there is a lot to be excited about. The new cycles are targeted for the 2023 u20 and u17 World Cup’s which will be hosted in Indonesia and Peru. The new u20 cycle will be focused around the 2003’s and will be supplemented by the elite 2004’s and 2005’s while the new u17 cycle will focus around the 2006’s and will feature a few of the elite 2007’s.
The now concluded u20’s which consisted of the best 2001’s-2003’s were one of the most talented cycles that the USA has ever fielded. We had significant offensive and midfield depth and had numerous prospects, like Gio Reyna and Yunus Musah, who are making waves in Europe. Every position in the cycle except the center backs were absolutely stacked with talent that should quickly make an impact in the USMNT, but we will talk about that at another time. The new 2023 u20 cycle composed of the 2003’s-2005’s is shaping up to be an even better collection of talent. I expect to see a lot of players in this cycle break through in Europe before their World Cup happens in the Summer of 2023. Every position in this cycle is loaded with talent and over the next 2.5 years we will see many new names break through that are not even on the radar yet.
The previous u17 cycle was not quite as talented at their u20 counterparts were but was still a cycle that had a lot of built-up excitement and anticipation. Players like Malick Sanogo and Evan Rotundo had very high expectations and it is a huge letdown to not see what they would have been able to do on the World Cup. However, the 2006’s look to be a far superior collection of talent compared to the 2004’s or any other age group that the USA has produced. There are a lot of extremely talented players who have very, very high ceilings who I think have enormous potential.
In this article we are going to look at the “core” players of the new 2023 u20 and u17 cycles. These are the players who I think are going to be the key pieces of their cycles and who should see the rosters built around them. Some of these players for the 2023 u20 cycle could end up not being involved at all and instead jump directly into the USMNT player pool like Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams, Josh Sargent, and Gio Reyna. We will first dive into the u20’s and then the u17’s. We will work through the players by position starting with the goalkeepers and ending with the strikers. Keep in mind that over the next 2.5-3 years a lot will change, and new names will become core pieces for these cycles.
If a position is not covered in the 2023 u20 or u17 cycles that means that the roster spots are completely up for grabs and there is no one who has solidified themselves as a lock. Also, just because a position is not covered does not mean it is a weak spot, the 2003’s and 2006’s are the best age groups the USA has produced so far and do not have any weak positions.
The Core Players of the 2023 u20 Cycle
Mauricio Cuevas should be the starting right back for the new cycle. Mauricio has been a consistent starter and leader for the 2003’s and is by far the best option that we have at right back. Mauricio constantly creates danger on the right side of the field and should be the set piece taker as he has shown in his USL games with the LA Galaxy II that he is lethal from set pieces. This cycle has many options at right back, but I have a hard time seeing any of them surpassing Mauricio any time soon as he is just too good of a prospect. Mauricio currently has his eyes set on Europe and with two full years of development overseas that he will have I am confident that Mauricio will be a lock for this 2023 u20 cycle. Mauricio is unlikely to move up to the USMNT because of players like Sergino Dest, Reggie Cannon, Julian Araujo, and Bryan Reynolds so get used to seeing Mauricio be in every u20 roster for the next 2.5 years.
Justin Che is the next player who I think should be a consistent fixture in this cycle. Justin Che is the first of many FC Dallas products that will be discussed in this article and will be one of the first names to be chosen at center back. For a 2023 u20 cycle, having versatility plays a huge role in keeping your name on the team sheet and this is a huge reason as to why I think Justin is going to be a core player for this cycle. Justin for me is a starter at center back and if Mauricio Cuevas is unable to be on the field Justin would be very likely to slot over and fill in at right back where he could project at long term. At FC Dallas where the kids are given a chance and Europe is constantly monitoring Justin should see a lot of success in his club career which should cement his place in this cycle.
Bryan Okoh is one of our many Yanks abroad currently at Red Bull Salzburg where he is starring in their academy and quickly progressing up the ladder and should become a first team contributor in the next year or two. Bryan was the best left center back in the 2021 cycle and if he decides to choose the USA over Switzerland, Nigeria, and Congo then he is a guaranteed starter for our 2023 u20’s. The only worry with Bryan is that we may not see him rep the red, white, and blue but with Gregg Berhalter, the Nick Saban of dual-national recruiting, on his trail I am relatively optimistic that we could see Bryan give the USA a shot. Should we sway him, Bryan is a lock in the 2023 u20 lineup.
The next FC Dallas product in this cycle is Jonathan Gomez. JoGo is chiseled in stone into the starting lineup for the 2003’s and is so talented that I would not be surprised to see him become the starting left back for the USMNT by the time that the 2023 u20 World Cup actually happens. There is not an aspect of his game that is weak, and he is guaranteed to be heading over to Europe when he turns 18 in September where he should quickly break into the first team of whatever club is fortunate enough to secure his services. Unless there is a left back that no one is currently aware of in Europe (which there could be) JoGo is a guarantee to be the starting left back in this cycle.
Midfield spots are going to be a cutthroat battle for the new 2023 u20 cycle because there is a ridiculous amount of depth for the new cycle but one of the few players that I think is a lock is Moses Nyeman. Moses is one of the most technically and tactically gifted prospects to come out of the now extinct Development Academy (RIP) and in the second half of the 2020 MLS season fans started to see why Moses is so highly regarded by every scout, coach, and fan in the DC United and USYNT circles. Moses physically is a late bloomer but over the next 2.5 years we should see him fill out and become a terror on the field for DC United. No other midfielder in the 2003 age group can read the game like Moses and once Moses secures his citizenship, he should be an auto callup for the cycle. Moses could be one of the players who summits to the USMNT before the cycle is over as he is that talented.
The other midfielder who is a lock for the new cycle is Caden Clark. Even the fans who don’t pay attention at all to the youth national teams know who Caden Clark is after he signed for the New York Red Bulls first team and scored numerous bangers and instantly became one of the hottest young American prospects. Caden also has a contract clause that will send him over to Red Bull Leipzig in January 2022 where he should follow the path that Tyler Adams has trailblazed and become the next young American to become a regular in a Champions League side. Caden is explosive, creative, flashy, and create dangerous chances out of half chances and is a player unmatched in the attacking midfield depth chart for the 2023 u20’s. Because of Caden’s trajectory and future move to Leipzig Caden has a very realistic chance at skipping the u20 cycle and jumping directly into the USMNT depth chart. Watch out folks, this kid has a bright future ahead of him.
The only player in this 2023 u20 list that I was hesitant on adding but caved and did include is Dante Sealy. My inconsistency with this is very similar to how Dante has performed on the field over the last few years. The current FC Dallas winger and son of former FC Dallas player Scott Sealy has struggled with maintaining a consistent form in his academy and professional appearances. However, when Dante is on, he is by far the best winger in the 2003 player pool and an absolute force at the youth international level. Young players often struggle with consistency and Dante is one of those but if he can overcome this then he will be the first winger in the lineup and potentially the team’s most dangerous attacker like he was at the 2019 Nike Friendlies where he was prolific. Dante must break in and be a consistent starter for Dallas and get sold to Europe if he wants to stay relevant in this cycle, but he has the talent to do so. Until Dante proves us otherwise in a game, he must be a starter in this cycle because he is just too good not to be. Dante’s only worry is that the next highlighted player could force him out of the lineup.
Another winger who must be included in every camp he is released for is Kevin Paredes. The first young homegrown at DC United to be given a chance by Ben Olsen in 2020 and Kevin played his way into being a consistent name on the DC United team sheet and into the 2003’s first choice roster. Kevin can play on both wings and if need be at left back for the 2023 u20 squad. Kevin, like Dante Sealy, prefers to play on the right wing where he can cut in and create danger on his preferred left foot. Kevin is likely to either start as one of the two wingers or be forced to come off the bench because of the next player that will be highlighted. At the rate Kevin is progressing Europe will come calling which will only help him elevate his game. Kevin has been a consistent name in the squad for the 2003’s and there is no reason to believe that he won’t be going forward.
The third winger who has cemented a place into the first-choice roster of the 2003’s is physical specimen Cade Cowell. Cade is the first homegrown from San Jose to go from the academy directly into the first team and start to get minutes. The lack of success from the other young San Jose academy graduates goes to show that Cade was not handed a place in the first team, he earned it. Cade has shown in his first MLS season why San Jose gave the young 17-year-old a chance and he has not looked out of place at all. Cade is another winger who is progressing so quickly that it would not be surprising to see Europe come calling. I expect to see Cade starting on the left wing for the 2023 u20 cycle and I have a very hard time seeing anyone unseating him over the next 2.5 years unless we recruit a currently undiscovered dual-national in Europe.
Ricardo Pepi should be the first name that comes to everyone’s minds when they think of the 2003 age group. Ricardo was likely to play up and either be the starter or the backup striker for the 2021 cycle. The walking goal machine has been a prolific scorer at any level that he has played at and is starting to break into the FC Dallas first team. Over the next 2.5 years we are likely to see him become a consistent starter and see FC Dallas sell him to Europe after he goes off on a scoring tangent in one of the upcoming MLS seasons. The only way Ricardo is not involved in this cycle is if he is so successful with his club that he is either withheld from camps and tournaments or he will jump right into the USMNT pool which does not have many truly established striker options.
The other striker who we should be a constant fixture in the 2023 u20 roster is Malick Sanogo. Malick is currently at Union Berlin where he has been virtually unstoppable for their u17 academy team. Malick leads all 2003’s and 2004’s in points except for future Ballon D’Or winner Youssoufa Moukoko. Recently Malick was pulled up to begin training with the Union Berlin first team and is currently on track to be one of the next 2004’s to become a regular in the Bundesliga. If Malick decides to rep the USA over Germany and Nigeria, then he will be a lock for any u20 roster. Like Ricardo Pepi, the only way Malick would not be on a roster is if he is withheld from the squad by his club or he has broken into the USMNT depth chart.
Core Players of the 2023 u17 Cycle
FC Dallas have done an amazing job at developing players but sometimes they get lucky and have an absolute gem get dropped into their homegrown territory. That gem is 6’4 goalkeeper Julian Eyestone. There are not many holes in Julian’s game. He is stall, good with his hands, decent at distribution, and a good shot stopper. In my opinion, this is the most talented goalkeeper prospect in the YNT pool and a rare goalkeeper talent. Julian has already been training with North Texas SC and is surely going to be one of FC Dallas’ next homegrowns. Unless the next player has anything to say about it, Julian is a guarantee to be the starting goalkeeper for this u17 cycle.
When an American gets accepted into La Masia they will always be given a chance in our youth setup. Diego may even potentially be good enough to overtake Julian as the starter for the 2006’s but that is something that we will have to wait and see on. However, it is super rare that a goalkeeper prospect is moved abroad into La Masia at such a young age and given the benefit of the doubt that he will be one of the two goalkeeper locks for this cycle like what Damian Las and Chituru Odunze were for the 2002’s cycle in 2019.
Matthew is the first FC Cincinnati prospect with the potential to be a big-time contributor for a youth national team. Matthew is athletic, skilled, and a good 1v1 defender who has been a clear standout in the multiple games that I went and saw in person in the fall. Matthew is very likely to get moved up to the u17 academy level where he should fit right in and be a rock in the back and a threat in the attack. The slick fullback is the early standout so far for the 2006 age group and should be the first name in the roster for the right back position going forward.
Lining up on the other side of the back four is LAFC left back and center back Javen Romero. Javen is an absolute beast on the field and whether he lines up at left back or center back is by far the best defender in any competition that he has been in. Big, strong, and clean on the ball, Javen has all the makings of a very good professional defender with a bright future. With LAFC’s academy and first team staff Javen should keep progressing well and become a staple in the 2006’s top choice lineup. Players like Connor Stout and Henry Canizalez are going to push him over the next three years, but I do not see Javen getting surpassed in that time.
The other blessing from above to the FC Dallas academy is Matthew Corcoran. Matthew is the most talented player to step foot in the FC Dallas academy and in my opinion, the gap from him to the runner up (obviously Weston McKennie) is not even close. I think Matthew is not only the best 2006 but he should also be the captain for the u17 cycle. Matthew may be the best defensive midfield prospect since Michael Bradley and in conversations many have suggested that he will likely be even better. The gifted youngster has a large passing range, is athletic, an IQ that is on par with professionals more than 10 years older than him and is defensively adept. There is not a weak point in this kid’s game, he already has numerous European clubs that are chomping at the bits waiting for him to turn 18. This is the once in a lifetime prospect for the FC Dallas academy and if he stays injury free, Matthew is destined for great things. If I was a betting man, this is my choice for the youngest player to make the 2026 World Cup roster.
Mark Cajamarca is another immensely talented defensive midfielder who currently is at the NYCFC academy. Mark is the best prospect in the NYCFC 2006 age group and is full time playing up with their 2005’s. Mark is short and stocky but moves around the field with ease and has an absurdly wide passing range that most professional defensive midfielders would love to have. The only unfortunate thing for Mark is that he will be behind Matthew Corcoran in the depth chart but the gap from these two to the next defensive mid is massive, so he is a lock for this age group’s roster.
When you are named as a standout in FC Barcelona’s La Masia then you are obviously going to be a lock for a youth national team roster. Adrian is America’s version of Andres Iniesta and at the rate he is progressing he could break into the FC Barcelona first team. Although he is not quite as talented as the actual Andres Iniesta, Adrian is still a gifted center mid who should be a good bet to be the starting 8 in this age group. Although, for as talented as he is Adrian does have two other very talented competitors so he will have to stay at the top of his game to keep his name in the roster.
One of the other center midfielders who will be competing with Adrian Gill for minutes is physical freak Bento Estrela. Bento has been playing with the New York Red Bull u19’s (2002’s) this fall and has been their best player and reportedly has been offered a homegrown contract by the club already at 14 years old! This is not very shocking considering Bento is too good for the academy level and needs to be playing against men to give him a challenge and push his abilities. Bento also has access to a Portuguese passport so Bento is very likely to head overseas midway through this cycle when he turns 16 where he could be the 2006’s early breakthrough in a European first team. Bento does need to work on staying locked in for 90 minutes and work harder defensively but when he plays against men these issues should quickly be resolved or he will be punished quickly. There is no way that Bento does not make every roster for this u17 cycle unless he is withheld by his club.
The third highly talented center mid in the 2006 age group is Aaron Heard. Aaron Heard is the one that got away for the Philadelphia Union academy where he was noticeably their most talented prospect. Aaron is another center mid who can do it all and is too good to play in his own age group. Aaron recently left the Union academy for family reasons and has been training with Phil Gyau in increased focus one on one sessions which will only help further progress his abilities and propel his career. Aaron’s current weakness is that he is very small for his age but with his father reportedly being 6’4 it is only a matter of time until Aaron hits a growth spurt and is physically ready to compete against grown men. Tab Ramos said multiple times that for a youth national team you need to have the best players involved even if it means playing a player or two out of position and therefore, I think we are likely to see Aaron Heard, Adrian Gill, and Bento Estrela all be consistent call ups for this cycle. Plain and simple, all three center midfielders are just too good to not be in a first-choice roster.
This is a choice that many could view as a hot take, but I will stand firm in my choice because Axel is an extremely talented player. Axel has previous youth national team experience when he participated and stood out in the Eastern 2005 I.D. camps. For a 2006, this would be an impressive accomplishment, but for a 2007 this is baffling. Axel is the likeliest 2007 to play up with the 2006’s and for good reason, the kid has got game. Axel is a cerebral attacking midfielder who is skilled and despite constantly being the smallest player on the field, always finds a way to be the best player on the pitch. Playing up because the way you read the game and your ability on the ball are simply too good to play any less than two years above your own age despite being undersized and not physically ready to play up shows that Axel is a significant talent. There is a very good reason for why Inter Miami has used Axel in all their initial marketing cameos for their academy and that is because Axel is good enough to eventually be the face of their club. There are some very talented attacking midfielders in the 2006 age group, but none have impressed me quite like this kid has and once Axel starts to grow, he is only going to get better.
So, it turns out that Bento Estrela is not the only physical freak in the 2006 age group, Bajung Darboe is as well and like Bento, Bajung also has the skill to back up the hype. Bajung is yet another player in the 2006 age group who is simply too unfair to play against kids his age. Bajung is borderline too good to even be playing at the u17 level (2004’s) where he has been stellar ever since moving to the Philadelphia Union academy mid-Fall. Bajung was the best player on the Minnesota u17’s last year where he was playing three years up. Bajung is tall and lanky but actively working to add muscle to his frame all the while he keeps growing in his tactical and technical sides of the game. There is a Grand Canyon sized gap between Bajung and the second-best winger in this age group and if Bajung wants to be in camp there is no way he will not be called up. The Philadelphia Union have had a plethora of talent come through the first team lately but none of those players have near the potential that this kid does. Some kids are just born with a natural gift to play the game and Bajung is one of those kids.
Gael Medrano is another Philadelphia Union academy standout and a lock for the 2006 cycle. While Gael may not be quite as talented as Bajung, Gael is still quite the talent himself. While the striker role for the USMNT has been a question mark the last few years, for the 2006’s it really isn’t up for debate. Gael should be the starting striker and the role is his to lose. Before Gael moved to the Philadelphia Union there were a few striker prospects who really impressed me in the 2004 and 2005 age groups and Gael came in and surpassed all of them instantly and cemented himself as the top striker prospect in the Union system. Gael and Bajung should be moving up to the USL soon and eventually will be signed as homegrowns and will be constant call ups for the new u17 cycle.
While Gael Medrano does have possession of the starting striker role, he isn’t a guarantee to keep the job and that is because of Seattle Sounders Academy standout Michael Luande. Michael is tall, fast, and strong and the complete striker package. Michael, like Axel Perez, also had the opportunity to play up in a youth national team when he was called into the Western 2005 I.D. camp. This is because the young attacker has been dominant at the academy level and has the direct path to professional soccer being in the Sounders academy. Michael is all but a guarantee to get USL minutes next year and eventually sign a homegrown contract for the Sounders and hopefully become a prolific goal scorer in MLS and make his way overseas. Michael and Gael are the early standouts at striker and are the players to beat if anyone else (and there are others) wants to stake a claim in the new u17 cycle.