On May 7, the roster for this summer’s U-20 World Cup was released by US Soccer, laying out the roll of names coach Tab Ramos will have at his disposal in New Zealand. With it, the hopes of American fans sprung to life once more at the promise of new, exciting talent getting their respective moments in the sun.
Given the horrid performance put on by the United States in 2013, managing only a single point in three matches, the newest edition of the U-20 World Cup also represents an opportunity for redemption.
In the debacle that was the 2013 U-20 World Cup, the U.S. scored a single goal in each of its matches, avoided being shut out, and yet only managed a positive draw against eventual champions France. Its other two matches were 4-1 demolitions at the hands of Spain and the eternal American albatross, Ghana.
A roster boasting 17 players with professional affiliation of some sort was not nearly enough to avoid a last-place finish in Group A, along with yet another early exit from an international tournament. This year’s edition of the U-20 national team currently has 18 players on the rolls of professional clubs, with one spot remaining to be filled.
In terms of sheer numbers, the team Ramos has named is very similar to the one he helmed in 2013, though the club performances of the players on this year’s team point towards an overall upgrade in talent. The composition of the current roster points to a definite uptick defensive development, a more attacking focused group than previous editions, and an overall sense of competition that have been lacking at all levels of the American soccer landscape for quite some time.
In less than three weeks, the current crop of emerging American talent will have the chance to show that soccer in the United States has taken the next step. Surpassing its best ever finish of fourth place in 1989 would simply be gravy.
In central defense, the United States has been a bit of a disaster since the partnership of Oguchi Onyewu and Carlos Bocanegra disintegrated due to injury and the ravages of time. In the years since Onyewu’s unfortunate knee injury, a veritable parade of replacements have manned the centerback slots in the American back line, only to largely disappoint.
Some, like Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler, have shown flashes of talent, yet failed to seize hold of a starting spot. Others, like Clarence Goodson and Michael Orozco, have been consistently pedestrian, collecting caps, yet little in the way of serious acclaim.
In the most current U-20 roster, at three potential pillars of the American defense have their opportunity to attain senior-level accolades. Erik Palmer-Brown, the 18-year-old wunderkind of Sporting Kansas City fame, is viewed by many as a future superstar.
Palmer-Brown has appeared four times for Sporting, starting twice last season. Blessed with good feet, above-average tackling skills, and a desire to prove himself, Palmer-Brown is poised to have a breakout at the upcoming World Cup, almost certainly the first time a defender will be the most scrutinized player on an American national team.
With a $1 million transfer offer from Italian giants Juventus already, Palmer-Brown can see demand for his talents increase dramatically with a solid showing in New Zealand.
The only players who might have more to gain as a result of this summer’s tournament are each of his centerback counterparts.
One of his two possible partners in the middle could be Matt Miazga, a 19-year-old central defender who has been on the fringes of the New York Red Bulls’ first team since he was 18. With seven starts already in 2015, Miazga is getting more first team minutes than any other defender on the roster, experience that will be invaluable this summer in New Zealand.
Like Palmer-Brown, Miazga has excellent feet and displays a nose for swiping the ball without egregiously bowling over the man he is marking. Such a skill is rare anywhere in the world, and will serve Miazga well as he continues to develop.
Having stepped into the first team and helped the Red Bulls allow the third fewest goals in MLS this year, Matt Miazga is poised for bigger and better things post-World Cup. Not to be outdone, the third centerback heading to New Zealand in 2015 may be the most professionally ready defender in the American youth ranks.
A stalwart in the Tottenham U-21 side, Cameron Carter-Vickers has tremendous experience already, recently marking the likes of Radamel Falcao in a match against Manchester United’s U-21s. Perhaps the most battle-tested defender in the American squad for New Zealand, Carter-Vickers has made the game-day 18 for Tottenham’s senior team this season, captained the U-21 side at various points, and continues to impress his coaches and peers alike.
Carter-Vickers featured for the American U-23s in 2014 at the tender age of 16, and acquitted himself well. Having since reached the ripe old age of 17, Carter-Vickers could certainly find himself in the mix for first-team minutes in the very near future.
In sum, the United States appears poised to enter a golden age of central defenders. Palmer-Brown and Miazga are young stars in the making on American shores, while Carter-Vickers could prove to be the most valuable recruiting coup the United States has scored. The solution to Jurgen Klinsmann’s defensive struggles could arrive in the very near future, and none too soon for American fans.
As impressive as the defensive options in the middle are on this roster, the attacking talent, from top to bottom, could be the most balanced the United States has had at this level. Starlets such as Rubio Rubin, Emerson Hyndman, Jordan Allen and Bradford Jamieson IV have played regular first-team minutes with their clubs, as opposed to purely showing for their reserve or youth sides.
The difference between first-team and youth or reserve experience is enormous, making players who feature regularly for senior sides invaluable. Even cup appearances have a tremendous impact on young players and their development, thus making this side perhaps the most prepared American U-20 team in recent memory. And, if all goes well, among its most successful.
The aforementioned Rubin, Jamieson IV, Allen, Paul Arriola and Marco Delgado have all scored goals in top-flight leagues, in addition to merely appearing for their respective teams. Jordan Allen also recorded his first two assists in MLS against Chicago on May 10, in addition to making four starts this season for a talented Real Salt Lake side.
Additionally, players like Tommy Thompson and Maki Tall have featured for their clubs’ first teams, though are still waiting to finally break through and record a first division tally. Add in the flair of Joel Sonora and Emerson Hyndman’s first team minutes in the English Championship, the attacking prowess, record, and ability of this group is second to none.
Still in the early stages of their professional careers, a solid showing in the American shirt this summer in New Zealand would be a boost to their own careers and the American program as a whole.
Finally, as a result of the 21-man limit imposed by FIFA for the U-20 tournament, as well as the lack of obligation on the part of clubs to release players, this roster is marked as much by who was left off as who found their name on the roll.
Andrija Novakovich, one of the most successful players eligible for this tournament, was kept home by Reading. Novakovich has seen his name in the 18 for Reading recently at the Championship level, and has scored regularly for the U-21 side this season.
First-team minutes seem to be virtually guaranteed in the near future, and his exclusion due to not being released is more a sign of hope for American fans than anything else. Junior Flores, on the books at Borussia Dortmund, was left off the final roster for New Zealand due to a lack of minutes at even the U-19 level.
One of the most talented players in this age group, Flores’ exclusion is both in line with the notion that club minutes are more valuable than anything else, as well as a stunning endorsement of the talent that will be on the plane to New Zealand. Leaving a player of Flores’ caliber at home due to not featuring for his club is an act that would be unheard of even two years ago.
American youth teams have suffered in the past from including players with little in the way of club development simply because of their appearance in youth camps. Flores has the ability to do well at this level, along with outstanding skills. Yet, in spite of his talent, a lack of success at Dortmund saw his name omitted from the final roster. This is an exciting time to be an American fan, not least because even youth teams are becoming more merit-based in their selection.
As a postscript to a point that was alluded to earlier, only 20 names have appeared on the final roster for this year’s U-20 World Cup. The last spot has been reportedly reserved by the American staff for Gedion Zelalem, the Arsenal youth player who has had the American hype machine working overdrive for years.
In the final stages of approval for a waiver at FIFA to play for the United States, the U-20 competition would cement Zelalem’s status as yet another dual-national star in the making for Jurgen Klinsmann’s senior team. Should the waiver be granted by FIFA in time for the final deadline of roster submissions, May 15th, the rejoicing from American shores should certainly be heard the world over.
Less than three weeks remain until kickoff in New Zealand. The future, American fans, is now.