The U.S. has never enjoyed a U20 World Cup experience quite like 2015. The Americans were hardly a dominant force in their five-match run in New Zealand, notably needing a 56th minute goal from Emerson Hyndman to squeak by lowly Myanmar 2-1 and finishing group play with an embarrassing 3-0 loss to the Ukraine that could’ve been even worse.
But the highs were more satisfying. The U.S. smashed host New Zealand 4-0 and, in one of the bigger wins in U.S. YNT history (believe it or not), a Rubio Rubin lightning strike of a goal pushed them past Colombia and into the quarterfinals for just the third time since the tourney went to 24 teams in 1997.
Behind its titanium shield defense, the U.S. frustrated Serbia into a penalty shootout, where it fell inches short of advancing. Serbia won the entire tournament. Coach Veljko Paunovic parlayed that into a head coaching gig with the Chicago Fire. The U.S. went home.
On balance the tournament was fine, really. The U.S. got the games it needed to blood another round of talented up-and-comers (Matt Miazga’s true breakout was on this particular stage), and it kept its collective hand close enough to the fire for as long as it could before the heat overwhelmed.
But look at the particular brand of soccer Tab Ramos’s men played and you’ll see nothing aspirational in it. At its best it was competent through the middle, and at its most typical it was blunt force trauma. If the experience itself was valuable, the actual playing style wasn’t all that instructive. Some of that, to be certain, was down to what Ramos had on hand. Some of it was simply playing to win.
I would expect, depending on the draw, 2017 will be different. Perhaps vastly so.
The pool Ramos has available to him with the current U20s is the crest of a new wave U.S. Soccer has not seen rise to this height before. There are more youth players abroad in foreign academy systems than ever before, and the ones who stayed home are among the first generation of players to be of age to have been reared entirely in U.S. Soccer’s DA system. It’s imperfect, but it’s certainly a step up the ladder.
The fact that this group is so good even without Christian Pulisic, who is 2017 U20 World Cup age eligible by almost two years, should tell you something. I’ve left Pulisic out of my Best XI because I’m assuming that by 2017, his role with the full team in its push for the 2018 World Cup will be such that the U20 version won’t even be a passing concern. But he could still be in this lineup, Mallory Pugh style.
To give you some indication of what Ramos’s XI could look like at the U20 World Cup next summer (the U.S. has yet to qualify, but note that the U.S. has missed just one of the last 10 editions), this is a fairly good place to start.
Take a look at the clubs represented here: Manchester United, Tottenham, Schalke, Liverpool, Villarreal, Las Palmas. Six clubs representing some of the best teams from three of the top four leagues on the planet. And by this time next year, Jackson Yueill (UCLA) and Cam Lindley (North Carolina) could easily be on pro contracts. Both are good enough right now.
And just to lay this out:
GK J.T. Marcinkowski, Georgetown
RB Matt Olosunde, Manchester United
CB Cameron Carter Vickers, Tottenham
CB Tommy Redding, Orlando City
LB John Nelson, Internationals SC
CM Cam Lindley, North Carolina
CM Weston McKennie, Schalke
CM Jackson Yueill, UCLA
LW Mukwelle Akale, Villarreal
FW Emmanuel Sabbi, Las Palmas
RW Brooks Lennon, Liverpool
This pool is so good in a relative sense, under these auspices Ramos would have his pick off the bench of pro talent like McKinze Gaines (Wolfsburg), Haji Wright (Schalke), Brandon Vazquez (Tijuana), Auston Trusty (Philadelphia Union), Tyler Adams (RBNY), Josh Perez (Fiorentina), Pierra Da Silva (Orlando City B), Luca De La Torre (Fulham), Gedion Zelalem (Arsenal), Sebastian Saucedo (Real Salt Lake). The list shimmers like a sheet of platinum.
If there is a weakness, it is at the 6. There isn’t a clear option here, and while RSL’s Danny Acosta has worn the 6 shirt at recent camps he’s hardly taken the bull by the horns. Adams is young and hasn’t spent much time in national team camps of late, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Ramos turn elsewhere. And Eric Calvillo, the No. 1 at the position for the U17s for nearly all of the last cycle, has played sparingly for the first team since joining the New York Cosmos last year.
Lindley, meanwhile, joined U17 residency at 14 and has more experience in national team camps than anyone in the pool. It was a moderate surprise to see him stick out his North Carolina commitment given he was the best player in the 2016 class left without a pro contract following the summer, but the Chicago Fire will probably be offering a HG contract soon. Or at least they should.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s a dizzying barrage of international quality 8’s on this team. It’s a shame to sit so many good ones. Ramos certainly doesn’t have to play a 4-2-3-1, and he could turn to a 4-3-3 if he wants to try to sacrifice width to cram another 8 into the lineup (although I think that would be a mistake given the wide options on hand).
But in this system there are, to my mind, three players jockeying for one spot: Gedion Zelalem, Weston McKennie and Luca De La Torre.
It’s easy enough to blindly punch Zelalem’s name into the formation creator and not think twice, but I think that’d be leaning too hard on convention and a dizzying backstory of hype. Zelalem has been good, certainly, but he was hardly a game-changer at the 2015 U20 World Cup and his club career since has been full of perilous switchbacks. McKennie, meanwhile, seems to possess the bite Zelalem’s game has lacked. Given nearly a full year in Schalke’s system before next summer arrives, it’d be difficult for me to bump McKennie. At least not right now.
The front four in this setup is where this lineup would really sing. Lennon and Akale are both technical wunderkinds with afterburners. Akale is better on possession than Lennon, who’s more of a straight-line bullet train to Akale’s preference for zigzagging runs. But they’d both collapse on Sabbi, who recently signed for La Liga’s Las Palmas, and create one heck of a devastating combination.
And let’s be sure to mention Yueill, the perpetrator of this back heel assist last weekend that’ll change the way you think about sunsets.
The good (and bad, if you’re a hard-edged pessimist) is that there are a dizzying number of options for Ramos, more even than in his last cycle. We haven’t even mentioned mainstays like Eryk Williamson (Maryland), Coy Craft (FC Dallas) and Marcello Borges (Michigan). The U20s (without a number of key players) recently beat both the Cosmos and USL champion Red Bulls II on a brief camp tour, and Brad Friedel’s U19s have a few promising faces getting high-level international minutes as basically a surrogate U20 team in the interim.
We’ll have to see what happens over the next six months or so. Qualifying kicks off in Costa Rica on Feb. 17, and the U20 World Cup lifts off three months later in South Korea. The U.S. should be there. And when they arrive there’s no reason not to expect them to reach heights we haven’t seen before.