The anticipation centered around this summer’s U-20 World Cup is quite palpable.
While the United States has participated in the tournament before, this year’s edition holds even greater significance. When analyzing the group, this is arguably the deepest and most gifted collection of talent in the history of the country.
Not only are players plying their trades at big-time European clubs, but they’re doing it with real promise. These aren’t fringe footballers clutching to the name of their parent club. Instead, the vast majority of the players are legitimate prospects.
On Friday, head coach Tab Ramos released the 21-man group representing the United States in Poland:
In addition to the group listed above, the following players are listed as alternates: Jonathan Amon, Julian Araujo, Trey Muse, Jacobo Reyes, Juan Pablo Torres, Andrew Carleton, Christian Cappis, Frankie Amaya, Omir Fernandez.
Before delving into the roster itself, we must speak about the glaring omissions. Araujo is arguably the most puzzling choice. Though he had been battling a knock, the 17-year-old has looked like the LA Galaxy’s best right back throughout the season. An athletic and versatile player, he also has the ability to play both centrally and outside.
Amon’s pace will be missed on the wing. Like Araujo, he had just recently returned from an injury-riddled season. Fortunately, the depth up front is as deep as it’s been in recent memory. Still, Amon has elite speed — and true moments of brilliance when attacking defenders in space. Cappis scored twice in recent friendlies, though just appeared to miss out on a spot (likely to longtime member Brandon Servania). The Denmark-based midfielder would be next in line for a spot should there be some sort of injury.
Of the names not included within the alternates pool, we’re most bummed about James Sands and Brenden Aaronson being left off. Aaronson was victimized both by injury and elite competition at his position. We aren’t quite sure why Ramos and the program doesn’t rate Sands. He’s played consistently for NYCFC — and has looked rather good. He also can play anywhere along the backline in a pinch. Alas, Ramos looked for more familiarity (which is likely why VfL Wolfsburg product Michael Edwards was also not included).
Here are my general thoughts on the roster:
Attacking Talent is Bonkers
There’s never been another U.S. U-20 team with this amount of quality in the midfield/up front. Timo Weah (are we still calling him Timo after he leaves Celtic?) managed to get called in for the tournament. While he’s not a player without warts, he’s the most experienced when it comes to professional minutes. He’ll likely slot in at one of the wing spots as a starter (though he could also play as a No. 9).
Even without Weah, the team includes three players on the books with Bundesliga teams (Uly Llanez Jr., Sebastian Soto, Alex Mendez), one at an elite Dutch club (Richie Ledezma), and one at FC Barcelona (Konrad de la Fuente). Not to mention, the team also boasts arguably MLS’s brightest young talent in Paxton Pomykal.
It will be fascinating to see how Ramos configures this group of players. There’s a ton of flexibility from a positional standpoint. Duly, there should be no shortage of goal-scoring opportunities.
Edwin Cerrillo, Please Stand Up
No one had heard of Edwin Cerrillo at the beginning of this cycle. As a nine-year-old, Cerrillo joined the FC Dallas academy. An early season injury to Bryan Acosta opened the door for Cerrillo to play — and he hasn’t looked back since.
Hyperbole aside, he’s been one of the MLS’ best central midfielders throughout the first few months of the season. Cerrillo is calm on the ball, decisive with his passing, physical in duels, and has the capabilities of an aggressive yet composed box-to-box midfielder. In fact, he usurped the spot from fellow U-20 teammate Brandon Servania — a guy who many had rated ahead of Cerrillo prior to the season.
We give the 18-year-old a ton of credit for developing into a very good prospect. He looks like a perfect fit in a deep-lying midfield role. While Chris Durkin looks like the odds-on favorite to start the tournament’s opening match versus Ukraine on May 24th, don’t be shocked if Cerrillo play a big role in Poland.
Depth on the Backline is Worrisome
Three of the projected starters — Chris Richards (Bayern Munich), Sergino Dest (Ajax), Chris Gloster (Hannover 04) — are already penciled in. Each has a pedigree in playing within competitive environments overseas. Dest and Richards are likely two of the five most innately gifted members of the team (regardless of position).
However, the rest of the group offers much in the way of concern.
Mark McKenzie has played in one game this year. He’s currently recovering from an emergency appendectomy — and there’s some question as to whether he’ll be back fully healthy. Even then, McKenzie won’t have a ton of conditioning nor training under his belt. Aboubacar Keita is a towering presence. Yet, he’s also been recovering from injury. He can play both centrally and on the left side, though Keita has yet to log any MLS professional minutes with the Columbus Crew.
Matt Real is solid, though much of his value comes from a leadership standpoint. He’s been a captain at different points throughout the cycle, and is a player that can play both centrally and on the right. However, Araujo can do the same thing — and is the better player. If some sort of issues manifests itself in the group stage (or further), Araujo’s absence will be magnified even further.
Here’s a potential starting lineup I would personally want to see versus Ukraine in the World Cup opening match:
With that said, I still expect Weah to be out on the left wing, with Soto employed as the target striker, and Durkin at the No. 6 spot.
It’s a good thing for pundits and fans alike to be quibbling primarily over two players (Amon, Araujo) who would’ve been reserves. The hubbub over some absences truly does speak to the depth of this team — as well as the program from this age group.
It’s the first time in which the U-20 World Cup roster will feature no college players. All of these players are competing in professional environments. This should serve them well when faced with some semblance of adversity in the tournament. Duly, there are a handful of players on the brink of breaking into their sides (many of which sit in top-five leagues).
The attacking talent within this group is for real. Additionally, the pairing of Mendez and Ledezma in the middle should have many quite excited. There’s a sophistication which both employ on the field — particularly in the final third. Llanez and Konrad are also very highly thought of in European circles. Simply put, this group is chock-full of creativity, speed, and technical ability.
We also have to be elated over the heavy Hispanic presence on this roster. There’s been a ton of criticism (and rightfully so) flung at the USSF for not recruiting/playing more players with Hispanic heritage. Of the 21 players selected, 10 are considered Hispanic. This trend should continue down the line and is a great thing for the overall landscape of American soccer.