By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (May 17, 2023) US Soccer Players – The U-20 World Cup returns for the first time since 2019 when the 2023 edition begins in Argentina on Saturday. Although FIFA doesn’t require clubs to release players for the event once known as the FIFA World Youth Championship, the tournament occupies an important place in the development and promotion process for young players. Scores of talented prospects have made a name for themselves with their exploits at the U-20 World Cup.
Held every two years, the event often serves as an introduction to up-and-coming stars for fans worldwide and often puts new names on the radar of scouts for clubs mining for talent. Because FIFA canceled the 2021 tournament due to the COVID pandemic, anticipation is high for the first edition in four years to be the stage for a new generation of exciting players.
For the United States, the U-20 World Cup has always been more than a chance to win a trophy in an international tournament. American soccer’s growth can be measured in many ways, but a test at world level is an intriguing one to focus on.
Back in 2019, a team led by USMNT legend Tab Ramos reached the quarterfinals in Poland. That team featured several players who would go on to become full senior national teamers, including Sergino Dest, Mark McKenzie, and Paxton Pomykal. The U-20 World Cup team is often a proving ground for players who will move up to the senior squad in due course.
That 2019 team also featured one player with senior national team experience: forward Tim Weah. Weah played eight games for the senior USMNT in 2018 before Ramos included him in the team that reached the final eight in Poland. Weah famously requested to play with U-20s despite having “graduated” to the senior team because of his desire to finish the cycle with his U-20 teammates.
Noteworthy about that 2019 team was the number of players already established as full professionals when Ramos called them up. As developmental pathways for American players have changed, so has the complexion of the American squad at the youth championship. Previous American teams, still full of talent, often featured college players or players still working toward pro minutes.
Head coach Mikey Varas has a squad in Argentina with plenty of senior professional experience. Across the roster are players who have collected minutes in topflights in the United States, Germany, and Croatia. The group includes MLS starters and players who get regular rotational minutes in the top-flight North American league.
Four players included in the American team for the tournament already have senior national teams caps, a level of experience rare for any country and a reflection of the rising level of talent coming through the USMNT program.
Goalkeeper Gaga Slonina joined Chelsea following the 2022 Major League Soccer season. Ranked among the best young goalkeepers in the world, the former Chicago Fire starter made the jump to Europe at 18 thanks to his unique shot-stopping abilities. Slonina earned his first USMNT senior cap, becoming the youngest starting goalkeeper in USMNT history when the Americans faced Serbia in January. He made several big saves in the performance.
Last season, Slonina started 32 games for the Fire and finished third in MLS with 12 clean sheets. At an age when goalkeepers rarely start regularly, Slonina was one of the best in the competition in his position. For the moment, Slonina is training with his new club in London and is therefore available to take part in the U-20 team in Argentina.
Atlanta United fullback Caleb Wiley earned his way into the MLS club’s rotation last season after moving up through the development ranks. United coach Gonzalo Pineda elevated him to a starting position to start the 2023 campaign, and Wiley responded with three goals and two assists through 12 matches. An established youth international, the 18-year-old was released by Atlanta despite his importance to the team. Pineda sees value in the experience for Wiley.
“The heart and passion that you have for those types of games are massively important for you as a player representing your country, family, everything,” he said. “It’s a very good event. We’re supportive of that with Caleb. We think he’s going to have a great World Cup.”
Thanks to his excellent league start, Wiley earned his USMNT debut last month against Mexico in Phoenix.
Fellow fullback Jonathan Gomez arrives in Argentina after a season playing for Real Sociedad B in the third tier of Spanish soccer. Gomez joined Real Sociedad from Louisville City of the USL Championship after making 26 appearances in the American second division. While with Louisville, Gomez emerged as one of the top young talents anywhere in American soccer, attracting attention from several European outfits.
The 19-year-old has two USMNT senior caps. His first came in December of 2021 when he entered as a substitute in a friendly against Bosnia & Herzegovina. Gomez then started in the 2-1 loss to Serbia in January, going 90 minutes at left back.
San Jose’s 19-year-old attacker Cade Cowell is a focal point of the U-20 attack under Varas. Cowell has appeared for the senior national team three times in his young career, first in December of 2021 against Bosnia & Herzegovina. He played in the January friendly against Serbia alongside Slonina and Gomez and started against Mexico in April. Cowell won Man of the Match for his performance against Serbia after creating several chances and putting shots on target to test Serbian keeper Djordje Petrovic. Cowell’s ability to change games with his speed and attacking prowess make him an important part of the U-20 World Cup team for the United States.
With four players already capped by the senior USMNT in his squad in Argentina, Varas has an experienced group that knows what it means to play at the highest level for one’s country. That experience should serve the Americans well in a tournament that can lift players to new heights and bring glory and respect to the USMNT program.
Jason Davis is the host of The United States of Soccer on SiriusXM.
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Photo by Oscar Barroso – ISIPhotos.com