By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (May 18, 2023) US Soccer Players – Before Spain claimed the 2008 and 2012 European Championship trophies and their 2010 World Cup win, Xavi, Iker Casillas, and the rest of its Under-20 side hoisted the 1999 FIFA World Youth Championship. Before powering France’s run to 2018 World Cup glory, Paul Pogba and Samuel Umtiti did the same at U-20 level in 2013. Lionel Messi announced his arrival on the global scene with a dominant role in Argentina’s 2005 U-20s triumph in Canada.
For many years this event was first and foremost a learning opportunity for the United States as it sought to climb the ranks of international soccer. Now the U-20s will try to break new ground by mounting a real challenge at the 2023 edition, where they’ll kick off their tournament vs Ecuador on Saturday in San Juan, in Argentina’s mountainous west.
“As a group, we’re here to win,” head coach Mikey Varas told reporters after announcing his roster last week. “We know our first step is to get out of the group stage, that’s a clear milestone for us, and then we’ll take it step by step from there. Before we do that, we have to get our first victory, because you have to start accumulating points in order to get that. And we’ll take each milestone one at a time … Individual player development is key. But I don’t want to mistake – we’re here to get results.”
Varas and his squad will play three group stage games in seven days, all in San Juan. After the Ecuador match, they’ll meet Fiji on Tuesday, then Slovakia the following Friday. (Fox will broadcast the first game on Fox Soccer Plus and the next two on FS2.)
The format of the 24-team tourney offers advancement to the knockout rounds for four of the six third-place finishers. First or second place in Group B would be far more desirable, though, to avoid the prospect of a round of 16 meeting with Brazil or Italy, the most likely winners of Group D. Varas and his staff projected optimism by taking the calculated risk of selecting Rokas Pukstas and Kevin Paredes despite them not being available until the knockouts due to their club responsibilities at Hajduk Split and VfL Wolfsburg.
The U-20s have evolved into a key rung on the USMNT’s developmental ladder, coinciding with methodical improvements in results at major events. Since winning their first-ever Concacaf championship in 2017 under Tab Ramos, the young Yanks have kept hold of that title for three straight cycles. The 2015, 2017, and 2019 World Cup squads all reached the quarterfinal phase, narrowly losing to the eventual winner, runner-up and 3rd-place finisher, respectively.
Much of the discourse around the US U-20s in the leadup to the tournament has revolved around the quest to call in the strongest possible roster despite it falling outside FIFA’s official calendar and thus not mandating clubs to release players. It’s a credit to the growth of the wider talent pool that the coaching staff could still gather a group rich with first-team experience.
“We’re disappointed that some players weren’t released, but at the same time, our number-one priority here is individual player development,” said Varas. “So we’re also proud of the fact that these players have become so important during the cycle that they’re no longer viewed as releasable for this type of tournament.”
The U-20s start from the same tactical base as the USMNT, commonly using a 4-3-3 shape and high-pressing principles. After qualifying for both the U-20 World Cup and 2024 Olympics with an impressive undefeated run at the Concacaf Championship in Honduras last summer, Varas stressed those values.
“Nothing changes from a philosophical standpoint, the team culture, the fighting spirit, the ability to grind in – you saw the boys in hostile environments come out and really put on proud performances for America,” he said last week. “What does change is you have to be able to play to your player strengths that’s on your roster, and our players will be prepared and our staff will be prepared to put the players that we have on the team in the best position to maximize their ability…. Yes, of course you’re not going to dominate games like you do in Concacaf, but you find ways to win and you still have your philosophy in a big macro sense.”
The U-20 level is about player development. That naturally dovetails with the goal of collective competitiveness and success, and the program has shown an ability to fulfill both objectives in recent years. Many among the current senior pool cut their teeth there, including Tyler Adams, Luca de la Torre, Tim Weah, Zack Steffen, Kellyn Acosta, Matt Miazga, Sergino Dest, Mark McKenzie, and most recently, the quartet on Varas’ roster who have already made their senior debuts: Gaga Slonina, Caleb Wiley, Jonathan Gomez, and Cade Cowell.
The best US performance at U-20 level remains the 1989 squad which finished fourth in Saudi Arabia, featuring the likes of Kasey Keller, Chris Henderson, Curt Onalfo, and Steve Snow. Matching or eclipsing that will take a sequence of excellent performances over the next three weeks. The longer-range work of maximizing the number of alumni who graduate to the USMNT is every bit as important.
“I’ve told all of these players, if we win the World Cup at the U-20 level and none of them are playing with the men’s team sooner rather than later, I’ll look at my job with a lot of skepticism and I won’t feel good about it,” said Varas, who has worked as an interim USMNT assistant under Anthony Hudson this year. “And if we get knocked out of the group stage, and we have four or five guys helping our men’s national team compete in the summer or compete in the Copa America, or compete in a World Cup on our soil, I’m going to be the proudest coach there is. Obviously the best, the slam dunk, home run is that we win the tournament and that happens.”
More from Charles Boehm:
- Charlie Davies on his new role at CBS Sports Golazo Network and more
- LAFC aims to break new ground on Champions League run
- US Soccer sporting director Matt Crocker outlines the scope for “the whole ecosystem”
- What we learned from USMNT 1, Mexico 1 – Continental Clasico
Photo by Oscar Barroso – ISIPhotos.com