Picking the USA's 2023 Under-20 World Cup squad: Many options amid much uncertainty

The men’s U-20 World Cup will get underway in a month and while the host has changed from Indonesia to Argentina, the dates have not (May 20 through June 11). United States under-20 head coach Mikey Varas  will likely have to name his roster in three weeks and faces many moving parts.

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2023 Under-20 World Cup, Groups
Group A
 — Argentina, Uzbekistan, Guatemala, New Zealand.
Group B   United States, Ecuador, Fiji, Slovakia.
Group C   Senegal, Japan, Israel, Colombia.
Group D   Italy, Brazil, Nigeria, Dominican Republic. 
Group E —  Uruguay, Iraq, England, Tunisia.
Group F — France, Korea Republic, The Gambia, Honduras.
Note: The top two finishers in each group and four third-place finishers advance to the round of 16.

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Some of the big issues for Varas are injuries, U.S. national team conflicts and, by far the most difficult issue for Varas: club releases.

The key rule is simple. Clubs are never required to release players for youth national team events.

Varas will soon submit a preliminary list of players ranging between 35-55 players with FIFA. From that list, he will select his squad of 21, three of whom must be goalkeepers.

Varas will probably not be able to solidify his final roster until close to the deadline. He has said in numerous interviews that he is in regular contact with clubs, both domestically and in Europe.

So right now, almost the entire player pool is relevant.

The Pool: Gaga Slonina, Chris Brady, Antonio Carrera, Alex Borto, Emmanuel Ochoa.

This position seems straightforward. The top two goalkeepers are Chelsea’s Gaga Slonina and Chicago’s Chris Brady. Until last year, they were both teammates with the Fire. Then Slonina was sold to Chelsea and Brady became Fire’s starter. With the U-20 team, Brady was the starter last summer in the Concacaf Championships because Slonina wasn’t released by the Fire. Since Slonina is only with Chelsea’s U-23 team now, he probably would be released.

Chicago might be inclined to release Brady for the U-20 World Cup, but probably only if he is starter. That seems unlikely if Slonina is going.

FC Dallas homegrown Antonio Carrera, Fulham’s Alex Borto, and San Jose homegrown Emmanuel Ochoa are the three keepers fighting for the two backup positions.

The pool: Caleb Wiley, Jonathan Gomez, Michael Halliday, Mauricio Cuevas, Justin Che, Noah Allen, Jacob Green, Josh Wynder, Brandon Craig, Jalen Neal, Markus Fekranus, Thomas Williams

Left back might be the team’s strongest position with Atlanta United’s Caleb Wiley (photo below) emerging as one of the best teenagers in MLS and Jonathan Gomez at Real Sociedad’s reserve team. Both have been capped by the full national team. Noah Allen and Jacob Green are backups of Wiley or Gomez aren’t released.

Right back is not nearly as strong. Mauricio Cuevas has been the team’s starters and even was the co-captain during the Concacaf U-20 Championships but he is still not yet a regular starter on the reserve team for Club Brugge. Orlando City’s Michael Halliday might overtake Cuevas as the U-20 starter. He’s been with the U-20 team occasionally but has been trending upward in 2023 even playing well in the Concacaf Champions League games against Tigres UNAL.

There is also Justin Che, who is on loan with Hoffenheim from FC Dallas. He has only been with the team occasionally this cycle, but he gives Varas the option of being both a backup right back and a backup central defender. His versatility could be key with him sneaking onto this team.

Central defense is far more settled. Jalen Neal and Brandon Craig have been the team’s top central defenders all cycle. Neal is now a starter with the Galaxy and there could be issues with his release. Louisville City (and soon-to-be Benfica) central defender Josh Wynder should make the team playing up a cycle.

The alternate options should there be injuries or release issues would be the Galaxy’s Markus Fekranus or Orlando City’s Thomas Williams.

Central Midfielders
The pool: Daniel Edelman, Obed Vargas, Rokas Pukstas, Jack McGlynn, Owen Wolff, Caden Clark, Niko Tsakiris, Alejandro Alvarado, Noel Buck, Esmir Bajraktarevic, Benjamin Cremaschi, Daniel Leyva.

New York Red Bull homegrown Daniel Edelman typically wears the captain’s armband when he is on the field. He is a lock as the starting defensive midfielder. Varas rates Seattle midfielder Obed Vargas highly and has said he believes he can eventually make the full national team. Vargas has only just returned from a long-term injury and is also playing up a cycle. But Vargas should be a safe bet to be Edelman’s backup.

Rokas Pukstas and Jack McGlynn are two players who Varas would like on the team but who could have release issues. Pukstas is a starter with Hajduk Split, whose season runs through June 3 with a date in the Croatian Cup final on May 24.

Regarding McGlynn, the Union is in the semifinals of the Concacaf Champions League. If the Union advances past LAFC in the semifinal, the final would take place during the U-20 World Cup. Union coach Jim Curtin has seemed open to the idea of possibly releasing McGlynn, but sporting director Ernst Tanner would have the final say.

Austin FC’s Owen Wolff (No. 16) has played very well in 2023 and has made his U-20 World Cup call-up likely.

Varas will likely take five players from this pool and those five mentioned above are likely the favorites to be selected. But the Pukstas and McGlynn release issues are realistic. If that happens:

Caden Clark has been a U-20 regular hasn’t played at all in 2023 since he moved to RB Leipzig, and he was not at the March camp in Spain. Vizela’s Alejandro Alvarado has also been a regular but he struggled at his last two camps and his minutes at the Portuguese club are nonexistent in 2023.

After Vargas, there are also four other 2005-born players aiming to play up a cycle and push for one of the final midfield spots.

Niko Tsakiris would be the most likely to be included and he was on the team for the Concacaf Championships, but he’s been injured since the MLS preseason. Noel Buck has impressed for New England in 2023 but has not spent any time with U.S. youth national teams. Buck’s New England teammate Esmir Bajraktarevic has played first-team minutes in 2023 and also has spent time with the U-20 team, but seems more likely one for next cycle.

Finally, Inter Miami’s Benjamin Cremaschi was with the U-20 team in October and with the U-19 team most of 2022 but has also been called up to Argentina’s U-20 team in 2022. He is probably seen more as an option for next cycle since the minutes have not been there for Miami yet.

The pool: Kevin Paredes, Paxten Aaronson, Quinn Sullivan, Brian Gutierrez, Diego Luna, Cade Cowell, Darren Yapi, Malik Sonogo, Tyler Wolff, Jackson Hopkins, Keyrol Figueroa, Ricardo Pepi.

One of the deepest areas of this team are several versatile attacking players who can all play either on the wing, as a No. 10 (playmaker), or as a “false nine” (withdrawn) striker. Given that there has been an absence of a No. 9, a true center forward, for most of the cycle, Varas has opted to use these hybrid attackers in a variety of ways to generate and finish chances. These players are Paxten Aaronson, Quinn Sullivan, Brian Gutierrez, Diego Luna  and Cade Cowell (photo below). They should be called up but will they be released?

While Aaronson has made two Bundesliga appearances with Eintracht Frankfurt, it seems likely they would let him play a big role at the U-20 World Cup.

Domestically, the biggest concern is Gutierrez, who has been effective for Chicago in 2022 and now in 2023. The Fire has not always cooperated with his release and kept him off the Concacaf Championship roster last year.

But Varas probably has room for one more attacker even if those five are released. Kevin Paredes is a lock for an invite if he is healthy and his recent hamstring injury does not appear to be serious. Paredes is arguably the most talented player on the team, but he is typically the first substitute off the bench for Wolfsburg. With him, there are issues over his release from Wolfsburg or if he is needed by the full national team this summer.

If there are release issues with any of the attackers (Paredes, Aaronson, and Gutierrez most likely), that would probably open the door for Colorado homegrown Darren Yapi to make it as a true No. 9. He was with the team in March. The team has rarely played with a No. 9 but if there is room for Yapi, he could give the team another look.

Projected World Cup team
Goalkeepers (3): Gaga Slonina, Antonio Carrera, Emmanuel Ochoa.
Defenders (7): Caleb Wiley, Jonathan Gomez, Michael Halliday, Mauricio Cuevas, Brandon Craig, Jalen Neal, Josh Wynder.
Midfielders (5): Daniel Edelman, Obed Vargas, Jack McGlynn, Caden Clark, Owen Wolff.
Forwards (6): Paxten Aaronson, Quinn Sullivan, Kevin Paredes, Brian Gutierrez, Diego Luna, Cade Cowell

Photos: Atlanta United (Wiley), Oscar Barroso/ISI Photos (Wolff), Robert Mora/ISI Photos (Cowell).

6 comments about "Picking the USA's 2023 Under-20 World Cup squad: Many options amid much uncertainty".
  1. humble 1, April 21, 2023 at 1:36 p.m.

    Very unlikely to get Rokas Pukstas, very good player, who's on a top notch european development path, he is playing for HNK Hadjuk U19's in the Euro Youth Tournament semi-final vs Milan's U19s - today - they are winning 3-0, and he scored the 2nd goal - so good chance to be on to the final - and play.  He covers - the Euro Youth U19s, and first team for Hadjuk, who is in 2nd position in the Croatia D1 holding a European spot, and, as is written, in the final of the Croatia cup.  Will be up to player and club, this is normal.  Pukstas has gotten himself in very good development situation.  Hat's off to him and his family.  One to watch for sure.   

  2. Michael foulks, April 22, 2023 at 1:28 p.m.

    Evan Rotundo? San Diego lad, Playing in Belgium. Attacking mid. 

  3. Sean Guillory replied, April 23, 2023 at 4:32 p.m.

    I thought Roundo was at Shake?

  4. Brian Sciaretta replied, April 24, 2023 at 3:39 p.m.

    Rotundo hasn't been with the team once this entire cycle. 

  5. Santiago 1314, April 23, 2023 at 3:15 p.m.

    This is a Cluster Faaaa ..... Why Bother having a World Cup, when the Best Players are going to be there.!?!?!?

  6. Brian Sciaretta replied, April 24, 2023 at 3:51 p.m.

    The release rules have been consistent. There have never been mandatory releases for U-20 World Cups. The problem here is the start date is May 20. It was scheduled years ago and it was thought that immediately after the European season would be the best time.

    But then the European leagues moved their leagues later into May (or sometimes into June) due to breaking for the 2022 World Cup. So this is causing the overlap. That is why there is such a problem. 

    Regarding MLS, the most significant conflict could be if Philadelphia makes the CCL Final. That would be the biggest games in the history of the club and McGlynn is a starter for Philly. We will see about the other MLS players at other clubs who are starters. 

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