The U-20 World Cup provides an international stage for young players and a launchpad to further their careers. Recent U.S. U-20 players who made quick transitions to the full national team include Josh Sargent, Sergino Dest and Tyler Adams, and the tradition goes back to the likes of Marcelo Balboa, Jeff Agoos and Kasey Keller.
Through two games at the 2023 U-20 World Cup in Argentina, the U.S. U-20 team has a perfect six points and has already clinched a spot in the knockout rounds.
Several players are performing well, especially Jonathan Gomez. The North Richland Hills, Texas, native has played all 180 minutes of the team’s first two games and delivered the stoppage-time winning goal in the 1-0 victory over Ecuador in the opener.
In that game, Gomez surprisingly got the start at right wingback as opposed to his natural left back. Playing on the right side allowed him to cut into the middle of the field on his dominant left. That is exactly what allowed him to score. Against Fiji, a 3-0 win, he reverted to left back and helped the U.S. stay in control throughout the game.
“My first U-20 camp was the Revelations Cup in 2022,” he added. “From that camp to where we are now, I think we've made great strides in terms of on the field, obviously playing ability, and then off the field as well. I feel like we've become a band of brothers. You can just feel that everyone's ready.”
Gomez becoming a key part of the U.S. U-20 team was a long process to have him involved.
The son of Mexican immigrants, Gomez has been heavily recruited by their program and throughout 2022 he spent time in the setup for both national teams.
In December 2021, Gomez made his debut for the full U.S. team in a friendly win over Bosnia & Herzegovina and it was his shot that resulted in a rebound that Cole Bassett finished for a 1-0 win.
But then in April 2022, Gomez played for Mexico’s full team in a friendly against Guatemala.
When the 2022 Concacaf U-20 Championships arrived, Gomez was on the provisional rosters for both Mexico and the United States, but he was injured and did not have to decide. But at that tournament, the U.S. team went on to qualify for the 2023 U-20 World Cup and the 2024 Olympics while Mexico suffered a stunning elimination in the quarterfinals and failed to qualify for either event.
With Mexico suffering a setback at the Concacaf Championships, Gomez has been entirely in the U.S. setup. He made his debut with the U.S. U-20 team at the 2022 Revelations Cup in September. Then he was with the full U.S. team at the January 2023 camp. Now he is back with the U.S. U-20 team at the World Cup.
While Gomez is not fully tied to either program, he is having a positive experience in Argentina – which bodes well for his future U.S. involvement.
“I don't know if I would say a long process, but I just think that a player with that dual nationality, you kind of weigh both options,” Gomez explained. “You feel a sense of pride in both. I've tested both waters but as of right now, I'm here and I'm focused on the World Cup.”
At the heart of his positive experience with the U.S. U-20 team is Coach Mikey Varas, who has worked hard to not just select players but also to build a team chemistry and build relationships that help to bond players with the U.S. program.
Gomez has known Varas for years because Gomez was playing for the youth teams at FC Dallas, where Varas was one of his coaches. Eventually Gomez made the decision to leave FC Dallas for Louisville City before he signed his first professional contract. Despite leaving the club, Varas continued to have a positive relationship with Gomez. It is that type of loyalty that Gomez believes is why Varas is having success with current U-20 team.
Varas has certainly been tested, too. Just before the tournament, he was told that his best player throughout the entire cycle, Paxten Aaronson, would not be released by his club, Eintracht Frankfurt. In addition, Varas was denied a release for Aaronson’s top understudy, Brian Gutierrez of the Chicago Fire, and starting central defender, Jalen Neal of the LA Galaxy.
The U.S. team has struggled at times with its finishing, but their approach to the game has been positive and ambitious. For Gomez, that starts with the players having faith in their head coach.
“I personally have known Mikey for years now as he coached me at Dallas," Gomez said. "He's a great person, apart from being a great coach. He's great at building those personal relationships with all the players. ... Beyond this tournament, he's going to have our backs. That's something I remember he told me a few years back. He's had my back ever since. I've had his back and I'm pretty sure it's going to be like that with all his players.”
“We might be a little bit short here,” he added. “But however many we're going to have, we're going to be ready. That brotherhood we have is going to help us pull through and every player has to play their role — whether they play zero minutes or play every single minute, everyone has to bring 100% effort on and off the field because that support coming in from the bench or wherever is going to be what makes a difference.”
Moving beyond this World Cup, Gomez will hope to be part of the U.S. setup for the full national team or the U-23 team, which will play at the 2024 Olympics. But whether that happens will be determined by his progress at his club, Real Sociedad in Spain, where he has been at since the end of 2021.
Thus far, Gomez has only appeared for the second team (last season in the second tier, this season in the third tier) but this season he has made the bench twice for the first team – which currently sits fourth in LaLiga.
At some point, he will need to earn consistent minutes at a higher level than Spain’s third tier but for now, he feels as if he is still on schedule based on the club’s plans for him.
“Everything is a process,” Gomez said. “I think my development at Sociedad has gone well. They have a plan for me, and I think that plan is going well. I've had plenty of opportunities to train with the first team, get in with them, even in a few preseason matches or I played in a few friendlies when the league resumed. I got to test out at that level. ... I think specifically a few things that I've gotten better — on my offensive side of the game, my crossing has as improved. On the defensive side, my defensive positioning, defensive clearances, and my 1v1 duels is something that we've been focusing on. ... Any chance to train or play with the first team, you obviously have got to take advantage of it.”
For now, Gomez is in a good place. He is signed to a top LaLiga team which is taking an interest in his development. He has adjusted well to life in Spain and is even taking online college business classes. The U-20 World Cup is a chance for him to show his progress to the world. Next up will be Slovakia on Friday where the U.S. team will aim for a rare nine-point group stage finish. Gomez may not start if Varas decides to give him some rest ahead of the knockout stage, in which Gomez is slated to play a crucial role.
“For any kid, it's their dream of playing in a World Cup,” Gomez said. “Knowing this was coming up, it was on my calendar. I had it in my mind, but I just wanted to put in the work and play well this season to hopefully be called up. I was called up, so I'm very thankful for that. I'm ready to go. Everyone here thinks that we have the players and the team and the bond to win all three [group] games.”
That's a feat the USA has never pulled off in its previous 16 U-20 World Cup appearances.
Photos: Robert Mora/ISI Photos (vs. Serbia, 2021); Courtesy of Louisville City