The United States U-20 World Cup campaign ended over the weekend and the players returned to their clubs. While the team was disappointed with the quarterfinal loss to Uruguay, the parting theme from Coach Mikey Varas is that the tournament will make these players better the next time they are in such a situation.
For several players, the next opportunity could be coming up soon. The legacy of the recent U-20 team was two-fold. The first is that was the fourth straight U.S. U-20 run to a World Cup quarterfinal. The second is that the team also qualified the U.S. U-23 team for the 2024 Olympics, thereby ending a drought to qualify for the men’s tournament dating back to 2008.
Given the U.S. team’s extended absence from the Olympics, it is easy to forget why this tournament has historically been so important to the men’s side of the program. The U-20 World Cup is often a major test early in the professional career for players, and the U-23 team has often been effectively used to bridge the gap between youth and senior national teams. The fact that it comes two years before the World Cup, the benefits are often seen right away.
For example, in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Landon Donovan, John O’Brien, and Josh Wolff led the U.S. U-23 team to the semifinal. It was at that point they went from part-time national team players to full-time players who often started. All three played important roles in the World Cup quarterfinal run two years later.
In the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, the U.S. U-23 saw many players make important strides. Stuart Holden, Jozy Altidore, Maurice Edu, Benny Feilhaber, Michael Bradley, and overage goalkeeper Brad Guzan saw their roles expand significantly within the full national team as a result of the Olympics and all made the World Cup team two years later. Charlie Davies would have been part of that group if not for his car accident. Sascha Kljestan and Michael Parkhurst also went on to have notable national team achievements as well as participate in the group stages of the UEFA Champions League.
So now the U.S. team will be back in the tournament, and it could help to propel many players to make a quick transition to the full team.
FIFA has already published its regulations for the tournament and here is what we know about it in terms of the rules.
• The age limit is for players born in 2001 or later. Essentially these will be players from the pool of the 2023 U-23 team and the 2021 U-20 team (which had its cycle canceled due to Covid).
• Teams will be allowed to select three overage players, as has been historically allowed.
• The roster size will be 22 players, including three goalkeepers. Historically it had been 18 but FIFA expanded it to 22 for the games in Tokyo and will continue with that in Paris.
• The tournament will take place from July 24 through August 10.
• Venues will be in Paris, Nantes, Bordeaux, Lyon, Saint Etienne, Nice and Marseille.
• Two top age-eligible American players are not allowed to participate – Malik Tillman and Folarin Balogun. FIFA has a rule that states “A player who receives a favorable change of association decision is ineligible to participate for their new [national team] in any competition (qualifiers or finals) in which they already represented their [former national team].” Tillman and Balogun represented Germany and England, respectively, in U-21 games that were part of UEFA Olympic qualifying. That prohibits them from playing for the United States in the 2024 Olympics.
• The tournament has not yet been added to the FIFA calendar. That may or may not change, but for now clubs will not be required to release players for the tournament.
Issues for the U.S. team
In terms of how the U.S. team will approach the tournament, the big issue is that the 2024 Copa America will also take place that summer in the United States. The full U.S. national team will take part and it will be the priority for the federation.
It is very hard to see any overlap between the Copa America and Olympic rosters. Assuming players are released, the U.S. has some questions. The biggest will be where to send U-23 age-eligible players who are USMNT backups?
Players like Gio Reyna and Yunus Musah are eligible for the Olympics but are almost surely going to be with the Copa America team. But what about U-23 eligible players who are now regular call-ups to the U.S. team but are backups? This would be players like Joe Scally, Johnny Cardoso, Taylor Booth, or even Ricardo Pepi?
The question becomes whether it is better to start at the Olympics or be a backup on the Copa America. That will likely be a case-by-case basis. Another important note is that while the Olympic rosters tend to favor the two older birth years, this cycle could be a bit different since the older two birth years saw their U-20 cycle canceled by Covid and are behind the younger cycles in terms of international experience.
Coaches & overage selections
Reading the tea leaves, U.S. Soccer is going to probably make an inside hire with the coach. It probably can’t wait until the full national team head coach is hired before they hire an Olympic coach because the Olympics (July 24-Aug. 10, 2024 in France) are fast approaching. The most likely result going inside is probably Varas.
The three overage selections are also a little obvious in terms of where they’re needed. Historically, the selections have been a central defender, a forward, and a goalkeeper. But in this case, there is less of a need of a goalkeeper and there is a big need in central defense and at the No. 9, center forward. The 2001-2004 birth years have not produced much by way of starting central defenders and likely two spots will be needed. Walker Zimmerman is almost a no-brainer because he has World Cup experience, he’s captained the national team, he has played with a lot of young players throughout his camps, and his club situation is settled where U.S. Soccer could likely get a release.
After Zimmerman, it becomes a bit murky who the next overage central defender would be. For now, Miles Robinson checks a lot of boxes, but it depends on where he lands if he moves on from Atlanta. Other options could be Mark McKenzie, Erik Palmer-Brown, Auston Trusty or Matt Miazga. It depends on their club and form come this time next year.
At forward, Balogun is ineligible for the Olympics and will be at the Copa America. Pepi is the best Olympic-eligible forward, but he seems likely to be on the Copa roster. The overage No. 9 could then fall to Haji Wright, Josh Sargent or Jesus Ferreira, who were at the World Cup, or other options like Brandon Vazquez or Daryl Dike. But Sargent brings with him a lot of caps and youth national team experience. He seems like the right fit.
Projected Olympic Roster
(assuming favorable releases)
1) Gaga Slonina (Chelsea
2) Patrick Schulte (Columbus Crew)
3) Chris Brady (Chicago Fire)
In the Mix: John Pulskamp, Alex Borto
Notes: Typically, the starting Olympic job goes to an overage keeper. But Slonina is in a great spot to be an exception. If Varas is the head coach of the Olympic team, he will likely feel comfortable with Slonina in goal.
4) Walker Zimmerman (Nashville SC) (Overage)
5) Miles Robinson (Atlanta United) (Overage)
6) Jalen Neal (LA Galaxy)
In the Mix: Josh Wynder, Justin Che, Brandan Craig, George Campbell, Jonathan Tomkinson.
Notes: Two overage selections in central defense makes a lot of sense. Zimmerman seems obvious. The other one is up for grabs. As to who would be the third age-eligible option, that’s tough. Neal is playing regularly right now but he’s certainly vulnerable.
7) John Tolkin (New York Red Bulls)
8) Caleb Wiley (Atlanta United)
9) Bryan Reynolds (AS Roma)
10) Michael Halliday (Orlando City)
In the Mix: Nathan Harriel, Cody Baker, Mauricio Cuevas, Jonathan Gomez, George Bello, Jacob Greene, Noah Allen.
Notes: These are rather straight forward. Wiley (photo) is one of the best players from the recent U-20 team while Tolkin would have been tops from the previous U-20 team and he continues to play well for the New York Red Bulls. Reynolds enjoyed his best season at right back with Westerlo. Michael Halliday vs. Nate Harriel is a coin flip for a backup right back spot. But Halliday is doing well in Orlando and has the benefit of recent international experience.
11) Johnny Cardoso (Internacional)
12) Aidan Morris (Columbus Crew)
13) Tanner Tessmann (Venezia)
14) Jack McGlynn (Philadelphia Union)
15) Rokas Pukstas (Hajduk Split)
In the Mix: Gianluca Busio, Indiana Vassilev, Noel Buck, Leon Flach, Daniel Edelman, Josh Atencio, Owen Wolff, Obed Vargas.
Notes: There are some close calls here, but Tessmann and Morris are not among them. They’re both playing very well while Cardoso continues to be rated by the USMNT staff but isn’t likely to see meaningful minutes at the Copa America. McGlynn and Pukstas are among the more promising midfielders from the recent U-20 team and both are playing for good teams. But there is competition. Gianluca Busio could revive his career and that would change a lot. Indiana Vassilev has been part of the engine of a good St. Louis City team. Noel Buck and Obed Vargas are extremely promising U.S. players, but both are actually age-eligible for the U-23 team at the Los Angeles Olympics in 2028. They’re still in the mix for 2024 and should get strong consideration, but it’s very hard to play up an Olympic cycle.
16) Paxten Aaronson (Eintracht Frankfurt)
17) Brian Gutierrez (Chicago Fire)
In the Mix: Cole Bassett, Bryce Duke, Matko Miljevic.
Notes: Aaronson (photo, No. 10) and Gutierrez were among those not released for the U-20 World Cup and they would have helped the team tremendously in terms of creating chances. They’ll both likely be in the mix again and the hope would be that Eintracht is more willing to release in the preseason as opposed to the end of the season. Gutierrez would be in the same situation if he moves, but if he is still in Chicago, they might have different people calling the shots in terms of releases.
Wingers and forwards
18) Kevin Paredes (Wolfsburg)
19) Taylor Booth (FC Utrecht)
20) Cade Cowell (San Jose Earthquakes)
21) Duncan McGuire (Orlando City)
22) Josh Sargent (Norwich) (Overage)
In the Mix: Konrad de la Fuente, Diego Luna, Tega Ikoba, Cameron Harper, Darren Yapi.
Notes: Mostly self-explanatory picks. Paredes has been getting solid Bundesliga minutes and Booth has played well in the Eredivisie. Cowell (photo) was the U.S. U-20 team’s top offensive option. Sargent also would bring a lot of experience. McGuire is one to follow as the former Hermann Trophy winner is scoring at a decent rate and he should claim the Orlando City No. 9 spot by the summer.