Shorn of rising stars in Europe, U.S. U20s rely on MLS-developed talents
Putting together a national team roster, especially one for a world championship, requires Gumby-like flexibility. Players lose form, get injured, or are rendered unavailable by their clubs, rules be damned.
Manager Tab Ramos' construction of the U.S. roster for the FIFA U20 World Cup proved to be no different. The U.S., which begins play in South Korea on May 22, has a roster that is largely shorn of foreign-based players, and that wasn't entirely Ramos' doing. Neither of the Schalke duo of Nick Taitague and Weston McKennie were released by the club due to the fact that Schalke's U19 team is still competing for the German U19 title. McKennie in particular figured to play a prominent role in the U.S. effort, as did Fiorentina's Josh Perez.
"We didn't get any cooperation from Schalke at all and we had very little cooperation from Fiorentina," said Ramos on a conference call with reporters. He later added that Schalke told him in so many words, "Our U19's are more important than your national team, so [Taitague and McKennie] are going to stay here until we're done playing."
So as it stands, there is a heavy domestic flavor to the roster, which is something of a departure from more recent editions. In 2013, there were seven foreign-based players on the team. In 2015, that number rose to 11. This time around, there are four.
Granted, it would be stretch to use the U20 World Cup as a litmus test for youth academies across the country, but the U20 tournament will provide a significant data point in terms of how well the USSF Development Academy is producing players. The program is now a decade old, and some -- though by no means all -- MLS sides have proved adept at moving players into the professional ranks. Real Salt Lake has led the way in that regard, having five players -- Brooks Lennon, Justen Glad, Danny Acosta, Sebastian Saucedo, and Aaron Herrera - on the roster. All told, 17 of the 21 players have Development Academy ties, and 10 are currently on the books of MLS sides.
The group will be tested early, beginning with the opening match against Ecuador in Incheon.
"We start with a final," said Ramos. "We can't afford in this tournament to gradually get better. We have to come in already, 12 days from now, and play the first final. There's no other way."
With that in mind, here are six U.S. players to watch in South Korea.
1. Erik Palmer-Brown, DF, Sporting Kansas City
It was nearly three years ago that Palmer-Brown, then 17, had an MLS debut to forget, conceding a penalty and getting sent off thanks to two yellow cards. But since then, he's steadily built up his career, and looks every bit a player who has great days ahead of him. Not only has he gotten a taste of first team action with SKC, but he also benefited from an 11-month loan with Porto's reserve side in 2016.
His recent performances with the U.S. U20 team have seen him garner even more attention, all of it positive. He captained the U.S. team to its first outright CONCACAF U20 title, won the Golden Ball as the tournament's most outstanding player, all while playing an unfamiliar position in the center of midfield. His play in a 1-0 victory over Mexico in the classification stage proved critical, as he scored the game's only goal, and did plenty to stifle El Tri's attack.
"[Palmer-Brown] is a completely different player now than he was two years ago," said Ramos. "He's really matured. He's one of the best talents we have moving forward, not only as a center back but also as a No. 6. He's incredibly talented, he's fast, and obviously he's a good soccer player overall."
In South Korea, Palmer-Brown figures to slide back to his more familiar center-back slot, and a solid string of performances there should see him garner even more attention.
2. Cameron Carter-Vickers, DF, Tottenham Hotspur
Carter-Vickers' inclusion is surprising only in the sense that he's been injured since mid-April, and Tottenham had recently stated that he wouldn't play again this season. That said, the Americans' first game isn't for another two weeks, so that may give the defender enough time to get fit.
"Cameron has been running, he's been working on fitness so far," said Ramos. "We are hoping that in the next three or four days that he's going to continue to make progress and be available to us possibly for early next week."
Ramos later added that both Carter-Vickers and Justen Glad might not make it to the tournament, and that if that is the case, Auston Trusty would be added to the roster.
If Carter-Vickers is able to play, it would amount to a significant boost for the U.S. The Spurs defender already has experience from playing in the 2015 tournament, and his physical presence would no doubt make for an imposing tandem alongside Palmer-Brown.
3. Gedion Zelalem, MF, Arsenal
Zelalem is as technical a player as there is on the U.S. roster, but his career has regressed this season. Following a successful loan spell with Scottish side Rangers in 2015-16, Zelalem made no headway in terms of playing time with Arsenal, and was ultimately loaned out again to Dutch second tier side VVV-Venlo, where he was not the every-game starter that one would expect.
Questions have also been raised about Zelalem's effectiveness in the attacking third. That said, his ability to link up with teammates and keep possession has value, and like Palmer-Brown and Carter-Vickers, he has experience of playing in the tournament before.
"[Zelalem] needs to be one of our leaders," said Ramos. "We expressed that to him, and so he has to be one of the ones that makes a difference for us. We've seen him practice now for the last three or four days, and fitness-wise he's in a good place, and playing-wise he's looking very good."
4. Brooks Lennon, MF, Real Salt Lake
Lennon appeared to be another MLS youth product that got away when he signed for Liverpool back in 2015, this after spending three years with Real Salt Lake's academy. But the native of Paradise Valley, Arizona returned to RSL on loan this season, and has made the most of his opportunities. Lennon has made eight appearances this season, and last month endeared himself to the RSL faithful by scoring a late winner against rivals Colorado.
The winger proved his worth in qualifying as well, scoring four goals, including a hat trick in a 4-1 win over Haiti. In South Korea, Lennon will be one of the key attacking pieces for the U.S. side.
"A couple of months down the line here, we have Lennon with a lot more experience now than he had two months ago" said Ramos. "We expect a lot more from him."
5. Tyler Adams, MF, New York Red Bulls
It was about this time a year ago that New York Red Bulls midfielder Sacha Kljestan was walking outside of San Jose's Avaya Stadium, turned to me and said, "Keep an eye on Tyler Adams." That proved to be good advice. Then just 17, Adams was already getting some minutes with the Red Bulls first team. His game and responsibilities have grown ever since at both club and youth international level.
"Tyler just keeps getting better and better," said Ramos. "I almost want to set the bar so high he can't reach it."
Adams has become a valuable two-way presence in Jesse Marsch's midfield, starting seven of the Red Bulls last eight games. He proved to be invaluable during the U20s' qualifying campaign as well. His boundless energy in the aforementioned victory over Mexico saw him bottle up El Tri's midfield all day long.
"Tyler's ability to cover ground and mental strength are really amazing," said Ramos. "He's one of a kind, he's a very aggressive, young player."
6. Josh Sargent, MF, St. Louis Scott Gallagher Missouri
Sargent's performances in the recent World Cup qualifying tournament with the U.S U17 national team, including a pair of well-taken goals in a 4-3 group stage win over rivals Mexico, catapulted him into consideration.
There had initially been concern that Sargent's inclusion on the U20 roster would prevent him from participating in the U17 World Cup due to a rule preventing players from participating in two World Cups in the same year. But that rule has been scrapped, clearing the way for Sargent to potentially play in both tournaments this year.
"Some players sometimes outgrow their age group, they have to move on," said Ramos. "We have to remember that our youth national teams are here to provide a good development experience internationally, and I think Josh will get that with us hopefully, and then let's see what the future brings."
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.