For the first time since this whirlwind all began, Josh Wynder is taking a moment to take it all in. In just two years, life has moved faster than even he could have expected. Pro contracts, an Under-20 World Cup, a first U.S. men's national team call-up and, now, a massive move to Benfica. Where has the time gone?
"This moment right now is when I'm actually starting to look back and say 'Wow, what a year it's been'," Wynder tells GOAL. "I'm still pinching myself sometimes, not knowing if it's real, but it's been a really busy year and now looking back, it's amazing. I think I've accomplished a lot, but it's just a start to what I want to get to."
Wynder is right: it has been a hell of a year. Just 12 months ago, he was a young defender embarking on his first full season as a starter in the USL Championship. Now, he's weeks away from pre-season with Benfica. The Portuguese club have paid a $1.2 million transfer fee to sign the defender, GOAL can confirm, with his hometown club, Louisville City, retaining a sell-on fee.
The move to Benfica is a logical step up for a player that has quickly emerged as one of the brightest prospects in American soccer. He's played extensively for the U.S. U20s, starting at the World Cup in Argentina despite playing up an age group, and even earned his first USMNT call-up earlier this year. In terms of pure talent, there are few players in the USMNT player pool with the ceiling of Wynder, who has all of the tools to play center-back at a very, very high level.
But what makes the 18-year-old so special? GOAL breaks down Wynder's rise with a little help from the defender himself...
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Where it began
It's safe to say that Wynder is Louisville through and through. Born in raised in the Kentucky city, Wynder had the rare opportunity to star for his hometown team. In a state more known for its college basketball, soccer is still a relatively new phenomenon in Louisville. Louisville City, which plays in the USL Championship, was funded in 2014 after Orlando City's rights were relocated to Louisville. The local NWSL team, Racing Louisville, began play in 2021.
But, after seeing one young star in Jonathan Gomez play his way into a big European move to Real Sociedad, Wynder emerged as another breakout prospect to watch playing right in front of his friends and family. He credits his family for giving him his start in the game, particularly his older brother Elijah, who signed with Louisville City one year before Josh did.
"My brothers started playing soccer," he tells GOAL. "We actually all played baseball before, but my two older brothers started playing soccer and I kind of just followed in their footsteps and wanted to be like them when I was at that age, so I just started playing soccer."
Growing up in Louisville, it didn't take Wynder long to realize that he could, in fact, make a life out of soccer. He spent his youth playing up several age-groups on teams alongside his siblings and, despite the obvious physical disadvantage, he thrived. When Elijah signed with Louisville City, he made it his mission to do the same, which he accomplished when he joined as a youth player in 2020, before going pro in 2021.
"It was always a dream growing up," he says, "but then once Elijah signed his professional contract, I think that's when I was like, 'Okay, I can follow in his footsteps and hopefully get to where he is'. It turned out that I could."
The big break
After signing in 2020 and making his pro debut in 201, Wynder became a regular starter for the club in 2022, playing against grown men in the USL Championship despite being just 16 at the start of the season. He featured 27 times in all competitions for the club, helping lead them to the top of the conference in the regular season before falling in the championship game to San Antonio FC.
It didn't take long for U.S. Soccer to take notice, with Wynder quickly becoming a regular for the U.S. youth teams. He featured five times for the U19s in 2022, serving as captain at one point, before becoming a mainstay for the U20s in 2023, emerging as a key starter at the World Cup despite playing up an age group. He also earned his first USMNT call-up for a recent friendly against Mexico and was named to the preliminary roster for the upcoming Gold Cup.
"It was a great experience," said Wynder of his time at the U20 World Cup. "I feel like some national teams, at this age, it can be played with big egos that don't want to talk to you or whatever it is, but I think our group had a great culture. Everyone got along with everyone. People were helping me out on the field when I had a bad day training or a good day training.
"But I also learned there are other levels. You get there and you see players that are way faster, way more skillful, and you're like, 'Okay, I need to work on some things'. You just learn from that and you just take everything in and remember that."
Shortly after breaking out at Louisville, Wynder began to earn interest from European clubs, who were free to sign him once he turned 18 in May. For months, his pending move to Benfica was one of American soccer's worst-kept secrets, until it was finally confirmed on Thursday morning.
- Louisville City
How it's going
If Benfica are in for you, you have to be doing something right. The Portuguese giants have produced some of the world's top stars in recent years. They're famous for taking young talents, molding them into something better and then selling them for a massive, massive profit. There may not be a better club in the world for young players than Benfica - the club's track record speaks for itself.
And that's what led Wynder to Benfica: that track record. Benfica buys players with one thing in mind: developing them. This isn't a club that hoards talent for no reason. Every player they bring in is signed with a purpose.
Benfica, quite obviously, see something special in Wynder, a belief held by many in American soccer. There's a reason he played up an age group with the U20s and there's a reason he has already been given a taste of USMNT experience, and that's because he's pretty damn good. Still, Wynder understands that his move to Benfica will be a process, although he has lofty goals for that first season.
"They see me starting with the second team," Wynder said. "Hopefully, I'll integrate well with the team and start playing as soon as possible and doing well. Then, my goal is to get into the first team by the end of the year, at least training or something with the first team, because I think that should be my aspiration for this year.
"Hopefully, in the next year, or within two to three years, I'll be with the first team, starting or making appearances, whatever it is, but those are my goals."
- EM Dash Photography
It's not often you find a teenage center-back with both technical skill and physical gifts, but that's what you get with Wynder. The first thing that sticks out about his game is his pure technical quality. He's a fantastic passer for any age, not just a teenager, and his ability to progress the ball out of the back is fantastic.
Despite his relative inexperience, he's a player that you can trust wholeheartedly on the ball knowing that, if given time, he can and will play line-breaking passes that will split open any defense. It was something Louisville always benefitted from: Wynder's ability to kickstart an attack with the ball at his feet.
But he's not just a technical player; he has the physical gifts, too. He's listed at 6'0 and he has room to broaden out a bit as he grows into his frame. Athletically, Wynder has the pace to play at an elite level which, combined with his ability on the ball, makes him a top center-back prospect.
Most important, though, is his flexibility, something he says the USL brought out of him as he played against seasoned veterans every week.
"I think the USL brings everything," he said. "You have fast strikers, you have big strikers, you have whatever it is that will challenge you every game. You have to face a new challenge and I think I've taken taken the time to know that I can play in a game that is not a possession-based game, like it's just like a fight. You're just going into tackles, going in hard, like it's just one goal to win the game.
"I could also play in a game where it's just all possession, where we have the ball all game but you have to be ready for that one chance that the other team gets. I think it's just little things, little details that you don't really think about that I've taken and I've learned from."
Room for improvement
If there's one way to describe Wynder, it's by saying that he's a modern central defender. However, he admits that, at times, he's a bit too modern. At times, he needs to go a bit more old school when it comes to his defending.
"I think I'm just gonna focus on the defending side more," he said. "I think on the ball is one of my strengths. So just body shape when they're playing a long ball, whatever it is, I got a lot of feedback from the coaches on the defensive side of the ball. I think I'm just going to continue to grow in that aspect."
The defensive side is what let him down at the U20 World Cup, where he made one whole mistake throughout the team's tournament run. After being near-perfect up until the quarter-finals, Wynder deflected in an unfortunate own goal in the 2-0 loss to Uruguay, despite having zero attackers anywhere near him.
His defensive positioning and awareness is still a work in progress, and he'll likely need to put on a bit of muscle over the next few years, but the foundation is surely there, as Benfica can attest to.
The next... Virgil van Dijk?
For many fans, their introduction to Wynder came from USL sporting director Mark Cartwright last September. Although he wasn't even finished with his first full season as a pro, Wynder was showered in praise by Cartwright, who compared him to arguably the world's best defender.
“I genuinely believe we have the next Virgil van Dijk playing in our league,”Cartwright told Sky Sports News. “He's 17, playing week in, week out, and he is absolutely unbelievable – Josh Wynder, who plays for Louisville.”
Van Dijk, of course, has won everything there is to win at Liverpool. Any comparison to him will be difficult to live up to. Few defenders in modern times have had the impact of the Netherlands captain. That weight on a teenager's shoulders? It's a lot to carry. Wynder, though, is more than comfortable with it.
"I definitely see it," he said when asked about the comparisons, "but I think I'll give my parents a lot of credit. They made me a humble kid. I see all that stuff and I have listened to it and I just pushed it to the side because that doesn't define me, like what people say whatever it is. I decided to just do my thing, keep on training, becoming a better player in person on and off the field."
While Van Dijk is someone that Wynder, obviously, models his game after, he's not his only role model. "I'll say the player that I mostly look at is [Antonio] Rudiger," the teenager says. "I think he brings so much energy and he goes into tackles like crazy, sliding, whatever it is. And then also Van Dijk is calm on the ball, a strong, big guy who can score on a corner. Those are two players I've looked at."
- Louisville City
What comes next
Wynder will officially join Benfica in July and will start off with the club's reserve team. From there, who knows? It'll all depend on how quickly he can adjust to life in Portugal.
"I'm looking forward to the experience," he said as he prepares to live abroad for the first time. "It's gonna be tough at times, but it's a dream come true and I also will have people close to me. Jonathan Gomez is in is in Spain, right next to Portugal, so if I ever need anything, we'll be there to talk. We talk everyday anyways.
"I think it's going to be interesting experience but an amazing one to get used to a new culture, learn a new language, cook. I'm not much of a cooker here, but I have to learn so we'll just see!"
Wynder also has his sights set on the national team, having gotten a taste of the experiences he wants in the future. He's got an U20 World Cup under his belt and, looking ahead, he's now putting himself on a path to experience the big tournament itself.
"I'm gonna take it step by step," he says. "I don't look to far into future but my goal is playing in the full men's World Cup. I think it's just doing everything day in, day out, to get to that. Also, I want to play in the Olympics if that's possible, but everything comes with hard work and time so we'll just see what happens."
The hard work is about to begin. Having already conquered the USL Championship, Benfica is next on Wynder's list as he looks to become the next young star to emerge on the world's stage.