Gaga Slonina in goal, Paxten Aaronson's absence and what to watch as the USMNT Under-20s kick-off the World Cup
It was a winding road to get there, from a FIFA logistics point of view, but the players that will represent the United States Under-20 men's national team have arrived in Argentina for the U20 World Cup. Well, at least most of them.
Head coach Mike Varas has brought a talented squad to Argentina, albeit one with a few notable absences due to club commitments. The U.S., though, is a team loaded with potential future stars, several of whom have already made their senior national team debuts.
Still, though, the U.S. will be shorthanded for the group stage, with a few key players remaining with their clubs to finish off the European season before arriving at the tournament. Before they arrive, the U.S. will have to navigate a group that includes Ecuador, Slovakia and Fiji, a group they'll be expected to emerge from when all is said and done.
The U.S. has made deep runs in the last few tournaments, with their win over France in the 2019 U20 World Cup serving as a program highlight. Can they do so again this summer?
GOAL look at some of the key players and storylines that will determine the U.S. team's fate over the next few weeks:
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The USMNT's goalkeeper of the future will be on full display at this tournament. Gabriel Slonina is, in fact, that damn good, so good that you can anoint him at such an early age. In a country that is known for producing goalkeepers, Slonina is one of the best youngsters American soccer has seen, which is why Chelsea were so quick to snatch him and up and start grooming him to be their own future No.1.
He has yet to debut at Chelsea and may not for some time, but Slonina is still expected to be a key figure for the U.S. youth teams and, perhaps, the senior team sometime soon.
This tournament will give him a chance to show his talents, much as he did in his USMNT debut earlier this year. He won't just be looking to impress the USMNT's upcoming coach, though, but perhaps European scouts with one eye towards a loan move away from Chelsea.
Either way, Slonina should be one of the team's most reliable pieces, and it's always nice to start a squad off with a goalkeeper you know can win you games.
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Striker options without Pepi
Ricardo Pepi technically could have been in the squad for this tournament, but it's quite clear that he has aged out of this sort of competition. If he had joined up with this U20 squad, he would have been a locked in starter and perhaps even a Golden Boot candidate. Instead, the U.S. will rely on other young forwards without the same track record.
For much of the cycle, the U.S. has played without a designated No.9, with Paxten Aaronson playing as a false-nine, but it doesn't have to be that way at the World Cup. Darren Yapi has emerged as a future star with the Colorado Rapids and then with this U.S. team back in March.
Yapi, though, is still pretty unproven, so it remains to be seen if he can be the guy. If he is, the U.S. has a chance to go pretty deep in this tournament. If not, it'll be a struggle to find goals against some of the better teams.
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The missing pieces
Youth national team coaches know that they'll never get every player, but Varas will have hoped to have some of the players that were ultimately held back by their club teams. Three members of the CONCACAF U20 Championship Best XI have been prevented from joining up, with Aaronson, Jalen Neal and Christopher Brady all staying with their respective clubs.
The loss of Aaronson, in particular, will be a big one, as there was a legitimate argument that he is this group's best player. He won the Golden Ball and the Golden Boot during the CONCACAF tournament playing as a false nine, and having spent the months since with Eintracht Frankfurt, there's no doubt he's ready to take his game to another level.
Brady and Neal, meanwhile, are a bit more replaceable. Brady's spot will be taken by his Chicago Fire predecessor Slonina, while Neal's absence can be made up for with some of the center-backs in the squad. Regardless, Varas would have hoped to have something closer to a full squad, even if it was never a possibility to have everyone he wanted involved.
Making matters worse for Varas? That the U.S. will be even more shorthanded for that first game against Ecuador. Cade Cowell, expected to be a key contributor in the attack, will be suspended for the opener for his role in a melee with Costa Rica. Rokas Pukstas and Kevin Paredes, meanwhile, won't be expected to join the team until the knockout stages due to their club obligations
Because of that, Varas will only have five outfield players on the substitute's bench for that first match. It's a dangerous game to play, but Varas has certainly balanced risk with reward.
By calling in Pukstas and Paredes, Varas will have something closer to his best team available to him by the time the knockout stages roll around. He's betting on his team to survive the group and, if he bets correctly, the U.S. team we see in the knockouts will be far better than the one we see in game one.
Will it pay off? We'll find out, but it's an interesting tactic, for sure.
Perhaps no player in this team has risen as much as Caleb Wiley this year, as the Atlanta United youngster has rapidly become a star. His breakout performances in MLS vaulted him right up to his USMNT debut in April, and now he's back with the U20s and expected to be a key contributor. He's started 10 of Atlanta's first 11 MLS matches, but the club was willing to let him go for this tournament, fortunately enough for the U.S.
Wiley can play anywhere on the left-hand side but, with this U.S. team actually have some talented left-side defenders unlike teams of years past, it's expected that Wiley will start on the left wing. Jonathan Gomez, meanwhile, can hold down the left-back role, with Paredes' introduction making that side of the field even more interesting come the knockout stages.
Could Wiley use this tournament to make another statement to potential European suitors? It's certainly possible based on his current form.
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The Union contingent
While Aaronson wasn't released, a bunch of his old Philadelphia Union team-mates are in Argentina, and they soon could be following his path toward Europe. Brandon Craig, Jack McGlynn and Quinn Sullivan are all with the team and all could very well start for the U.S. throughout the group stage. The Union have done a better job than any club in recent years when it comes to producing young, MLS-ready talent, but, eventually, it does come time for that talent to move on.
Craig will likely start in central defense, while McGlynn could join captain Daniel Edelman and Seattle Sounders starlet Obed Vargas in midfield. Sullivan, meanwhile, is expected to line up on the right-hand side of the attack, at least for the opener with Cowell out.
- Connor Cunningham
Wynder's big move
He's been compared to Virgil van Dijk, which is no small compliment for a teenage defender. And soon, Josh Wynder's path will take him from Louisville to Europe as he looks to live up to those loft expectations.
Wynder is reportedly set to join Benfica this summer, but before making his big more to Portugal, he'll anchor the U.S. defense at this tournament. With Neal out, he'll almost certainly partner Craig in central defense for the duration of the World Cup.
In theory, that partnership should be solid, but this is a big step up for Wynder, who has shown well for Louisville City in the USL. He is playing up an age group, but that likely won't bother him too much considering he's been playing against grown men with Louisville.
If Wynder shows out, the hype will only intensify for a player that was called up to the USMNT earlier this year. Although he didn't play in that one, it seems like a matter of time before that first cap comes, and the process will only be sped up by a big showing in Argentina.
What's next for Che?
Heading into this tournament, Justin Che's future is somewhat uncertain. Hoffenheim will not sign the defender permanently, which means he's set to return to FC Dallas. Che never really broke through in the Bundesliga, although he did play extensively with the reserves. Injuries definitely played their part but, at this moment, there's no doubt that Che needs first-team minutes, wherever that is.
The 19-year-old defender is a very good prospect, so good that Bayern Munich brought him in on loan back in 2021. However, right now, he does face a big crossroads with regards to his club future.
European clubs could come knocking, for sure, and staying with FC Dallas wouldn't be a bad option considering the club's track record of developing talent. First, though, he has this tournament. It remains to be seen if he'll be first choice, but, if it turns out he does get extensive minutes, the U20 World Cup would be a very good shop window.
More importantly, though, it could be a good confidence booster who, at 19, is beginning another new chapter.
We've already acknowledged Pukstas late arrival, but it's worth touching on his situation given his rapid rise. The midfielder has emerged as a key play for Hajduk Split in Croatia, so key, in fact, that they said they wouldn't release him for this tournament. They'll play the Croatian Cup final against Sibenik on May 24 after which, in theory, Pukstas will jet to Argentina to join up with the team.
While frustrating for the U.S., who will begin the tournament without a very good player, it's easy to see why the club would keep hold of Pukstas. He's made 24 appearances for the Hajduk, who will finish second in the league and could still win a trophy.
Pukstas is clearly a player all involved rate highly, and the World Cup is a good stage for him to perhaps angle for a move to a bigger league.
The road ahead
The U.S. group could have been easier, but it also could have been much, much harder. Ecuador and Slovakia are solid teams, and that opening game against the South American outfit should be particularly difficult given the lack of bodies in the U.S. squad. The third group-mate, Fiji, though, will be a massive underdog.
The presence of Fiji is what makes Varas' gambles make sense. Four of the six third-placed teams in the group stages advance to the knockouts, meaning a big win over Fiji should be enough to get it done. Even if the U.S. loses to Ecuador and Slovakia, there is a pretty good chance they still find themselves in the next stage.
They won't want that to be the scenario, though, as the U.S. will feel as if this is a winnable group. If they can do so, they'd set themselves up with a more favorable run toward the title, which is the end goal here, after all.
The first goal, though, will be the semi-finals. The U.S. has reached the quarter-finals in each of the last three World Cups, and going one better would be a good step forward for this young group.