BRIAN SCIARETTA - Wednesday, March 6, 2013
After the disappointment of 2011, the US U-20 national team is returning to the World Cup after a successful qualifying tournament in Puebla.
The recent U-20 World Cup qualifying campaign offered a lot of insight about both the team and head coach Tab Ramos. Even though the team came up short against Mexico in the final, several players had very strong tournaments and Ramos has a solid foundation to build his World Cup team.
So who will make the team?
I don't foresee too many changes because team chemistry is strong with this group and that is something Ramos won't want to change. The team played with noticeable heart and that is something that can't be replaced.
That being said, there is a ton of time between now and the World Cup. MLS, Mexico, and European seasons are now in full swing and some players will emerge and others will struggle. As Marc Pelosi and Will Packwood remind us, starting players can get injured and the complex of the team can change.
So it's tough to predict who will make the team that goes to this summer's World Cup in Turkey, but he's the best guess at this time.
1) Cody Cropper (Southampton) - Cropper has been the first choice keeper all cycle and improved steadily as the qualifying tournament went on. He's a lock for Turkey.
2) Kendall McIntosh (Santa Clara University) - Has been a consistent backup for Ramos this cycle but he could be replaced if another keeper finds a way to step up in the months ahead.
3) Zack Steffen (FC Delco) - As we know, there is a requirement that teams bring three goalkeepers to the U-20 World Cup. As someone who is unlikely to play, it makes sense to give that spot to the leading candidate to be the starting goalkeeper for the 2015 U-20 World Cup team.
4) John Anthony Brooks (Hertha Berlin) - It is possible that the 2013 U-20 World Cup could be Brooks' breakout performance for the United States. It's going to be an interesting few months because Brooks also has interest from the German U-21 national team. Brooks is perhaps the best teenage American central defender ever and he would be an enormous boost to the U-20 team. He's spoken highly of the times he's played for the United States and he has said the U-20 World Cup would be a huge opportunity for him. Germany is still in play, but for now he's on this list.
5) Walker Zimmerman (FC Dallas) - Zimmerman has been a favorite for Ramos and it was a big loss when he was too injured for the World Cup qualifying tournament. The US team's central defense was able to get by without Brooks, Zimmerman, and Packwood but for the World Cup, it's important that Zimmerman be healthy. A Brooks-Zimmerman combo would be a very good tandem at the U-20 level.
6) Juan Ocegueda (Chivas de Guadalajara) - Ocegueda has been the first choice left back for Ramos and he will continue to be. He's a lock for the World Cup but his club situation is unclear. He's on loan to Chivas Guadalajara despite their long-standing policy of only employing players eligible and willing to play for Mexico. A loan to Chivas USA is possible and Ocegueda will have a few other options as well. It's important for him to play regularly even if his spot in Turkey is assured.
7) DeAndre Yedlin (Seattle Sounders) - If anything was learned about the U-20 team in Mexico, it was that right back is a concern. Boyd Okwuonu struggled and Eric Miller was injured. Ramos will likely be looking for other options and Yedlin probably jumped to the top of the list after a strong performance for Seattle in the season opener.
8) Oscar Sorto (Los Angeles Galaxy) - Sorto is another potential option at right back for Ramos after he played for the U-20 team in a January camp in Mexico. It will be a battle for Sorto to make the team but he gets the edge and being in a professional environment will help him in the months ahead.
9) Shane O'Neill (Colorado Rapids) - With central defense a major question mark in qualifying with no Brooks, Zimmerman, or Packwood, O'Neil did a good job filling in. After struggling in the opener against Haiti, he improved as the tournament went on. Despite the red card in extra time against Mexico, it was a good tournament for him.
10) Javan Torre (UCLA) - Torre is likely to make the World Cup team even if he doesn't start because he proved in Mexico that he can provide cover across the backline.
11) Benji Joya (Santos Laguna) - As one of the best American players in the qualifying tournament, Joya will be a key player in Turkey. He can play on the wing as well as in central midfield. He is one of the top youth prospects in the Santos Laguna system where he has already seen first team minutes. A solid World Cup could see Joya emerge as one of US Soccer's best young players.
12) Caleb Stanko (SC Freiburg) - When Ramos named Stanko as the team captain for the qualifying tournament, it's clear that he is seen as a team leader. He played out of position in central defense but in Turkey it is likely he will be able to play his natural defensive midfield role.
13) Luis Gil (Real Salt Lake) - As a regular starter at Real Salt Lake, Gil is one of the most experienced U-20 players at the professional level. He is going to be a very important player in Turkey and will help the US team win the possession game. He's a virtual lock to start any important game for the US team.
14) Wil Trapp (Columbus Crew) - Trapp enjoyed a strong tournament in Mexico and was one of the team's most improved players throughout all five games. He was a regular starter but if Stanko is moved into the midfield, Trapp will have to fight for playing time in Turkey. Trapp will be on the team, but for earning minutes a lot could come down to how much he plays in the early season with Columbus.
15) Mikey Lopez (Sporting Kansas City) - Lopez was one of the biggest surprises in Puebla and he proved to be a very effective player for Ramos. Kansas City had to be thrilled that Lopez fell so far in the MLS Superdraft that they were able to land him with the 14th pick. After watching Lopez play with the U-20s, a lot of MLS teams will regret passing on him. It wouldn't surprise anyone if he continued his success in Turkey.
16) Dillon Serna (Colorado Rapids) - Serna is another player that is not likely to start in the World Cup if everyone is available but he is very useful because he can play in both the midfield and in the backline.
17) Daniel Cuevas (Santos Laguna) - Cuevas saw his stock rise in the qualifying tournament more than any other player. He was one of the engines of the team's offense and proved why he was part of nearly every camp since last February. He may be small, but his speed and quickness will give the US team an edge against elite teams at the World Cup.
18) Jose Villarreal (Los Angeles Galaxy) - It has always been clear that Villarreal was one of the best players on the U-20 team but he showed everyone just how good he is. He's one of the best attacking U-20 players in CONCACAF and could turn heads at the World Cup. He is also likely to see an increase role with the Galaxy this year.
19) Mario Rodriguez (FC Kaiserslautern) - Rodriguez has been a mystery player for most of this cycle because he's been a regular player for Ramos but doesn't play much at Kaiserslautern. After struggling in the qualifying opener against Haiti, he improved in the tournament and was effective in the attack. The next step is to see an increased role with Kaiserslautern's youth teams.
20) Danny Garcia (University of North Carolina) - As American soccer continues to progress, it will be harder for college players to make the US U-20 team. Still there will always be a few that get into the fold. After all, Dempsey, Cherundolo, Holden, and many more came out of the NCAA. Garcia was effective in Mexico and could turn professional in the next 12 months. He's by no means a lock to make the World Cup team but he's on the inside of the bubble.
21) Jack McBean (Los Angeles Galaxy) - McBean has never really caught on with the U-20 team under Ramos but his is in the right situation to force his way into the equation. Jerome Kiesewetter and Brandon Allen failed to impress as central forwards in Mexico and Omar Salgado still is not healthy after missing monhts of time. McBean, meanwhile, is likely to get increased minutes with the Galaxy's first team.
Adam Henley (Blackburn Rovers) - It's worth mentioning Henley at this point. Henley, who last year was the youngest player in the Premiership, is currently on the books as a Wales player but is admittedly undecided about his future with the team. Born in Tennessee, he is also eligible for the United States and he has spoken with US Soccer as recently as December when he was strongly considering attending a US U-20 camp in Florida before Blackburn refused to even release him. You can't really put him on the list yet because he's not an American player and has never played for the United States. If, however, he decided to play for the US team and files his one-time switch, he walks onto this U-20 team and is the starting right back in Turkey. A backline of Henley-Brooks-Zimmerman-Ocegueda would be very solid internationally at the U-20 level.
At this point, Tab Ramos is not showing much interest in any player also eligible for the 2015 U-20 team other than Steffen as a third keeper. Therefore, I'm not considering promising players such as Zach Pfeffer, Julian Green, or even any of the U-17 eligible players.
I talked about Adam Henley but I won't talk about Shawn Parker at the moment. There is no indication that he is interested in leaving the German program at this time.
Omar Salgado and Sean Cunningham both saw first team minutes for their respected clubs but given that both players have been injured for many months now and are still trying to return to 100% fitness, I think the odds are against either for the time being.
Notable players just missing the cut right now: Eric Miller, Boyd Okwuonu, Jerome Kiesewetter, Brandon Allen, Tomas Gomez, Alejandro Guido, Victor Pineda, Mikey Ambrose, Jonathan Top.