RISING STARS: PART I
The U20 World Cup has become a very important tournament for young American players as they seek to start their professional careers.
While some of the players on this year's team already have professional contracts, others do not and are still playing in the NCAA ranks. For these college players, a lot could change quickly with an impressive showing at the World Cup in Egypt.
Michael Stephens (Midfielder, UCLA)
Like fellow U20 teammate Dillon Powers, UCLA midfielder Michael Stephens was a player who emerged very late in the cycle to earn a roster spot on the USA U20 World Cup team. Stephens, 20, is coming off a very successful NCAA season where he was named the 2008 Pac 10 Conference player of the year.
"I was not so much surprised as I was excited," Stephens said upon hearing the news from Thomas Rongen that he made the USA U20 team. "I really did not know what to expect but I knew I was in the mix. Since getting called in to a lot of the most recent camps I have been preparing as if I were going in case the opportunity would present itself and now it has."
Stephens, a native of Naperville, Illinois, earned his first USA U20 camp invitation this past May when the USA was scheduled to play a pair of games against CONCACAF rivals, Costa Rica. Stephens seized this opportunity and scored two goals in the two games. Since then, he has become a regular fixture in U20 camps and in August, he was named to the World Cup roster.
"I do think the games against Costa Rica were important as I scored two goals in two games," Stephens said about how he thought he impressed the U20 staff over the summer. " I think the major factor in making the roster after failing to make the qualifying roster was my consistency from trip to trip."
Stephens also discussed how his versatility and abilty to play several different positions also helped influence Rongen. "I have played in many different positions in the tournaments leading up to the final roster selection. In Florida against Costa Rica I played one game as a central midfielder and another out wide. In Egypt I played both in the middle and wide in the two games there. I even played as a right back in Egypt when Sheanon [Williams] went down with an injury. I think my versatility is a positive thing and a reason I made the final roster."
Stephens remains ambitious about his career prospects after his time at UCLA is over. He sees the U20 World Cup as great chance to make an impression on scouts.
"I have always wanted to be a professional soccer player. I think it is a huge opportunity as many players are identified at the U20 World Cup. The first step to getting seen at the tournament is obviously getting minutes. That is my focus right now, to push to get significant minutes."
Apart from playing at UCLA and the USA U20 team, Stephens has also experienced the professional environment. This past summer he trained with the Galaxy of MLS. The summer before, he trained in Germany with Hamburg. While he likes MLS, playing in Europe is a goal for him. Now a senior at UCLA, the time is coming soon for Stephens to make a decision as to where he would like to play professionally.
"I definitely want to play in Europe at some point. The passion and level of play is so high. All of the best players in the world play there and it is definitely a goal of mine. Having drawn on both experiences here in the MLS and in Europe will help me make my decision at the conclusion of my final year at UCLA."
Aaron Maund (Defender, Notre Dame University)
One of the more interesting paths to making the USA U20 World Cup roster was that of Notre Dame defender, Aaron Maund. As a duel citizen of the United States and Trinidad and Tobago, Maund represented Trinidad and Tobago at the 2007 U17 World Cup in South Korea.
Prior to the 2009 U20 World Cup Qualifying in March, Maund filed his application with FIFA to switch national team affiliations to the United States. This application, which a player who holds dual citizenship and is uncapped at the senior level is allowed to make only once, was approved. Maund, 18, played for the USA and helped the team qualify for the tournament in Egypt.
"I had a good experience at the U17 level with Trinidad and Tobago in South Korea, and I will always be thankful for that opportunity," Maund said of his national team affiliation switch. "That being said, I have always wanted to represent the red, white and blue, so when the opportunity presented itself it was not that hard of a decision. I couldn't be more excited to be with the USA."
In 2008, Maund started every game for Notre Dame. He quickly became widely recognized as one of the best freshman defenders in the country. One of the strengths he brings to both Notre Dame and the USA U20 team is his versatility of being able to play across the backline.
"In the past I've played a lot of centerback for the U20s and thats were I play at Notre Dame, so I am most comfortable there, but it really depends on what the coaching staff has in mind. Many of the players on the team are versatile so there are a bunch of different ways we can play."
A professional career is certainly a goal for Maund and he doesn't downplay the opportunity the U20 World Cup affords to impress scouts.
"It has always been a dream of mine to play professional soccer, and it is something I think about everyday. The U20 World Cup is definitely a tournament that attracts countless scouts and attention from professional clubs, and has propelled many careers to the next level."
As to where Maund would like to play professionally whenever he concludes his Notre Dame career, he admits that while he is fond of MLS and it could be an option, Europe is a goal for him.
"I have always seen myself playing in Europe, just because the sport is so much bigger there. You have your Chelseas, and Barcelonas and I think it would be amazing to be a part of a club like that with so much tradition and fans that live and die with their club. But, with the strides that the MLS has been taking in the past couple of years I could definitely see myself in the MLS as well and would never overlook the opportunity. After all, it is the league I grew up watching."
Maund also says that while the big European clubs are always a dream, a good starting place could be in one of mid level leagues throughout Europe. This has been the path taken by several Americans who have played in Europe.
"Everyone wants to go to the big clubs in Spain, England and Italy but I feel as though the Scandinavian countries, as well as Holland and Germany are great places for young Americans to start their careers. Charlie Davies is a good example of this. He's a guy that played for the rivals of my high school, Roxbury Latin, then found his way over to Sweden and has recently moved over to a big club in France."
As for the USA U20 team at the World Cup, Maund was with the team at qualifying and has seen the group come together. He sees a lot of potential and thinks the USA team can surprise in Egypt.
"I think we have a great chance of not only advancing to the knockout stages but winning the whole thing. We have a tight-knit and talented group that is team oriented and not only wants to win but believes we can win. That is a deadly combination that I think will take us a long way."
The U20 World Cup will certainly be a significant opportunity for several players on the USA team. Many of the players on this team are at a crossroads in terms of their development paths and will be looking further their careers in the near future. The tournament in the past has been the springboard for many USA players and this year should be no different.
For Stephens and Maund, the tournament will provide an excellent opportunity to step onto the international stage and put themselves into a strong position to earn their first professional contracts with clubs that can help them reach their potential.
Leading up to the tournament, YA will bring you more profiles and exclusive interviews with the US team.