THE 2023 U-20 World Cup will open in 71 days in Indonesia and U.S. U-20 head coach Mikey Varas has kept his core together for most of the cycle. But it has now been nine months since the CONCACAF Championships and in that time, the form of the player pool has changed – which is to be expected for youth players.
The MLS preseason and the start of the 2023 season has seen some new players make a case to be in the mix. The European season has also continued to see players affect their stock – for the better and for the worse.
But before we predict the roster, we have to look at some of the big issues to consider.
But predicting the U.S. U-20 World Cup roster is tricky for several reasons and the biggest is because of releases. Having the World Cup in Qatar take place in the winter has forced many European leagues extend their seasons in to late May or even June.
The U-20 World Cup opens on May 20 and the U.S. team will need to assemble in Indonesia at least a week before then. The German Bundesliga in 2023 ends on May 28 and that has the largest impact on foreign-based players in the U.S. pool. The Croatian HNL ends on June 3 and the Croatian Cup final is on May 24. Then you have a growing number of MLS clubs that are reluctant to release starters to youth national team duty.
Aside from releases there are players who are dealing with injuries that could affect their ability to play much in the weeks and months ahead. Niko Tsakiris, Obed Vargas, and Justin Che are three players currently injured without a clear timeline for returning.
There are also dual nationals which we are uncertain of their commitment. Espanyol’s Luca Koleosho is training with Italy’s U-19 team this month and Inter Miami’s Benjamin Cremaschi spent time with Argentina’s U-20 team in December and January.
Then we have senior national team duties. A player like Ricardo Pepi could be ruled out for several reasons – senior national team commitments or club conflicts with an extended Eredivisie season. The same with Kevin Paredes.
For this list, we are ruling out Ricardo Pepi, Kevin Paredes, Luca Koleosho, and Chris Brady.
For Rokas Pukstas, it is going to be a close call. We will say yes, for now. But that could change.
Pepi has never played with this team and all indications Varas has made regarding Pepi is that he is a senior national team player. With two USMNT tournaments this summer, there is no reason why that should change now.
It’s hard to see Paredes getting released. He plays regularly with Wolfsburg off the bench and it’s hard to think of a reason why Wolfsburg will let Paredes go before the end of the season. Yes, there are other U-20 players in Germany. But Caden Clark, Paxten Aaronson, and Justin Che do not play regularly with the first team. Eintracht Frankfurt even allowed Aaronson to attend January camp.
Luca Koleosho said he is going to decide whether to represent the U.S. or Italy in future youth tournaments later this month (both the U.S. and Italy have qualified for the U-20 World Cup). But Italy seems to have the last crack at him given that he’s playing in their U-19 training camp this month. He might come around into the U.S corner, and if he does and Espanyol agrees to release him, we can adjust the roster. But for now, there are too many “what ifs” to put him on.
Chris Brady would probably get released to the World Cup if he was going as a starter. But given that he is likely to play for Chicago this year, and Chelsea is going to be more likely to release Gaga Slonina than Chicago last year, it is hard to see Chicago willing to release Chris Brady to be the backup at the U-20 World Cup.
The next closest call is Rokas Pukstas with Hajduk Split and this is a tough call. The HNL season is one thing and that might break in the favor of him getting released because Hajduk is locked into second place. But the Croatian Cup could be the reason why he is not allowed to participate in the World Cup. If Hajduk qualifies for the final (they are currently in the semifinal), it’s hard to see Hajduk Split allowing a starter to go to the U-20 World Cup and miss a Cup final.
But, for the time being, we will include Pukstas.
But for the rest, it should be okay in terms of releases.
1) Gaga Slonina
2) Alex Borto
3) Antonio Carrera
In the mix: Emmanuel Ochoa
Analysis: Brady has been the No. 1 for most of the cycle because Chicago refused to release Slonina. But Slonina’s move to Chelsea probably makes it more likely he will be released for the World Cup. Chicago would probably let Brady go if he is the starter but not if he is the backup. So these top three seem most likely. If Slonina isn’t released, then Brady comes in as the No. 1.
4) Michael Halliday
5) Justin Che
6) Brandan Craig
7) Jalen Neal
8) Josh Wynder
9) Caleb Wiley
10) Jonathan Gomez
In the mix: Maurcio Cuevas, Kayden Pierre, Markus Fekranus, Noah Allen, Alex Freeman, Thomas Williams
Analysis: There has been a lot of movement here since last year’s CONCACAF Championships. Caleb Wiley and Jonathan Gomez are two good left back prospects and they’re obvious picks. At right back, Michael Halliday has been in great form to start the 2023 season with Orlando and he probably has put himself in a great position. Justin Che, meanwhile, is a useful player who can cover at right back and central defense. Its tough to rule out Mauricio Cuevas (who has served as a co-captain at times) but his minutes at the reserve levels in Belgium are still up and down.
Two central defense picks are obvious. Brandan Craig and Jalen Neal have been good for this U-20 team all cycle and there isn’t a wave of prospects in line. But Louisville City central defender Josh Wynder is one of the top 2005-born prospects and he is set for a move to Benfica. Despite playing up a cycle, he probably can overtake Markus Fekranus who has been part of the team for most of 2022.
11) Daniel Edelman
12) Rokas Pukstas
13) Caden Clark
14) Jack McGlynn
15) Noel Buck
16) Owen Wolff
17) Paxten Aaronson
In the Mix: Obed Vargas, Alejandro Alvarado, Niko Tsakiris, Benjamin Cremaschi, Jackson Hopkins, Daniel Leyva, Favian Loyola
Analysis: This area of the team is also set to see a lot of movement from 2022. There are some obvious picks. While Dan Edelman’s playing time with the Red Bulls isn’t set to start the season, he has been captain for most of this cycle and there are not many great No. 6 candidates. Jack McGlynn and Paxten Aaronson are locks. Caden Clark has been a regular and is making the bench at Leipzig, but should also be expected to be released. As mentioned, Pukstas getting released is no guarantee but there are number of people who can replace him.
Noel Buck and Owen Wolff would be newcomers but both have been two of the best bright spots in the early MLS season. For Buck, he would be playing up a cycle.
Obed Vargas was considered a top player for this team last year but his injuries make him a concern at this point in time. He’s still injured now, and has barely played since last June. Alejandro Alvarado has fallen out of Vizela’s first team and into the reserves. Niko Tsakiris has been battling injuries that have come at a tough time.
It will be interesting to see if Benjamin Cremaschi sneaks into the team. He was also getting Argentina U-20 call-ups in December and nearly made its CONMEBOL U-20 Championship team playing up a cycle. He could be one who emerges late to earn a spot, but right now it is unclear if he will get meaningful minutes at an improved Inter Miami team.
18) Brian Gutierrez
19) Cade Cowell
20) Quinn Sullivan
21) Darren Yapi
In the Mix: Diego Luna, Malick Sanogo, Tyler Wolff, Korede Osundina, Kristian Fletcher
Analysis: Most of these players stay the same. Brian Gutierrez has been rated by Varas despite not being released for the CONCACAF Championships last year. Chicago might make it a tough case releasing him for the World Cup, but historically most MLS teams release for youth World Cups in the end. Cade Cowell and Quinn Sullivan are staples of this team. Diego Luna has spent a lot of time with this team, but spaces are becoming thin at his positions.
But this team doesn’t typically play with a No. 9. But Varas has been looking and having one would give the team the ability to play with a different look. Malick Sanogo has been scoring goals in droves at the U-19 Bundesliga level but he was called up earlier in this cycle and again with the U.S. U-19 team in January and didn’t claim a spot. That could open the door for Darren Yapi who had a strong preseason with Colorado and is starting for the club early in the season. He is still looking for his first MLS goal but he’s been dangerous in the first couple of games.