US U-20 Roster Analysis: Gedion Zelalem Edition
Well I can assure you of at least one thing: the US has never fielded a player at the U-20 level that has played in the UEFA Champions League.
This is an incredible group, and it just got superstar quality now that FIFA gave the go-ahead for the German-born, Ethiopian-descended, England-residing, Maryland-raised midfielder to suit up for the Stars and Stripes. While the U-20 World Cup will be a good way to bring him into the fold, Jürgen Klinsmann has much bigger things in mind for the 18-year-old, telling Doug McIntyre from ESPN "I think he's already at a level that he can definitely play on the senior team. He's a special player."
Two players didn't make the list due to reasons other than their performance. Another dual-national for whom Klinsmann won the battle, Julian Green, did not make the roster despite being eligible on the age cutoff. He could be a victim of a rule that prevents a player representing more than one country at a given age level, but he only played with Germany up to the U-19s. Until I get a clearer answer, I'll assume that U-19 participation prevents U-20 play (those groups are intertwined depending on cycle), but it could also be the fact he's already an established senior teamer and needs badly to win back favor at Bayern Munich in the preseason after a miserable loan spell at Hamburg. The other, Andrija Novakovich, wasn't released by his club. Reading is under no obligation to do so, and U-20s Head Coach Tab Ramos seemed conciliatory in a statement on the matter. I'm not certain about how essential he was going to be to the squad anyway, but Reading seems to rate him highly.
As for the rest, I'll do my best to analyze the roster composition as I always do, with one eye on their potential for the upcoming World Cup at the U-20 level and another eye on what it might signal for their future contributions to the senior team.
Goalkeepers (3): Zack Steffen (Freiburg), Jeff Caldwell (University of Virginia), Thomas Olsen (University of San Diego)
There is no great mystery in this group when it comes to the number 1 shirt: it's Steffen's job. He's played extensively for the US youth teams, he's at a good European club, and he's a cut above the collegians that were selected along with him. He'll play every minute of the World Cup, and is a strong contender to make the Olympic (U-23) side next summer. In all honesty I don't know too much about the other two, and I'd imagine Ramos is taking them along to get them more experience and exposure to learn what else is out there. Of note is that they are the only two collegians on this list, which historically has been very amateur-dominated. None of the three are clear senior-teamers down the road, for me, but Steffen has a shot.
One strange thing is that Ethan Horvath (Molde FK) made the originally-announced list but was scratched from the final roster. My guess is that his club pulled permission since the Norwegian season runs over the summer (for obvious reasons), and they didn't want to send him out in order to not get playing time. I'd imagine Ramos sees him as the second best keeper in the pool, if talent were the only issue.
Defenders (6): Cameron Carter-Vickers (Tottenham Hotspur), Matthew Miazga (New York Red Bulls), Shaquell Moore (Valencia Huracan), Erik Palmer-Brown (Sporting Kansas City), Desevio Payne (FC Groningen), John Requejo (Club Tijuana)
It's easy to get excited about this group. Carter-Vickers, Miazga, and Palmer-Brown are each stud prospects and talents of the sort that any nation would want to have in its stable of center-backs. All of them already physically fit the bill despite being young (Palmer-Brown and Carter-Vickers could represent the US at this age level even if it was two years from now), and are getting game time at high levels. The picture above, for example, shows Carter-Vickers going toe-to-toe with Manchester United's Radamel Falcao. They've also all played extensively at the youth national team levels, in many instances, playing well above their actual age group. Despite the star-power in midfield, I'd describe this position in particular as the best on the team, and the one with the greatest potential to impact the senior team, both in the medium-term and the long-term.
The fullbacks aren't of the same class, but are no slouches either. While MLS v. Europe might be a legitimate debate for established Senior teamers, it isn't for the young guys, and the fact that Moore, Payne, and Requejo all play abroad is no small feat. I haven't spent too much time watching tape of any of the three, but they're all regarded as decent (if not elite) prospects. Moore and Requejo were part of the CONCACAF championship team, but neither in particular caught my eye during that tournament. But I clearly don't know what I'm talking about, since Moore was named to the all-tournament team, and Requejo is tied for the most caps of anyone on the team at this level. Payne is the only one in the group to play any significant role in his club's senior side, filling in during an injury crisis for Gronigen in the Eredivisie, and just signed a fully-professfional contract with the club.
As such, this is a solid bunch, but if they can't quite cut it, they can lean on their center-halves for support. Worst case, Kellyn Acosta has experience at the position and could easily drop back.
Midfielders (7): Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Paul Arriola (Club Tijuana), Russell Canouse (Hoffenheim), Marco Delgado (Toronto FC), Emerson Hyndman (Fulham), Joel Soñora (Boca Juniors), Gedion Zelalem (Arsenal)
While a good group of defenders and a solid keeper isn't unheard of from the United States, having a huge corps of technically gifted midfielders is truly unprecedented. Every time I read through this list of names I can barely believe that this is the group we're working with, much less at the U-20 level. Hyndman and Zelalem are European prodigies that would be jewels in any nation's set-up, Soñora and Canouse are intruiging prospects at major foreign clubs, and Acosta/Arriola/Delgado are North American guys with a lot of senior club experience for their age. It's hard to overstate how much more talented this group is than any of their predecessors, which may have had the Acostas or the Canouses but never in a million years the Zelalems or Hyndmans.
In terms of how they fit together, Acosta, Delgado, and Canouse are primarily defensive midfielders, but none of them are particularly big guys. Canouse is the biggest at 5'10" and 170 pounds. Stylistically, then, it looks like they'll be the deepest in a central pair or trio that emphasizes mobility and positioning, not bruising enforcers. Zelalem and Hyndman are pure passers, gifted ones at that, and on first glance look like attacking midfielders for that reason. However, it's not hard to imagine either of them finding their most influential role a bit deeper, much like Luka Modric. I'd also bet that at least one of them plays deeper (likely Hyndman, who has experience there) so that they can both get on the pitch at the same time, and maximize our talent. Soñora and Arriola are dynamic attackers, strictly up-the-pitch guys who are better than the rest of this group at dribbling, finding runs, and scoring. It wouldn't surprise me if they played just about anywhere through the attacking midfield, although neither of them are pure wide guys.
In time, Hyndman and Zelalem are no-brainer senior-teamers. The rest all have the potential to be, but aren't there yet. The exciting part isn't purely the talent level on display, but also the style: gifted passers don't come around any nation's talent pool every day, particularly in countries like the US stereotyped as having "athletes playing football" rather than pure footballers. Mix Diskerud is the only guy who comes to mind on the current senior team who fits that bill, but he's not close to that level. Michael Bradley may be, from a deeper and more defensive role. After that, the list runs dry.
Forwards (5): Jordan Allen (Real Salt Lake), Bradford Jamieson IV (LA Galaxy), Rubio Rubin (FC Utrecht), Maki Tall (Red Star), Tommy Thompson (San Jose Earthquakes)
As much as I adore Thompson, Rubin is the pick of this bunch. He's already a difference maker in a very good European league, scoring goals at the senior level. He is even the lone member of this squad that has a senior USMNT cap to his name. I don't know if it'd describe him as a pure number 9, exactly, but that may well be the role he's asked to fulfill in this camp. This group has been the weak point through qualifying, and Ramos has explicitly cited the absence of Rubin as a factor he thinks contributed to their profligacy in front of goal. Hopefully, he'll now lead the line with some authority.
If not, Jamieson IV is starting to turn into a regular for the LA Galaxy, and scored his first MLS goal a few weeks back. He's quick, explosive, and tall, so he'd be a natural fit as a true strike up top, as much as this team seems to be devoid of true wide men. Maki Tall is an unusual story, having played at the youth level for France and Ivory Coast before making an appearance for the US very late in the cycle. He plays in the French third division right now, on loan from Lille, and seems to have a bit of pedigree to him. However, given his late appearance, I've seen him very little on tape. Either way, he seems to be a striker in the pure.
Thompson and Allen are interesting inclusions in this position group, since neither of them are strikers by any stretch of the imagination. Allen is a late-blooming wide man with explosive speed that has started to turn heads at the MLS level. Thompson, on the other hand, plays as a central attacking midfielder in MLS and if anything projects best as a center-of-the-park passer like Zelalem in the long run. That being said, he's slick on the dribble, capable of creating something from nothing, and decidedly undersized. He's been used out wide by Ramos earlier in the cycle, too. As such, I'd imagine him as a creator from the wings, or a recessed center forward "in the hole" causing trouble in front of a back line, working with a striker attempting to play behind it. Thompson has a super high ceiling as a player, with his technical gifts and fluency reading the game, but his limited physical presence has prevented him from imposing himself on games at the club and international level. A small physique is nothing soccer players haven't overcome before, but Quakes fans in particular will all be waiting patiently to see if this tournament represents the breakthrough we've all been waiting for.
Green would've undoubtably improved this group, and Novakovich would've provided it a different look as a target man. For me, the biggest shame was Romain Gall being left off the selection after being the primary goalscorer in the CONCACAF tournament. Ramos suggested that a recent knee injury was to blame, although Gall also seems to be pretty far from the senior-team picture at the Crew at the moment. One other ommission of note is Junior Flores (a wide man who could easily be listed as a midfielder just depending on the setup), who plays for Borussia Dortmund's youth team. He was a notable enough ommission that reporters asked Ramos about it, with Ramos saying essentially Flores just wasn't quite good enough. It's hard to imagine a US U-20 team turing down a kid from an elite club in Europe even five years ago.
Despite the fact that speaks volumes about how good this group is right now, I don't know if any of the true forwards (I'm exempting Thompson here) besides Rubin are likely to make a difference at the senior team level any time soon. Allen, Jamieson, and Tall are just too young and raw at the moment to know if they'll end up filling out their vast potential. This group isn't yet fully formed, and will be looking to shore up its results for the World Cup.
This team is really, really good. This is easily the best team for its age level that I've ever seen out of the US. It's littered with European-based players and high-tier prospects rather than amateurs and collegians hoping to make such a leap. The group draw (New Zealand, Myanmar, Ukraine) is incredibly favorable. Tab Ramos, a valued deputy, was entrusted with the group. It also appears that US Soccer has emphasized developing this group as a unit rather than plucking out stars to play at higher age ranges or doing too much experimentation, which could be a huge advantage compared to nations whose approach to youth groups is a bit more individualistic. However, this group looked pretty mediocre in Jamaica for the CONCACAF championships just a few months ago. My bet is that with better pitches and better preparation, this team makes it out of its group and threatens to go on a real run at the title, making at least the final 8.
One thing to look for is style of play. Ramos explicitly claimed he was going to run 4-4-2, although he left it ambiguous as to whether or not it would be of the diamond variety, flat, or with a recessed second forward. The lack of true wide men, and abundance of central talent, seems to rule out the flat variety for me. 4-3-3 would seem to utilize the talent the best in my eyes, but it doesn't look like that's in the cards. Ramos did say he preferred the formation in ideal circumstances, but reading between the lines, it appears he doesn't think this personnel matches the structured roles that system presents.
The tournament kicks off on May 30th against Myanmar and the final will take place on June 20th. Fox Sports has the television rights stateside, and all the US games should make their national broadcast channels.