US U-20 World Cup Grades (Part 1): Sure-Fire Prospects
It all ended in heartbreak, with the US U-20 national team falling to Serbia in the ninth frame of a penalty shootout in the World Cup Quarterfinals. But there's a lot we can take away from this tournament, and if you're a US fan, a lot to be excited about.
The Stars and Stripes opened up with a shaky performance against minnows Myanmar, pulling it together later in the match to win it 2-1. Then they cruised by host New Zealand, thoroughly out-classing them en route to a 4-0 victory. Having already qualified for the knockout stage, they stumbled badly in the second half against Ukraine, shipping three goals in the loss without scoring any of their own.
In the round of 16, they struggled a bit with a talented Colombia midfield, but survived a red card and a penalty to advance 1-0. Finally, a rugged battle with Serbia (pun only slightly intended) ground to a 0-0 draw after 120 minutes, after which the US lost in the 9th frame of penalties.
In this five-part series, I'll be publishing my grades of their performances, grouped into four buckets of descending quality and capped with a fifth piece for overall thoughts and a few "incompletes".
Today, we'll start with the boys I deem to be "sure-fire" prospects; in other words, players you'll see in the senior national team soon enough if you haven't already.
Steffen didn't start out that well. I noted at the time that he didn't immediately settle. Boy did that change. Once he got locked in, he was a monster. He has that trait that high-level goalkeepers do: a confidence and cool that is completely irrational in the circumstances. He just looks like it's no big friggen deal to make sick saves, but in an intense, locked-in way that doesn't indicate any lack of focus.
He's also a superb athlete, built solidly, but light on his feet in a way that, say, U23 starter Cody Cropper is not. He saved three penalties in the course of the tournament, and had a million other saves either from his line or coming off of it.
I would not be surprised if he very seriously challenged Cropper for that no. 1 shirt in the upcoming Olympic qualifiers.
I love Rubin. He's arrogant and uncompromising on the pitch in the way all good goal scorers are, so to me he's a striker even though his skillet might initially seem more like an attacking midfielder or winger.
I know his heritage is Central American, but the Beaverton (Oregon) product reminds me much more of the great lineage of smaller South American strikers with his style. As much as I'm loathe to invoke the man's name, Luis Suarez is precisely the player I think of when I see Rubin play: he's quick but not a pace-merchant, a lethal and emphatic finisher, obsessed with scoring, constantly buzzing around an opponent's back line to find space, capable of taking on defenders one-on-one, and with enough technical ability to contribute from wider areas or bring others into play.
Rubin did get a bit more isolated and ineffectual as the tournament went on, but due to the quality of his performances when he was on the ball and the fact he's already a regular in the Eredivise (hey, that's the league Suarez came through when he was Rubin's age!), I'm more inclined to blame the coach's tactics and his teammates for those moments.
Hyndman is great. Really, really great in fact, but I'm not quite sure what his growth curve from here will look like. He's already technically sound, with unusual passing vision, and a young leader as team captain. When the US was looking good, it was Hyndman who made them tick.
The problem is, they didn't always look good. He could get marked out of games, or denied the ball too easily. One problem is size and strength, although he did manage a good run of appearances in the notoriously rugged English Championship with Fulham. Another problem is lack of elite athleticism, but central players don't need it and he's more than adequate on that front. Finally, it could be that his vision and technique put him a cut above this level, but they will just be middle-of-the-road for the next.
For me, the best case scenario is that he goes through the Luka Modric curve, dropping deeper through the middle of the pitch and dictating play with his passing, with the physical limitations not being particularly important. The worst case scenario is he becomes more like Luis Gil, a youth team monster who can't seem to figure out how to impose himself on older, more physical opponents.
I for one have a lot of faith in Hyndman to make the leap, and we'll probably learn a lot about his development by how much he plays for his club team this season.
The best here was saved for last. Remember Cameron Carter-Vickers, and bookmark him in your brain, because he's going to be the next big thing in American soccer. Maybe not on the front of all the magazines, since he's a defender, but he might well be the best, most important player we have in 2022, and might even play a role in 2018.
Carter-Vickers was the youngest call-up to this squad, plays in Tottenham Hotspur's academy (yes, Academy, not professionally, since he hasn't yet turned 18), and has played every minute of every competitive match that this U-20 group has played. He's built like a fire hydrant, with excellent athleticism, and uncommon amounts of poise and refinement for such a young player. He's also tough as nails and aggressive without being undisciplined. He's not the tallest center-back in the world, but tall enough (and with an NBA father he might not be done growing), and fearless in the air anyway. He almost put in some goals from set pieces, even.
He doesn't yet have advanced ability on the ball, but it's miles ahead of his American center-back peers, and you can see it developing despite the hoofed penalty against Serbia. This kid is the real deal. And he's only 17. The only possible rain on our parade is that he's a relative newbie to the US setup, having been born and raised outside of London, and he's yet to be tied to the US.
Signs are good that we can keep him, especially by continuing to select him above his own age group and placing him in essential positions, but the potential for loyalty heartbreak is there.