The qualification process for the 2013 U-20 World Cup will be upon us in a matter of days, meaning fresh scrutiny for the youth development system in the United States, but also the opportunity for American soccer fans to catch what will be, for many, their first glimpse at the next generation of national teamers.
The number of players in the US and worldwide that have already broken through at the U-20 level have made it a biennial tradition to speculate and debate who will be the next big thing. Remember Messi in 2005? Yeah – so do we.
There's no Messi in this US crop (or anywhere in the world, if we're placing bets). But if the US is fortunate, they'll find the successor to the following list of players who've had break-out performances and announced themselves at the U-20 level:
One big thing the current crop of stars-in-waiting has going for it is that the current US U-20 coach knows first-hand what's at stake.
Before he even got to college, Ramos was a fixture in the US national team setup, breaking into the squad as a 15-year-old high school player in 1982. He justified the coach’s faith in him by scoring twice in the qualifying process for the U-20 World Cup, with the US topping their group and cruising to the final.
Though the US picked up just one win in the subsequent 1983 U-20 World Cup, a 1-0 decision against Côte d’Ivoire, Ramos’ continued strong performances at the U-20 level paved the way for a successful college career at NC State and then a sterling professional career at both the club and international level.
Turning the clock forward a couple decades, we have another US national team midfield centerpiece that announced himself to American soccer fans while playing at the U-20 level.
Bradley's assured play in the middle of the pitch allowed the one of the most talented U-20 teams the US has fielded to match its best ever showing in a U-20 World Cup with a run to the quarterfinals, where the young Yanks were edged out by Austria in extra time. Bradley had helped his own cause with an extra time winner in the Round of 16 winner against Uruguay, and despite the eventual disappointment, established himself as a rising star in the US system.
Bradley’s excellent form in Canada in 2007 precipitated a breakout season for his club team, Heerenveen, in which he netted 16 goals in the Dutch Eredivisie and secured a transfer to Borussia Moenchengladbach in the Bundesliga.
Before Bradley, it was Feilhaber’s turn to shine in midfield. Whether it was man-marking Messi for 45 minutes in the USA’s 1-0 group stage victory over Argentina or his ability to wow observers with his technical and passing prowess, Feilhaber stood out as one of the stars of the US team in the U-20 World Cup.
It was those performances in the USA’s run to the Round of 16 in the Netherlands that caught the eye of European scouts, and soon after he was signed by Hamburg. Two years later, he was scoring a stunning volley to hand the senior side a third straight Gold Cup title.
Though his club fortunes have petered out significantly since featuring for Hamburg in the Bundesliga, Feilhaber has continued to show glimpses of that magical form from 2005, allowing him to remain in contention at the national team level. And a strong season with Sporting KC could see him figure in Jurgen Klinsmann's midfield plans in the run-up to Brazil 2014.