Somewhere around the fourth goal in the second-half demolition of New Zealand, an engagement in which the US jammed their counterparts into the blender and hit "puree" for 45 minutes, and which finished 6-0, Taylor Twellman fired off this tweet:
The players Twellman was referring to: Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund), Weston McKennie and Haji Wright (Schalke), and Josh Perez (Fiorentina). There's also Nick Taitague (Schalke), who wasn't released and maybe wasn't asked (it's not clear how hard US coach Tab Ramos pushed for any of the Schalke guys besides McKennie).
Beyond that, there are a bunch of other guys who have arguments, via either their club play or the role they played in helping lead the US U-20s to their first-ever CONCACAF title, beating Mexico for the first time in 30 years along the way:
- Jonathan Lewis (NYCFC)
- Marco Farfan (Portland)
- Jackson Yueill (San Jose)
- Brandon Vazquez (Atlanta United)
- Miles Robinson (Atlanta United)
- Matthew Olosunde (Manchester United)
- Mukwelle Akale (Villarreal)
- Marcello Borges (RBNY U-23s)
Add onto that list presumptive starting right back Marlon Fossey, who was hurt and thus has missed out on this fun-and-getting-funner trip to South Korea. And then there are four guys who never really got a look with this group but who have considerable upside: Paxton Pomykal and Reggie Cannon of FC Dallas (though Pomykal got hurt right before the tourney, he was never really on Tab Ramos's radar), and Cam Lindley and Mauricio Pineda, arguably the two best freshmen in college soccer last season and probable Chicago Fire Homegrown signings this winter.
Plus, for fun, we can throw in Atlanta United winger Andrew Carleton – who was not as productive as Josh Sargent with the US U-17s, but was equally effective and made his MLS debut as a 16-year-old two short weeks ago.
The US were playing without all those guys, and without three starters suspended via yellow card accumulation (Cameron Carter-Vickers, Derrick Jones and Aaron Herrera), and without a fourth was lost for the year with an ACL tear just 30 minutes into the opening game (Gedion Zelalem). And they went out on Thursday and treated a dogged and organized and pretty game bunch of Kiwis – which had lost just 2-0 to France, and beat 3-1 a rugged Honduras bunch that had troubled the US in qualifying – like a speed bump.
The point is this: Ramos is spoiled for choice this cycle in a way that no US coach before him has been, nor in a way that he himself was in the previous two. There is more talent that's not just "projected" talent, but rather "proven" talent at a younger age, and it's not just in one spot on the field, and it's not just from one or two regions of the country, and it's not because youth development has been outsourced to Germany or England or Mexico.
It's because the USSDA is 10 years old, and now has the blueprint for churning out truly developed players. It's MLS teams having put a decade worth of investment and knowhow into youth development. It's USL providing a path to the pros, and PDL providing a summer home for the likes of Herrera or Eryk Williamson or Lindley and Pineda.
It's the system getting better, which is the key to making this whole damn thing sustainable and repeatable (and why teams like Schalke and Manchester United are suddenly omnipresent at US youth tourneys). And to that point, the US U-20s have now made back-to-back quarterfinal appearances. That's not an accident.
A few notes on the game:
• Ramos adjusted to his team's absences by shifting from his typical 4-3-3 to a flat-ish 4-4-2. Tommy Redding and Justen Glad came in on the backline for Carter-Vickers and Herrera, while Williamson and Tyler Adams started in center midfield as dual pivots.
That left Brooks Lennon and Luca de la Torre to run the wings, while Portland's Jeremy Ebobisse joined Sargent up top. Obviously all of the above moves worked out pretty damn well, to the point that it's almost not worth breaking down any of the tactical aspects of the game. Simply: Ramos did a good job of keeping it simple, and doing so released the US attackers to be versions of their best selves. And the New Zealand defense had no answer for that, on either an individual or collective level.
• As the tweet says, this is indeed Adams at his best:
He's been flawless this tournament, and his engine is nonstop. His matchup with against Venezuela's Yangel Herrera (NYCFC) in the quarterfinals will be like playing speed chess while running a track meet at the same time.
• Erik Palmer-Brown continues his quietly dominant tournament. I suspect he'll be one to keep an eye on once the transfer window opens in July.
• Sargent is maybe even better playing off a true center forward – as he did today alongside Ebobisse – than he is leading the line himself. He now has four goals, which equals the US record jointly held by Twellman (1999), Eddie Johnson (2003) and Jozy Altidore (2007). Altidore was also just 17 when he hit that mark.
• Ebobisse had a wonderful touch and a laser-beam finish on his goal, but my favorite was Lennon's little touch here:
At pace, with a defender on your shoulder, and already in the box? That is just impeccable.
• Ramos once again has his team playing better soccer as the tournament goes on. That was the case in the CONCACAF championship, and it was the case in 2015's run to the quarterfinals as well. For all the criticism he takes re: squad selection – much of it deserved – he should get an equal measure of praise for getting the players he does pick to buy in.
• Venezuela are easily the best team the US will have faced in this tournament, and arguably have been the best in the field thus far. They beat Germany 2-0 and Mexico 1-0, and then beat Japan 1-0 in the Round of 16. They've yet to concede a goal in this event, and Herrera leads a buzzy, committed midfield that's been defensively suffocating no matter who they've played.
It'll be a very good test. If the US make the semifinals for the first time since 1989, they will truly have earned it.