The US Under-20 men’s national team carry big dreams and ample quantities of talent to the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Argentina. A squad packed with current and former MLS standouts is eager to improve on the program’s run of three consecutive quarterfinal runs at the event. That quest begins with Saturday’s Group B opener vs. Ecuador (2 pm ET | Fox Soccer Plus) in the western Argentine city of San Juan, near the Chilean border.
The first challenge for head coach Mikey Varas and his group is a math problem.
FIFA limits rosters to 21 players for this competition, along with three alternates on standby. Varas took what he calls “a calculated risk” by including Rokas Pukstas and Kevin Paredes on his list despite them not being released from respective club duties at Hajduk Split and VfL Wolfsburg until the end of the group stage next week. Winger Cade Cowell is suspended due to his role in a dust-up at the end of the U-20s’ quarterfinal win over Costa Rica during Concacaf qualification.
That leaves just 15 field players available for Saturday. Add in the fact that Cowell’s San Jose Earthquakes teammate Niko Tsakiris is only just returned from an injury layoff and thus short on recent match action, and the reality that the team is missing a number of core regulars not released by their clubs, and it’s a tricky curtain-raiser indeed.
“Yeah, it's definitely been a challenge,” Varas said in Friday’s matchday-1 press availability. “Yes, we have to adapt and we will adapt, based on our availability. But no, we won't be having a player do something that's outside of their comfort zone. We will have made sure we've vetted every idea very well over the last two weeks, through field work, but also through one-on-one conversations with everybody.”
First up: Ecuador
Ecuador manager Miguel Bravo has only been on the job since February and the usual levels of turnover in youth national teams’ personnel makes for a difficult scouting outlook. Yet the young Yanks are expecting a rugged challenge from a “Mini-Tri” side that likely poses a marked upgrade in degree of difficulty from all but the most elite opponents in the Concacaf region.
“What we’ve focused on is preparing our players for a multitude of different things that can happen in the game,” said Varas. “And this preparation didn't happen over the course of the last two weeks. It's been happening over the course of the last year and a half: trying to play different opponents, challenging ourselves to press in different ways, to build up in different shapes, to play different systems. Because our belief is our flexibility and our ability to adapt to what the game needs is going to be one of our bigger strengths.
“We're prepared for a team that's very physical, great athletic profiles, skillful, good in one-v-one duels,” he added. “It's a team that, the more open the game is, more comfortable they'll be.”
USA on the world's stage
New York Red Bulls homegrown midfielder Daniel Edelman wears the U-20s’ captain’s armband, and parallels to his senior national team counterpart and fellow RBNY product Tyler Adams are hard to avoid. Varas has previously described Edelman as “a pure example of what our team culture is,” with a key leadership role as well as a tactical linchpin as the lone holding midfielder at the heart of their usual 4-3-3 formation. He’ll be vital to US hopes of navigating the best possible path past Ecuador, Fiji and Slovakia – the latter happen to be coached by Albert Rusnák, father of the Seattle Sounders midfielder of the same name – to the Round of 16 and beyond.
“We’ve got to get out of the group and we want to win games. That's the first thing, and then we want to see how far we can go,” said Edelman.
“We can't have any mental lapses. The World Cup, in these games – we saw with the senior team in Qatar – there's going to be moments where it's not going right, and we need to have guys all around the team that pick up guys when mistakes happen and we've got to bounce back, because it's 90 minutes and then it could be 120 minutes. We've all got to stay focused and positive with each other throughout the course of these games.”
Chicago Fire FC product Gaga Slonina is expected to backstop the U-20s in goal. The Philadelphia Union trio of Brandan Craig, Jack McGlynn and Quinn Sullivan are in the mix for starting roles through the spine of the lineup, while FC Dallas’ Justin Che, Atlanta United's Caleb Wiley, Austin FC's Owen Wolff and Colorado Rapids striker Darren Yapi are also leading contenders to make Saturday’s starting XI. The LA Galaxy, Orlando City, Real Salt Lake and Seattle Sounders are also represented on the roster.
“It's our job to make sure that we honor all of those players that have played in this tournament before us, and honor the players that are going to come after,” said Varas, himself a coaching alumnus of FCD’s academy system.
“The expectation is that we give 100%, that we play at a high level, executing as individuals, and that we find ways to win. And this is an amazing developmental opportunity, but part of that development equation is to find ways to win, find ways as a team to succeed in pressure moments for your country.”