Columnist: Jonathan Sigal

USMNT focus: Which U-20 World Cup players are likeliest to move up?


The United States, after Sunday’s 2-0 defeat to Uruguay, have been eliminated from four straight FIFA U-20 World Cups at the quarterfinal stage.

That’s a tough (and familiar) pill to swallow, especially since the US seemed to have so much potential before getting bounced by South American opposition for the third straight tournament (2017 by Venezuela, 2019 by Ecuador).

What’s important to remember, though, is how results are seldom the primary focus at the youth international level. Helping players eventually reach the senior squad, while adapting to a consistent play style, should be the overarching goal. Head coach Mikey Varas, speaking hours after his squad’s exit in Argentina, hit that point home.

“Individual player development is our number one priority, so all of these hard moments are what ends up making you better later,” Varas said Sunday. “We know that they'll have a good chance of succeeding at the next level, which is the Olympic team and the senior team.”

Varas also noted: “If these guys stay hungry and relentless from an individual standpoint, I think the sky is the limit for a lot of them. Something we spoke about in the locker room immediately after was I hope that this pain that we feel right now – because this one will not go away anytime soon – is something that we reflect on deeply, that we gain something from it and that we use it as a catalyst to pursue greatness as individuals.”

That brings us to the headline of this story, which spotlights a handful of U-20 World Cup talents that could break into the senior USMNT on a consistent basis (hint: not everyone will). To really hit the point home, here’s a sampling of such players from the past few U-20 World Cups who made the leap.

  • 2019: Sergiño Dest, Tim Weah, Chris Richards
  • 2017: Tyler Adams, Josh Sargent, Luca de la Torre
  • 2015: Zack Steffen, Kellyn Acosta, Paul Arriola

Whether it's at the 2024 Olympics in Paris, the 2026 World Cup on home soil or another tournament, the window for these players is just beginning.

  • Cade Cowell, F (San Jose Earthquakes)
  • Gaga Slonina, GK (Chelsea FC)
  • Joshua Wynder, D (Louisville City)

Both Cowell and Slonina have been capped at the senior level and are on track for bigger roles in the years ahead. There's been transfer buzz around Cowell for several windows now, and scoring a team-high three goals at the U-20 World Cup likely adds more to the mix. For Slonina, the Chicago Fire youth product needs first-team minutes after earning a reported $10 million base transfer to Chelsea last winter. Does he get loaned out from the Premier League club?

Wynder is a really interesting case as well, appearing in USMNT camp but awaiting his senior debut. The standout center back has thrived in the USL Championship and reportedly is moving to Europe this summer, but nothing is finalized just yet. Varas, in particular, has raved about Wynder's potential.

High potential
  • Jack McGlynn, M (Philadelphia Union)
  • Kevin Paredes, F (Wolfsburg)
  • Rokas Pukštas, M (Hajduk Split)
  • Obed Vargas, M (Seattle Sounders FC)
  • Caleb Wiley, D (Atlanta United)

We'll focus on the MLS trio first, particularly McGlynn's wand of a left foot. He's a fantastic tempo-setter who's added some defensive bite to his game and could be the next Philadelphia homegrown to move to Europe.

Wiley earned his first USMNT cap in April and is enjoying a breakout year with Atlanta. Is his future more as a left back, left wingback or left winger? That versatility should be a strength either way.

Vargas, who's only 17, was one of the youngest players at the U-20 World Cup. He's recovered from a season-ending back injury from the 2022 MLS season and is part of a depth-filled Sounders midfield. It's no stretch to call this Alaska native one of the region's top 2005s.

Then there's the two overseas-based players in Paredes and Pukštas, who both joined the US U-20s for the knockout stages after pre-arranged agreements with their European sides. Paredes, D.C. United's club-record outgoing transfer, was a first-choice substitute for Wolfsburg in the German Bundesliga. Pukštas, who spent a brief time in Sporting KC's academy, is coming off a huge year in the Croatian top flight and won a Croatian Cup title.

Wild card
  • Brandan Craig, D (Philadelphia Union)
  • Jonathan Gómez, D (Real Sociedad)
  • Diego Luna, M (Real Salt Lake)

I use the phrase "wild card" because each player has a unique question mark around them.

Craig's set pieces and ball-playing ability were fantastic down in Argentina. But it's unclear what his path to consistent first-team minutes is given the Union's depth at center back. Surely, there's a place long-term for a defender of his profile.

Gómez has played for both USA and Mexico at the senior level, testing the waters for where he will ultimately land. But the former FC Dallas academy talent scored a peach of a goal in the Group B-opening win over Ecuador and looked comfortable as a versatile fullback. He's got a bright future.

Luna, the USYNT's most creative player in Argentina, has played just 90 minutes across five substitute appearances with RSL this year (in league play). Does head coach Pablo Mastroeni get the talented youngster more time at the first-team level?

Not released
  • Paxten Aaronson, M (Eintracht Frankfurt)
  • Chris Brady, GK (Chicago Fire FC)
  • Brian Gutiérrez, M (Chicago Fire FC)
  • Jalen Neal, D (LA Galaxy)

These four players weren't released by their clubs for the U-20 World Cup, but it's still important to note them since they were key pieces of the cycle.

Aaronson, in particular, has already broken through at Frankfurt after his Philadelphia-bred potential turned into a lucrative transfer to a top-five league in Europe. Whether it's as a No. 10 or a second forward, he seems likely to join his older brother (Brenden) more consistently at the international level in the years ahead.

Of the Chicago duo listed above, it's Gutiérrez who would have most helped the US U-20s in Argentina. He's a silky-smooth, nimble attacking midfielder who may end up being a high-impact player at the Olympics.

Ditto for Neal, who made his USMNT debut last winter before playing a minute for the Galaxy in MLS. Now, the homegrown center back has been among LA's best players in an underwhelming season to date.

Brady has filled Slonina's shoes in Chicago and has produced ups and downs. But long-term, there's no reason to think he won't come good on his potential.