National Writer: Charles Boehm

World Cup history? USA U-20s have rare opportunity in quarterfinal vs. Uruguay

USA - U20 World Cup - 6.2.23

The spotlight will soon return to the US men’s national team, as players begin arriving in Southern California on Sunday for the camp in which they will prepare for the Yanks’ Concacaf Nations League semifinal vs. Mexico in Las Vegas on June 15. It’s their biggest match of the year to date, and a win is necessary to advance to the CNL final to defend their 2021 title.

But those who care about the USMNT and their future should focus attention a great deal further south this weekend.

At 5 pm ET on Sunday, the US U-20s meet Uruguay in the quarterfinals of the FIFA U-20 World Cup at Estadio Único Madre de Ciudades in Santiago del Estero, Argentina. There’s a very good chance that just as many future members of the 2026 World Cup squad will be on that pitch as the ones that will host the senior squad this month.

You don’t have to take my word for it – listen to interim boss B.J. Callaghan, who's emphasized the importance of current and future USMNTers getting big-game experience over the next three years.

“It's the same reason Mikey Varas is down with the U-20 group that is a really strong group and having a lot of success,” Callaghan told reporters on Thursday. “We don't know what the 2026 player pool is going to look like. So it's our responsibility to have as many players exposed to high-level knockout stage, group-stage type of environments, and that's going to extend beyond the Gold Cup as well when we look at 2024 and 2025, when you're looking at the Olympics and you’re looking at Copa América.

“All of these tournaments are really pressure-testing you."

History makers?

You probably already know many of the names in this conversation, like Cade Cowell, Gaga Slonina, Diego Luna, Josh Wynder, Caleb Wiley, Jack McGlynn and Kevin Paredes. Even with Paxten Aaronson and several other standouts not released for this tournament by their clubs, the US U-20 roster is ripe with talent, most of it advanced via MLS’s youth development pipeline, much having already drawn multi-million-dollar transfer fees or widely expected to do so in the coming months.

Varas’ team has won all four of their matches in Argentina thus far and are yet to concede a goal. They’ve looked as competitive as any US youth national team in recent memory. Reaching this point extends the program’s streak of advancement to the final eight in four consecutive World Cups. Varas and his players seem to truly believe they can go further; go all the way, in fact.

“That's something that goes a long way,” said Real Salt Lake’s Luna after Tuesday’s 4-0 Round-of-16 win over New Zealand when asked about becoming just the second US U-20 men’s side ever to reach a World Cup semifinal.

“It's definitely motivation, and definitely we want to get to the final of course, right? But I think we're taking it day by day and game by game, and knock on wood, that's been working for us and we're just going to keep doing that and do what we do.”

He and his teammates have a rare chance to mark a historic step forward by defeating Uruguay, a respected member of the global elite, one who’s adeptly used this U-20 platform to keep punching above their weight despite a relatively tiny player pool, as ESPN’s Tim Vickery explained this week.

All-time USA U-20 World Cup squads

This is the kind of company the United States men aspire to join – consider for a moment that La Celeste’s top striker, Alvaro Rodriguez, is absent due to mighty Real Madrid deciding not to release him – and being consistently competitive at youth national team levels can help a lot. The only US sides to reach the semifinals phase of a youth World Cup were:

  • The 1989 group that included Kasey Keller, Chris Henderson and Steve Snow, presaging the USMNT’s return to the senior World Cup stage the following year and subsequent climb to respectability, and…
  • The 1999 squad that finished fourth at the FIFA U-17 World Championship in New Zealand, led by DaMarcus Beasley, Landon Donovan, Oguchi Onyewu and several other future stars, a paradigm-shifting group that debuted the Bradenton Residency program and remain the closest thing to a USMNT golden generation we’ve seen.

This would be rarified air indeed for the current crop of young Yanks. If you’re into catching tomorrow’s stars today, tune in on Sunday afternoon.