Armchair Analyst: U-20s post-mortem, and what's to come for the USMNT

This group of US Under-20s, who made it out of their (in retrospect) pretty tough U20 World Cup group in second place while playing some stylish soccer, and who then went toe-to-toe with France in the Round of 16 before coming out with a 3-2 win, and who then lost to Ecuador 2-1 in the quarterfinals... this group was really good. Really good.

They are the third straight group of US U-20s to make it to the World Cup quarterfinals, and the US are the only national team program in the world who can wear that hat right now. In 2015 they did it with monster defense and goalkeeping from Zack Steffen, though the offense rode the struggle bus the whole time. When they met eventual champions Serbia in the quarters, they kept it close but were mostly manhandled physically and were a step slow tactically. The Serbs – coached by future Chicago Fire manager Veljko Paunovic – eventually won the whole thing.

In 2017 the US were a more balanced team, a little more potent in attack but a little less robust defensively. On the whole they played better soccer than they'd done two years prior, led in large part by Tyler Adams' ability to chew up ground in central midfield and a pair of forwards, in Josh Sargent and Jeremy Ebobisse, who could hold the ball up and allow their teammates to push forward. A lot of it was rudimentary, but a lot of it was effective.

They took eventual 2017 runners-up Venezuela to extra time in the quarterfinals. It was a scrappy, stuck-in and battling performance, and if the US had won that game it would've been outright theft. There was zero doubt who the better team was.



In the 2019 quarterfinal, Ecuador, who were the South American champs over Argentina, Colombia, Brazil et al, were the better team on the day. But there was certainly some doubt both in terms of chances not taken from the US (what happens if Sebastian Soto gets a touch on that Tim Weah cross in the first half?) and in some sub-optimal roster decisions.

In the past two tournaments when the final whistle blew, from my perspective it was "good work kids, you fought hard but the better team won." In this one, it was "good work kids, you fought hard but I think this one was a coin flip and if things had gone differently, we could've won the whole damn tournament."

They outplayed Ukraine, who are into the final, but lost because of some questionable lineup choices. They sauced the hell out of Nigeria:

That goal came straight off the second-half kick. Nigeria never even put a foot on the ball.

Then they beat France. Then they could've/should've beaten Ecuador. This 2019 team was a different sort of bunch and did what they did in a different sort of way than the previous two.

This run of consecutive quarterfinal appearances follows a 2013 US team that didn't win a game, and didn't get out of the group stage, and a 2011 team that didn't even qualify for the U-20 World Cup. If you're looking for progress within this narrow frame, you can very easily see it in the results, and in the style of play.

More importantly, you could see it in the way the rosters were constructed. While the 2013 group was a mishmash of college kids, a few academy kids from MLS (none of whom had broken into the first team), and just about any kid in a European or Liga MX academy, the whole group was underpinned – as were the 2015 and 2017 groups – by the Bradenton Residency US U-17 program. There was a pathway to the U-20s, and while it wasn't a guarantee, having been a Bradenton kid did seem to give you a pretty straight shot to the youth World Cup.

Bradenton was a band-aid. It was a good and necessary idea 25 years ago when it started, when there was no real youth development amongst clubs in the US. But one program with 30 of the best players at the U16/17 age group is never and was never going to replace fully integrated professional development. Over time, the band-aid turned into a crutch.

And so we get to the 2019 group, which is the first almost entirely post-Bradenton team (only three of the 21 players on Tab Ramos's roster went through the program). It was the first US U-20 team where there were no college kids, it was the team with easily the most first-team, top-flight appearances scattered throughout the group, and easily the US U-20 team with the most total professional minutes scattered throughout the group thanks in large part to MLS teams' USL affiliates. It was, more than any other iteration of the US U-20s, a team of professionals who mostly played like professionals.

This has been a disastrous decade for the full US men's national team. But while that has been happening in the spotlight, what's been happening under the radar is that a robust and productive youth development approach has started churning out high-level talents who are ready and able to compete against their peers around the world. Eighteen of the 21 players on this roster came through MLS academies to one extent (Weah spent 18 months with the Red Bulls) or another (Paxton Pomykal spent six years with FC Dallas).

And so when they played against the best teams in the world – the champions of South America (Ecuador); the consistently best youth team in the world (France); the team that I think is going to win the tournament (Ukraine) – they weren't playing up in competition for the first time. They weren't at an on-the-job knowhow disadvantage. They were competing against and sometimes beating their professional peers.

This is the first group that developed almost entirely because of the systems we have in place here, not in spite of them.

Beyond the results, beyond the swag with the ball and the savvy on it, beyond the great goals they scored (and folks, these kids produced some BANGERS), that's what gives me hope for the future of the national team program. Building out the infrastructure underneath is the first and most important step in fixing what's gone wrong at the top.

Of course, none of that matters if these kids from this U-20 team don't get into club situations where they can play and improve. Some of them are already there, and some are on their way, and others look like they're in need of some guidance.

With that as a long (and I think important) preamble, here's a player-by-player breakdown of this latest U20 roster by how likely they are to help the full USMNT, how quickly they could do so, and their club situation:

Tim Weah

The winger, who was on the books at PSG and on loan at Celtic, and has played and produced for the full USMNT, and was easily the biggest name on this U-20 team since Adams and Sargent weren't part of the roster, was supposed to be the biggest star in the group. For the group stage games he had his moments, but played with what I'd call a sloppy cockiness that was often detrimental to the team (I swear he was yelling "Kobe!" every time he got on the ball).

Come the knockout rounds, he stepped it the hell up:

As Aaron West tweeted: Hang that clip in the Louvre!

• Club Situation: It looks like he's about to be sold for somewhere around $10 million to Lille, one of the better teams in Ligue 1 (they finished 2nd this past year). That's a lot of money for Lille, which they wouldn't be spending on him if they didn't intend to play him a lot of minutes immediately.

It's a best-case scenario situation as far as I'm concerned. I don't think Weah was ever going to be good enough to break into the PSG lineup, but this still shows that he's an elite prospect.

• How soon can he help the USMNT? He'd be a starter – or at least the top attacking sub – at this current Gold Cup if he'd chosen to play there instead of with the U-20s. I think by 2022 he's starting on one wing and Christian Pulisic is on the other.

Paxton Pomykal

He's been the revelation of 2019 for both club and country. Pomykal's almost always looked a cut above his central midfield peers in age-group play, but struggled to translate that to MLS in his limited run under Oscar Pareja. This year, under Luchi Gonzalez, he's looked like a teenaged version of Nicolas Lodeiro

He doesn't hit as good a final ball as Lodeiro but his field coverage and defensive presence are even better, and he tormented every opposing midfielder he went up against in this tournament:

That's Michael Cuisance, a $5 million-dollar-rated Bundesliga veteran (he's closing in on 40 appearances for Borussia Moenchengladbach at just age 19) Pomykal hunted down right there, and who he outplayed head-to-head.

Pomykal does a ton of things well – he's very secure on the ball, his off-the-ball movement is advanced, and he can spray accurate long-balls – but it's this Tyler Adams-level of field coverage from the No. 8 position that makes him exceptional.

And mind you, it's not just from tracking back. He has a nose for winning second balls in central midfield, which he often turned into counterattacking opportunities.

• Club situation: Write-his-name-in-pen starter for FC Dallas until they sell him for many millions of dollars sometime in the next three transfer windows. Mid-table Germany wouldn't be a bad landing spot for him, to be honest, but I'm kiiiiinda hoping he gets bought by RB Leipzig and loaned to RB Salzburg to play under Jesse Marsch for a year.

• How soon can he help the USMNT? I think he'd be a starter at the Gold Cup by the time the knockout rounds arrived. We need to be harder to play against – to allow less easy possession through central midfield – and he does that.

He needs to improve his final ball, though. If he does that we're not talking Leipzig, we're talking Bayern Munich.

Chris Gloster

The knock on Gloster coming into the tournament was that he was too much of a throwback, stay-at-home left back who didn't add enough going forward. He put that idea to the sword in style, repeatedly.

He still doesn't project as a dominant, game-changing attacking threat from that LB spot, but he can clearly do the job in the right situation and does so without seeming to take much off the table. There were times when he lost cohesion with his left center back partner Aboubacar Keita, but that can happen at pretty much any level. What might've impressed me most about Gloster was his brain, because he seemed able to figure stuff out – defensive shape and whatnot – from the run of play.

He doesn't look like a game-breaker, but he doesn't look like a guy who'll lose you a game, either.

• Club situation: Very much in flux! Gloster spent this past season with Hannover 96 youth teams and played well, and it seemed natural, with Hannover getting relegated to the 2.Bundesliga, that he'd be in line for some serous minutes come the 2019/20 season. But there seems to be an impasse between his camp and Hannover, and now there's rumored interest from PSV, and nothing about where the RBNY academy product is going to be next year is clear.

Keep an eye on this one.

• How soon can he help the USMNT? If he gets professional minutes starting in August, I'd expect to see him with the U-23s for Olympic qualifying (early October), and then with the full national team in November. Left back is an obvious position of need in that regard.

You see how much work the word "if" is doing in that scenario?

Richie Ledezma

He came out of nowhere 18 months ago, pushed into the Real Monarchs squad and was so good as a true, modern, mobile No. 10 that PSV came in and offered him a bag. Like, a real bag – somewhere around $225,000 per year, a number that will rise to over $400,000 per year if he makes the first team this season. They scouted him right out of the USL Championship (which should give you an idea of the volume and type of people watching USL games).

That's the way they do things in the Eredivisie. They make sure that if you're going to spend a roster slot on an import, that you have to believe the guy is so good that he'll be a star, and thus they get paid like stars. You can't sign a young import on the cheap.

Real Salt Lake, to their credit, did everything in their power to match and keep the kid in MLS, but when a team with PSV's history of developing attacking players shows that much faith in you, there aren't many kids around the world who'd say no.

And here's why PSV are so high on him:

Here is the entire list of USMNT players, past and present, who I'm confident could pull off that play – the easy speed to glide away from the French central midfield, the patience to freeze the backline, the vision to see the run, and the touch to slip that pass through while at a sprint:

  • Landon Donovan
  • Christian Pulisic

End of list. Pomykal, for all his gifts, probably wouldn't have weighted that pass right (I really think he's an 8, not a 10), and the other young, promising No. 10s in the USYNT pool haven't shown the ability to create that kind of separation from professional players (Brenden Aaronson has given glimpses, but I don't think I've seen that kind of burst).

He's very good off the ball in possession and attack as well, and always hunts opportunities to create overloads with smart movement. Defensively he's much more of a work in progress, but not outright bad.

Anyway, thanks to a variety of injuries Ledezma basically hadn't played for a full year heading into this tournament and was gassed soon after that play above. But man I cannot wait to see what happens for him in Eindhoven this year.

• Club situation: See above. If he doesn't make it this year, he'll likely be heading elsewhere next summer.

• How soon can he help the USMNT? If he breaks through with PSV he'll be with the full USMNT by November. In an ideal world he shows he can be a No. 10, which would allow Pulisic to play out on the wing (which is his best spot).

Chris Richards

Bayern Munich paid seven figures for him before he'd played a single professional game, and I think he's the best center back prospect I've seen the US produce. His ability to just end dudes in the open field is unreal:

That is elite change-of-pace and balance, and it comes in a 6-foot-1, 185-pound package. And he can pass!

Ten years ago he'd be heading to Alabama to play cornerback. What if our best athletes played soccer?

• Club situation: It's a sticky one. Bayern obviously love him, and given the overhaul on that roster it's not inconceivable that he could push into the first team rotation to one degree or another. But it seems more likely that he'll spend the year in the 3.Bundesliga with Bayern's reserves, who won promotion.

I'm not sure how much that will help his development. 

• How soon can he help the USMNT? If he actually pushes into Bayern's first team, then the answer is "really damn fast!" Given Gregg Berhalter's system, these are the kinds of defensive plays our right center back will have to make, and I'm not sure anybody is better equipped to make them than Richards.

But my guess is a 12-to-24-month timeline is realistic, especially if he helps lead the US back to the Olympics and then shows out.

Sergino Dest

So, so good in possession and attack. So hard-working but raw in defense. Dest was central to many of the best US movements, but both Ukraine and Nigeria picked on him defensively, and even in the knockout rounds when he was making good tackles, they were actually poor defensive plays:

This is a great tackle, but is also a youth-level defensive play (if you want to see what happens if you defend like this at the full international level, watch Germany's second goal in the 7-1 defeat of Brazil five years ago). By tracking the run instead of just holding an easy offside line, he puts himself in a do-or-die situation. This time – and most times against both France and Ecuador – he made the play. In earlier games he didn't, and based upon the four or five games of his I watched this past year with Jong Ajax and the U-19s, that's the Sergino Dest defensive experience.

Of course, this isn't uncommon for young Ajax defenders. They teach possession and attacking movement and how to receive the ball and combination play on the overlap and probably a dozen other things before they teach the finer points of how to defend. He is on a learning curve.

If he does learn to defend, though... my word, what a weapon he could be.

• Club situation: Hopefully he plays something close to 3,000 minutes with Jong Ajax this year. Unlike Ledezma, Dest is Dutch (he's a dual-national), and so there's less of a time crunch for him to push into the first-team squad.

• How soon can he help the USMNT? How soon can he learn to defend?

Ulysses Llanez

He produced a ton of highlights, and given his propensity to take too many touches, it’d be easy to dismiss him as a guy who is just a little too individualistic, and maybe lacks just a little bit of the necessary feel to be a top-end pro.

That would be a mistake. Llanez is legit, and it’s not just because he’s fun to watch (and to be clear: He’s a ton of fun to watch); it’s because he was repeatedly able to change the game when he came on in the second half:

That is the definition of an impact sub, and is similar to the type of game-changing performances Jonathan Lewis has produced off the bench for the USMNT at times this year. Even if that’s all Llanez ever becomes, that is still pretty damn good.

But he has the tools to become more than that. The times when he did get the ball off his feet early enough, he made real, creative soccer plays, and beyond that, the kid played with edge. He wasn’t afraid of the moment, wasn’t afraid of getting the ball in tough spots, wasn’t afraid to drive the ball forward and try $&%#, wasn’t afraid of anything.

The last few US U-20 teams haven’t had enough of that. Thanks to Llanez this one did, and thanks to the fact that he’s eligible for the next one as well… I’m already looking forward to 2021.

• Club situation: He wasn’t able to play official games at any age group this past spring since he didn’t turn 18 until early April, which means 2019/20 will be his first “official” year in Germany with VfL Wolfsburg. I’m looking forward to seeing how it goes, but not expecting a first-team breakthrough.

• How soon can he help the USMNT? I hope we’ll be having a debate, in 2021, over whether Llanez should play with the U-20s or with the full national team at the Gold Cup. But breaking into Wolfsburg’s team before the age of 20 is a tall, tall task.

Sebastian Soto

The goalscoring hero of the tournament absolutely, positively boosted his stock, and you could make a good argument that if he’d started vs. Ukraine in the first group game the US would’ve finished tops (since it would’ve also allowed Weah and Pomykal to play in their more natural positions).

He did, at times, struggle mightily with hold-up play. I’m not sure if that’s because he has bad instincts for it (it wasn’t just an inability to do anything when a defender was on his back, it was making the wrong runs or vacating areas where an obvious wall pass would’ve opened up the field) or because he hasn’t been taught. It’s something he has to work on quite a bit.

But man, can he finish. This is sublime:

If you put the ball in the net, you will get chance after chance after chance to prove yourself at almost any level. I don’t love much about Soto’s game, but his ability to find space and finish off plays in the final third is the best possible foundational piece for any center forward.

• Club situation: Soto’s already played Bundesliga minutes, and I figured with Hannover going down he’d be likely to get at least about 1500 – or maybe even more – in the 2.Bundesliga. I would love that!

But there’s drama. It seems Hannover have lowballed him, and now it looks like both Borussia Dortmund and PSV are circling. I don’t think Soto will be good enough for those teams, but I would love, love, love to be proved wrong.

• How soon can he help the USMNT? If he plays 2,000 good 2.Bundesliga minutes this year, and puts the ball in the net, he’d be on the depth chart pretty, pretty quick. If he gets buried at a bigger club we might not hear his name again 'til 2023.

David Ochoa

The RSL Homegrown has been a regular starter for Real Monarchs in the USL Championship this year, and he showed it with some mostly secure and always brave play in his 180 minutes at the World Cup. His save against Qatar was crucial, and Rimando-esque:

At the same time, I think he got his footwork a little bit wrong and was a little bit too deep on Ecuador’s opener. Cifuentes didn’t put that into the side-netting – it was a rocket, but it was also a saveable shot. In fact I think I’ve seen him save that exact shot in USL Championship play.

Worth noting that he’s just 18, and will be eligible for the 2021 U-20 team as well.

• Club situation: He’s playing regularly for Monarchs, and with Rimando retiring, he’ll presumably have every chance to win the starting job for RSL as a 19-year-old next year. Not a lot of MLS ‘keepers have been starters at age 19.

• How soon can he help the USMNT? Let’s talk about this in 2023, maybe?

Brady Scott

Two years ago it was Scott who was playing up an age-group, coming along for the ride to the quarters in 2017. He was the heir apparent and according to multiple reports from teammates, coaches, scouts and just regular old onlookers, he was often spectacular in practice.

Two years later he did not look like that guy. Scott failed to control his penalty area, didn’t make game-changing saves that he could’ve, and his distribution was often poor. He looked like a kid still struggling with the fundamentals, not a prodigy on the verge of breaking into the professional ranks.

• Club situation: He’s at Koln in Germany, slogging away in the youth ranks. I haven’t heard anything about a potential loan to a 2.Bundesliga club or even the 3.Liga, nor anything about transfers or the like.

• How soon can he help the USMNT? Hey, once upon a time Zack Steffen struggled in Germany, too. Things can change if you find the right club and the right coach.

That said, I don’t think Scott has anywhere near Steffen’s upside.

Mark McKenzie

The captain barely played, and looked predictably rusty/unfit/out of game-shape when he did.

He had a tournament to forget, though. It’s a shame because if he’d been healthy, he’d have been a surefire starter and potential breakout star given his physical skillset and his passing.

• Club situation: McKenzie is one of the best young CBs in MLS, but he’s got to go back to his team and win minutes from either Auston Trusty or Jack Elliott, both of whom have been very good (there is also the off chance that Trusty gets sold soon, which would open up a path back into the first XI).

This is fine and good. Nobody’s spot should ever be guaranteed, and if he’s not good enough to go win it outright with a team like the Union – who are married to playing their kids – then that’s that for now.

• How soon can he help the USMNT? He absolutely has the talent to get there eventually, but this feels more like a question for the 2026 cycle.

Justin Rennicks

My favorite thing about Rennicks was that in the 25 minutes he played against mighty France, he pissed them off so badly that three separate French players took a swipe at him. Give me all of that. Give me a player who is just a rotten SOB to play against. I love that.

Rennicks is not just that, though:

Could he be a slightly better version of Chris Mueller (his touch is better IMO)? Could he be a Latif Blessing-esque 10-who’s-not-a-10? Is he the second coming of Paul Arriola, but with a little bit more goalscoring?

I’d be thrilled with any of those things. Nobody but the Revs staff (and Big 10 soccer junkies) has really seen enough of him to say what his ceiling is, though.

That said, he strikes me as a Bruce Arena type of player. And I think I’m most intrigued by Rennicks in that 10-who’s-not-a-10 Blessing/Pomykal/Jamiro Monteiro role. I hope we get to see him there making opposing d-mids hate their lives.

• Club situation: I just talked myself into Rennicks starting as a false 10 while Carles Gil conducts the game behind him and Luis Caicedo cleans up the messes. Prove me wrong.

Who knows, though. Even though I think Rennicks is a Bruce type of player, Bruce didn’t exactly embrace #PlayYourKids with the Galaxy.

• How soon can he help the USMNT? We might never hear from Rennicks again on the international stage, or he might become a first choice player in Concacaf based upon his combination of engine, skill, defensive awareness and $&%#housing.

Chris Durkin

Durkin had one very good game, against Nigeria. In each of his other outings he looked a step slow, unable to influence things with his passing and possession play (that is supposed to be his biggest strength, and was against the Super Eagles), and just not tough or quick enough in the challenge.

Even on the best teams in the world, the No. 6 has to put out fires. Sergio Busquets puts out fires, and Jordan Henderson puts out fires, and Fernandinho puts out fires, and just keep going down the list. Sure, that’s not what you think of them as first and foremost, but they do that job. Too many times in this tournament, Durkin couldn’t:

He’s not an elite athlete in any sense, and if you’re not an elite athlete in modern soccer, you have to acquire, process and synthesize information faster than anybody else (this is what Busquets does). Durkin’s not there yet.

I came away from this tournament wondering if he’s more likely to become a ball-playing center back like Matt Besler or Tim Ream rather than a ball-winning defensive midfielder.

• Club situation: He’s been getting minutes for D.C. United, mostly at d-mid, and there’s been real and substantial interest from big European teams like Bayer Leverkusen and Benfica. Wherever he is, though, he needs to get serious game minutes ASAP.

• How soon can he help the USMNT? A year ago nobody though Pomykal was enough of a ground-covering, influential central midfielder. Look at him now.

Durkin has improved as an athlete over the past 12 months. If he can get 10% stronger, quicker and tougher, and 20% more willing to inflict pain on anybody who'd dare try to play actual soccer in central midfield against him – just channel a bit of Kyle Beckerman or Ozzie Alonso – it can happen.

Alex Mendez

Llanez’s former LA Galaxy academy (and Los Dos) teammate produced a couple of the highlights of the tournament, from any team or any player in any context.

LOOK AT THIS PASS!!!!

There have not been many US players, ever, at any age group, who could’ve done that. Freddy Adu is one, Benny Feilhaber is another, and Mendez’s peer Andrew Carleton has done it a few times in USL and for the U-17s.

The problem with Mendez is that… that’s really all he does. Scroll back up to that Durkin clip and watch as Mendez loses the initial header, barely challenges the first 50/50, then hustles back but doesn’t actually challenge/try to stop the ball. I was horrified on behalf of both kids as that play unfolded.

If you build the entire team around Mendez, get him the ball in great spots, compensate for his nearly total lack of defense and inability to work into good spots to get on the ball in possession, and his lack of athleticism, he might end up being Mauro Diaz. His elite vision, his left foot, his shifty little change-of-pace stuff is all that good. He is a luxury player, but what a luxury that could be (even if he didn’t show it in this tournament).

But he’s a player from a different era. If you can’t defend you can’t play in central midfield in the very best leagues in the world (and to be clear, Mendez’s workrate makes Mesut Ozil look like Arturo Vidal), and even in MLS, Diaz was eventually shifted out to the wing.

I grew up watching South American soccer and players like him are my very favorite players to watch. But they’re a dying breed.

• Club situation: He was stuck with the Freiburg U-19s all spring, sometimes starting and sometimes coming off the bench. I’ll say this straight-up: I don’t see a realistic way for him to become a regular in a league as fast and furious as the Bundesliga. Maybe a move to Scandinavia would work?

• How soon can he help the USMNT? If he works on his body and has a Feilhaber-esque come-to-Jesus moment with regard to defending, it could happen eventually. But Benny had more physical gifts to work with than Mendez, so it’s tough to see a path.

Can we somehow fuse him and Rennicks into one player? Is that possible?

Brandon Servania

All that stuff at the top about our players being mostly pros who weren’t intimidated by the fact that they were going against pros from some of the best leagues in the world? Servania vs. France, folks. The kid’s barely played in MLS but he’s gotten serious minutes in USL League One, and it paid off.

It’s not like he dominated the game, of course. There are times where his reactions are slow – you could put some of France’s first goal on him – and as a distributor he does not match what Durkin can do. But just being solid, physical and engaged is a nice combo to build on for a No. 6, and he really did make some key plays. And it's definitely not like his passing was a net negative:

We didn’t lose the game in central midfield when Servania was out there as a 6. He held his own against Ligue 1 and Bundesliga veterans.

My colleague David Gass has a more lukewarm take on Servania’s overall game: “He steps out of the middle defensively a little too much to cover for a teammate who has stepped out of the play. Which can be fine, but he’s often then too slow to recover back to the middle when the danger gets put out.”

I don’t disagree with that. But I think reps will fix it.

• Club situation: And now he has to go back to Dallas and kick some ass if he wants to get into the first team. The time is now, with FCD missing players to the Gold Cup (Bryan Acosta) and Copa America (Carlos Gruezo). If he doesn’t manage it, he’ll spend the year in USL-1 with North Texas, which is probably not ideal for a kid with his bona fides at age 20 (if he was still 18 or 19, ok, but Servania’s gotta play).

Another option that could be on the table is that an MLS team could go after him on loan. There are a few places where that makes sense.

• How soon can he help the USMNT? This definitely isn’t a “right now” discussion with him, but I have a little bit of Servania stock. I like players who win the damn ball.

Edwin Cerrillo

One of the reasons Servania hasn’t been playing in MLS is because his younger, less heralded teammate has beaten him out and taken his minutes. Cerrillo’s been very, very good, both winning the ball and at times showing game-changing ability in distribution:

But he didn’t play a single minute in this World Cup. What I’ve heard is that he struggled mightily both in the pre-tourney scrimmage vs. Uruguay as well as in day-to-day practice.

He’s got to come back to MLS with a chip on his shoulder.

• Club situation: He was a starter at age 18 when he left for the World Cup. He’ll have to fight to win that job back when he returns. Simple as that.

• How soon can he help the USMNT? If he plays like he did in April… man, I don’t want to get too aggressive with the timeframe here. I don’t think he’s an Adams-level d-mid prospect. But he’s outplayed both Servania and Durkin in MLS, and was taking minutes from literal World Cup veterans in Acosta and Gruezo (both of whom would be gameday 18 USMNT players if they were American).

Put it in that context, and hope for linear progression, and maybe we see him as soon as January. At the very least, he seems like he’s got a great chance to be on the Olympic team.

God I wish he’d gotten a few minutes in this one.

Aboubacar Keita

The Crew Homegrown is the guy who replaced McKenzie in the XI game after game, and often – especially the first 70 minutes vs. France, but also at times in every other game – he struggled. Keita doesn’t defend well in space a la Richards, and while his passing can be excellent...

…it can also be problematic.

He scrambled well, and battled hard. He is gangly and awkward, but he really did win more of those duels than he lost. There are good raw materials to work with here for Columbus.

• Club situation: Keita was also one of the least experienced pros on the roster, having played just about 200 minutes with Richmond in USL-1. Hopefully he spends the rest of the year on loan with a USL Championship side (it’s a much higher level), starts 15 games, and shows well. And then hopefully he does the same thing again next year, but starts 30 games.

Let’s check in on him somewhere around the start of the 2021 season.

• How soon can he help the USMNT? I don’t necessarily see that path for him. But then again, what was Aaron Long doing when he was 19?

Konrad de la Fuente

I asked a friend of mine who’s a scout in Europe for his take before the tournament and the answer was simple: “No left foot and tunnel vision.”

De La Fuente’s at Barcelona, which means he’s getting what should be the best coaching in the world, but he still looked very much like a youth player in this one, and the difference in quality between him and Llanez was stark. While his individual skill was obvious, his lack of game sense and inability to open the game up from within the confines of a team structure was not promising.

But he was one of the youngest players on the field, and has zero pro minutes. Kids improve at different rates, and 24 months from now we should see him at the next U-20 World Cup.

• Club situation: Barca youth teams. If he doesn’t push his way up to the Barca B side this year, I suspect he’ll wind up elsewhere in Spain next summer.

• How soon can he help the USMNT? Let’s check in after the 2021 U20 World Cup.

Matt Real

The Union LB only made a brief cameo in the tourney, which makes some sense given how indefatigable and excellent Gloster was. It was always going to be hard to win many minutes.

Real’s not really an overlapping threat, and is more of an old-fashioned stay-at-home LB who can also play a little bit of left center back.

• Club situation: He’s got a lot of experience with Bethlehem Steel in USL Championship and has played a few times for the Union. With Kai Wagner in the LB spot now, it’s hard to see many MLS minutes in Real’s immediate future. He’ll probably finish out the year with Bethlehem.

He should be focused on that, and on being ready to go toe-to-toe with Wagner for the first-team job come January.

• How soon can he help the USMNT? If he wins the Union job and becomes a solid, no-frills, mistake-free LB, there’s always room in the pool for someone like that. But let’s not even consider this a point of discussion until we see how the next two years go.

Julian Araujo

The youngest player on the roster, a last-minute addition after an injury to Ayo Akinola, a Mexican-American who is being heavily courted by El Tri, and one of my favorite all-around talents in the US youth system was one of three players who didn’t play in this tourney.

I bet Araujo spends the rest of the season starting at RB for the Galaxy, who were able to sign him before Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund swooped in. He’s already better than Venezuelan international Rolf Feltscher, and while he can’t touch Dest as an attacking weapon on the overlap he is far, far superior defensively. And his distribution from the back is legit:

I can’t wait to see him the rest of this season. He has Adams-level upside at RB.

• Club situation: I think he’s got a chance to be a full-fledged starter for the Galaxy for the rest of the year, and there are multiple big European teams keeping close watch. LA will want him to play and show off the goods.

• How soon can he help the USMNT? If he really is an Adams-level RB, then we shouldn’t be surprised if he’s in the full national team mix sooner rather than later, right? I bet he’ll make his full national team debut before 2021, when he will yet again be eligible to play in the U-20 World Cup.

I’m just not sure whether he’ll be wearing Red, White & Blue, or green.

CJ Dos Santos

The third-string ‘keeper, a former Union academy kid now at Benfica, didn’t play. I’ve only watched him a few times, and none recently, so I’m not going to offer an assessment here.

• Club situation: Being at Benfica is good, especially since he’s just 18. If he can push his way into Benfica B minutes this year that’d be an absolute win. But that seems like a reach.

• How soon can he help the USMNT? Let’s check in sometime after 2022.


That’s the full list from this group, but bear in mind I haven’t included Adams, Sargent, Aaronson, Jonathan Amon, James Sands, Frankie Amaya or Siad Haji. The first two guys on that list would’ve been obvious starters on this team, and I think Amon and Sands could’ve/should’ve/would’ve been as well. We’ve already seen a bunch of the above players play – some pretty well – for the full USMNT, and all seven have gotten meaningful minutes for their clubs.

This group was really good. This group was really deep. This group is packed with players already getting meaningful minutes at big clubs.

I think a corner has been turned for the US program here. I don't think this is a golden generation, but a sampling of what's to come.

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