The US youth national team programs have had a relatively outsized profile and impact upon soccer in the US. This is largely because for many, many years there was no top-flight league, and then for many, many years there was no top-flight league full of first teams with academy programs attached. It's taken a while to develop to that point, and even now some academy programs are obviously far ahead of others.
And so the USYNT program filled that gap. The various YNTs in other countries were semi-monthly, "get the best academy kids from around the country together for a couple of friendlies then try to win the regional title" type of thing. In the US, the U-17s were basically an autonomous team for two decades, and the U-20s attempted to inject a dose of professionalism into a team that was usually composed of college kids.
It was an arrangement born of necessity. It's also an arrangement of the past. Over the past five years, especially, things have changed. The US is now more in line with the rest of the world, and that is a good thing.
I felt like that was an important preamble to have here. Even without COVID-19 we were in a transition period for the US youth national teams. The next quarter century will be very different from the last quarter century.
That said, we can still take a look back to remember and hopefully learn a little bit. So in that spirit, here's the best prospect of each group at the time, the eventual best player from each U-17 and U-20 cohort of the past 25 years, and something worth remembering from the team. I'll be picking from the rosters that made it to their respective U-17/U-20 World Cups (or in the case of some, didn't quite make it to the U-17/U-20 World Cups).
Away we go:
1995 U-17 World Championship
Best Prospect: Tim Howard (GK), New Jersey Imperials
Best Player: Howard
Even when he was just 16 years old, it was obvious that Howard had the tools to become a top-tier international goalkeeper, the heir to Tony Meola, Brad Friedel and Kasey Keller. He was also a partial answer to "what if our best athletes played soccer?"
The back-up 'keeper on this team was some kid named Nick Rimando. Decent GK depth here.
Worth Remembering: Of the field players in this group, Nick Garcia went on to have easily the best career, including a recent mention in Andrew Wiebe's "All-Loathed XI" squad. I do wonder if Garcia's game – save for the off-the-ball cheap-shots, which would've been VAR'd into a liability – would translate better now since he was a clever, undersized, ball-playing CB.
1997 U-17 World Championship
Best Prospect: Gus Kartes (AM/W), Olympiakos
Best Player: Taylor Twellman (FW)
Kartes definitely wasn't the best prospect on this team, but he was at least a year younger than almost every other player on the roster and he'd signed for Olympiakos! The lone exception was Marshall Leonard, who went on to play with the Revolution and is now saving lives as an ER doctor in New York.
All the excitement you see now when a US teenager signs overseas with some big club? That's not new. That was the Gus Kartes experience in the mid-90s. All the "cap him now!" calls you see about young players who nobody's ever watched play against grown men? That's not new. That was the Gus Kartes experience in the mid-90s. All the dual-national panic you see now about players with more than just a US passport? That's not new. That was the Gus Kartes experience in the mid-90s.
Kartes had great feet and good balance, but wasn't much of a professional soccer player. He never made it at Olympiakos and then came back to MLS in 2001 to play with his hometown Tampa Bay Mutiny. He neither scored nor assisted during his 500 minutes.
Twellman was easily the best player to come out of this group, though he didn't really break out until he was with the U-20s. With the U-17s, he was too busy trying to be a winger and doing step-overs by the corner flag. Bad look, TT.
Worth Remembering: Bryheem Hancock was the starting GK for UConn's 2000 national championship-winning men's soccer team. Of course that fact was going to make this column.
1997 U-20 World Championship
Best Prospect: John O'Brien (MF/LB), Ajax
Best Player: O'Brien
48’ | Realizing there’s a whole generation of #USMNT fans who may not know about John O’Brien.— U.S. Soccer MNT (@USMNT) April 15, 2020
He was good. Really good. This is one glimpse of his greatness.
🇺🇸 1-1 🇯🇲#USMNTClassics Live>> https://t.co/XswyW8a3k9 pic.twitter.com/CGrUZbGoWJ
In the pantheon of all-time US injuries, JOB is still probably No. 1. If he hadn't been hurt for 2006, would the US have advanced out of that group? Probably! If he hadn't been robbed of three-fourths of his career with chronic heel and ankle injuries, would the "Who's the USMNT GOAT?" discussion have a different flavor? Perhaps! Landon Donovan said O'Brien was the best player on the great 2002 USMNT that made the quarterfinals, and before the injuries hit Barcelona were absolutely looking to purchase him from Ajax to be their new left back.
Worth Remembering: This team formed the core of the group that finished fourth at the Sydney Olympics, just missing out on the podium. After O'Brien the best players out of this group were Ben Olsen (RM) and Josh Wolff (FW) – two other guys whose careers were constantly hampered by injury.
It's also worth noting that this is the first group with a significant MLS presence, as six players from the U-20 World Cup squad were on MLS rosters, all via the Project-40 program. You can (and should) read all about them HERE.
1999 U-17 World Championship
Best Prospect: Landon Donovan (FW), IMG Academy
Best Player: Donovan
This was the beginning of the great experiment, as this was the first U-17 cohort to become a residential academy group down in Bradenton, Fla. The idea was to get the 40 best U-17s in the country together two years before the next U-17 World Cup, have them live and train and build chemistry together, then pick the best 21 of the group for the roster and try to win the damn thing.
This group came close, finishing fourth. Donovan won the Golden Ball and DaMarcus Beasley won the Silver Ball. Do I need to tell you about how good they were? If you're reading this column, you know how good both of those guys were, right?
To this day, this is still the best and most successful U-17 group the US has ever had.
Worth Remembering: The playmaking midfielder on this team was some kid named Kyle Beckerman, and the right back was a guy called Oguchi Onyewu. Bobby Convey was the youngest player on the team, getting time on either side of midfield.
Just an incredibly stacked group.
1999 U-20 World Championship
Best Prospect: Howard (GK), MetroStars
Best Player: Howard
Howard and Rimando were the goalkeepers. Steve Cherundolo and Carlos Bocanegra were the fullbacks. Good pros like Garcia, Danny Califf, Cory Gibbs and John Thorrington were scattered around the entire team. The played with two up front – of course they were going to play with two up front, since Sigi Schmid was the head coach – and that meant Twellman got to play off of Chris Albright, who was supposed to be the second coming of Brian McBride except with speed.
There were 12 guys who went on to have really good professional careers, including five that I would consider to be legendary. Were they just inherently better than some of the teams that came later, or were they in a situation where they would get first-team playing time?
Regardless, this team was awesome, and this was Twellman's breakout international performance. He scored twice in the final group-stage game, which the US needed to win to advance, and then twice more in the Round of 16 as the US were eliminated.
Worth Remembering: Know who else's breakout international performance this was? Xavi's. He was the best player on the Spain team that beat the US 3-2 in the Round of 16 and won the tournament. Iker Casillas was the goalkeeper, and the rest of the roster was stuffed with guys who'd go on to long, very good careers in La Liga like Gabri, Fernando Varela, Pablo Orbaiz and Jose Barkero.
Xavi, though. I remember falling in love with him while watching these games. He's still my favorite player of all-time.
2001 U-17 World Championship
Best Prospect: Eddie Johnson (FW), Dallas Burn
Best Player: Chad Marshall (CB)
EJ was a force of nature at the U-17 level, running past or through almost any defense, and rising above the ones who just packed it in because they were terrified of his speed. He scored 23 goals in 25 games for the U-17s.
“The technical part of the game, it wins in the long run,” Johnson told Paul Tenorio of The Athletic last month. “...I wasn’t a technical player growing up. I was fast. I had a good nose for the goal, I had a decent touch, I had good hold-up play, my aerial game was good. That was physical and athletic.”
Johnson was one of three high-level attacking prospects on that team, along with Justin Mapp and Santino Quaranta. To be fair to EJ, he had a pretty good-to-very good professional career, scoring 109 goals across 14 years for club(s) and country.
I wrote about Mapp a few weeks ago, and Quaranta's career was derailed for off-field issues. Mike Magee was the fourth attacker on that team and ultimately had the best club career out of any of them ... maybe? Certainly the winningest.
But there's no question that the best player to come out of this particular group was Marshall, the giant CB who's the only three-time Defender of the Year in MLS history and who should've had 112 caps instead of just 12, fitness be damned.
Worth Remembering: For the US, one of the center backs was Gray Griffin, who died in a car accident a year after this tournament. Nearly 20 years later and it's still a gut punch.
The French side that won this tournament? Not a single player went on to have a meaningful career for Les Bleus, though a few of them went on to switch to African sides (Senegal, Algeria, Tunisia).
The best player at this tournament was Florent Sinama Pongolle, who disappointed for every club he ever played for. That includes the 2014 Chicago Fire, for whom he scored one goal in seven appearances before being released at the end of the season.
2001 U-20 World Championship
Best Player: Donovan (FW), San Jose Earthquakes
Best Prospect: Donovan
Donovan came back to MLS looking for some sunshine after a very unhappy 18 months in Germany. They somehow lost to China in the first group game, then smashed the hell out of Chile and outplayed Ukraine before conceding a late goal and having to settle for a 1-1 draw. They then lost to Egypt in the Round of 16, and I'm still kind of pissed about that.
A lot of the pressure here was on Donovan. He was still considered, without question, to be the best prospect out of this group and the best prospect the US had produced since Claudio Reyna. But Donovan hadn't delivered for Bayer Leverkusen and now, on loan at San Jose, he wasn't exactly tearing things up. You could see his talent, but he was just ok at that point.
Over the 12 months following this tournament he'd score the opening goal in the 2001 MLS Cup, which the Quakes won, then was named Best Young Player at the 2002 World Cup in Korea and Japan.
So you could say he bounced back pretty well from a disappointing showing here.
Worth Remembering: This was that great 1999 U-17 squad (sans Beckerman, who didn't make this roster) along with a few college stars like Kyle Martino, Brad Davis, Brian Carroll and Alecko Eskandarian. There was also Conor Casey, who was ripping it up in the German third tier after signing with Borussia Dortmund following the 2000 Olympics, and Crew striker Edson Buddle.
2003 U-17 World Championship
Best Prospect: Freddy Adu (MF/FW), IMG Academy
Best Player: Jonathan Spector
At this point we'd all heard about Freddy Adu. And then this happened in the first group-stage game:
He was 14. Everybody else was 16 or 17. He was considered, at the very least, to be on par with the likes of Donovan, O'Brien and Reyna as a prospect overall, and certainly ahead of any of them at that age. He was a global phenom as soon as he scored that goal, and would remain one for the next five years.
He's also the most dominant youth national team player the US has ever produced. That's kind of a backhanded compliment in the end, but you expected him to deliver every time out at these levels. Usually, he did.
Worth Remembering: Spector – who got the nod for "best player" out of this group over Eddie Gaven – would have a really good career, if not quite the mind-blowing one people expected of him when he was named Manchester United's Young Player of the Year in 2003-04.
It took some luck for him to get signed by Man U, though. He was originally a forward with this team, but injuries forced him to play CB at the 2003 Milk Cup. He was a Red Devil a month later.
2003 U-20 World Championship
Best Prospect: Adu
Best Player: Clint Dempsey
This was as a 14-year-old against 19 and 20-year-olds. Among those 19 and 20-year-olds were Javier Mascherano, Carlos Tevez and Pablo Zabaleta, and this was in the quarterfinals. Argentina would go on to win 2-1 in extra time, but... damn. Freddy was going to be legit, right? Freddy and Landon – the Best Young Player at the 2002 World Cup, remember – and JOB, and DaMarcus all together?
Holy hell, it's happening! It's definitely happening!
Thirteen of the 18 rostered field players from this group went on to have, at the very least, "useful" pro careers. That's a very good hit rate.
Worth Remembering: Here's a story, again from The Athletic, about that Dempsey kid:
"I remember calling Thomas Rongen, who was the (U.S.) U-20 coach at the time. And Clint had never been on the national team. I saw after the first year: ‘Thomas, this kid is special. You have to have a look at him.’ He took a chance on him and took him into camp."
That was from Furman head coach Doug Allison, who coached Dempsey (along with Gray Griffin) in college. Things kind of worked out from there for Clint and the US program.
2005 U-17 World Championship
Best Prospect: Jozy Altidore (FW), IMG Academy
Best Player: Neven Subotic
"Why is this big kid over on the touchline trying to square up and dribble everyone in his path?" That was my first take on Jozy, and while he's mostly shook that penchant, it took him about a decade to do so. And I still think that delayed understanding that he needed to be a center forward to become a great player is what cost him a chance to break through with Villarreal in Spain after they'd paid $10 million for him way back in 2008.
This isn't meant to be a slight on Jozy, who's had a very, very good (if not quite legendary) USMNT career, and who's been one of the most clutch playoff performers in MLS history. He's still beloved at AZ Alkmaar, where he scored the goal that won them the Dutch Cup in 2013, and I think even the biggest Jozy hater will admit that when he's fit and on, he's one of the best forwards this region's ever produced. He's the fourth-leading scorer all-time in Concacaf World Cup qualifying, and is the second-leading scorer all-time in the Hexagonal round. He's closing in on 200 career goals for club and country, and is still just 30 years old.
If he stays healthy, it's not out of the question that he could end up closer to 300 than 200. If he stays healthy, it's not out of the question that he could be a part of the 2022 US World Cup team (assuming they make it), and if he is, and he scores, and they advance, then his career probably does become legendary.
But we all know "if he stays healthy" has always been the biggest if for Jozy.
Subotic is a giant "if" as well, though there's plenty of reason to think he was never really going to play for the USMNT as long as a higher-profile team came along and offered to cap him. And even then, he retired from international soccer with Serbia at the age of 26, having earned his last cap for them at age 24.
All that said, he'd have been a game changer for the US if he'd stayed in the fold, and would arguably still be in the backline mix today. At his heights with Borussia Dortmund he won two Bundesliga titles, two German Cups and two German Super Cups, and his Transfermarkt value was north of $20 million.
More than Giuseppe Rossi, he's the one that got away. Except not really.
Worth Remembering: This tournament was supposed to be the coming-out party for Nik Besagno, the 16-year-old d-mid who'd been the No. 1 overall SuperDraft pick in 2005 (one spot ahead of Brad Guzan). It definitely wasn't.
It was something of a coming-out party for another midfielder on that roster, Kyle Nakazawa. He had MLS All-Star potential, but was never quite the same after a junior-year back injury at UCLA. These days he's a real life hero working for a Hotshots forest fire unit in California.
2005 U-20 World Championship
Best Prospect: Freddy (D.C. United)
Best Player: Benny Feilhaber or Sacha Kljestan
Freddy was 16 now, and with a year of MLS under his belt (he was a decently-effective sub as a rookie for D.C., who won the 2004 MLS Cup) he was supposed to just absolutely run the show for this team.
He wasn't bad, but he wasn't that central. Instead it was a combination of Feilhaber, Kljestan, Brad Evans and Danny Szetela bossing things in the middle. The biggest moment for this team came in the first group-stage game, which was billed as "The Battle of the Phenoms." On one side was Freddy, and on the other side was... Lionel Messi.
Schmid, who was once again the U-20 head coach, had Feilhaber man-mark Messi in the second half (Benny told a great story about it on Extratime) and the US won 1-0.
Argentina wouldn't drop a single point for the rest of the tournament. You're not going to believe this but that Messi dude won both the Golden Ball and Golden Boot.
Worth Remembering: Feilhaber, Klejstan and Adu were all No. 10s. So was Lee Nguyen, a little-used sub for this team.
I really think that we, as a soccer nation, screwed up and didn't get half as much from these guys as we should've. Feilhaber was a key player for the great US team that beat Spain at the 2009 Confederations Cup and then won their group at the 2010 World Cup. As for Kljestan, he was a Champions League player for Anderlecht and one of the all-time assist leaders in MLS, and in the 97 minutes he and Christian Pulisic shared the field in World Cup qualifiers, the US scored seven goals.
That included four goals in 73 minutes against Trinidad & Tobago in September of 2016. Would've been nice to have that a year later!
EDIT: My Extratime colleague Charlie Davies wanted me to know that he was the final cut from this roster despite scoring a hat-trick in the final game before the roster was picked. He had a conversation with Marcelo Balboa, one of Sigi's assistants for the team, on Monday's show.
2007 U-17 World Cup
Best Prospect: Brek Shea (W), IMG Academy
Best Player: Josh Lambo (K), Jacksonville Jaguars
Welcome to the start of the Lost Generation. For whatever reason – and there have been lots of theories out there – the US suddenly stopped producing as many high-quality prospects in the first half of the 1990s. From this entire roster, Shea was the only one who was considered a high-upside player, though he was considered to be high-upside only at left back or center back (Arsene Wenger was a big fan) if he could make the transition.
Many have tried. No one succeeded.
"No one succeeded" could be the tagline from this group as a whole. Greg Garza would be the easy choice if he could stay healthy, but he's 28 now and, yeah, I don't think anyone is holding their breath for him to become a week-in, week-out player. He and Zac MacMath are the only players from this roster that are still MLS players.
So I'm being kind of snarky when I list Lambo as the best player, but... not really! Lambo was a pretty good goalkeeper prospect who's turned himself into a second-team All-Pro NFL kicker, first for the Chargers and now for the Jaguars. You should listen to him discuss his journey on the Benny, Sal & Ike podcast.
Worth Remembering: They lost 4-3 to Tajikistan and 3-1 to Tunisia in the group stage, then somehow beat Eden Hazard's Belgium 2-0 to advance to the knockout round, where they lost to Germany.
2007 U-20 World Cup
Best Prospect: Freddy, Real Salt Lake
Best Player: Michael Bradley
Here it is, the single best individual performance in USYNT history:
One game after that, Altidore dropped a brace on Brazil's head and the US won the group. Then they beat Luis Suarez, Edison Cavani & Co. in the Round of 16 on an extra-time goal from Bradley. Then they... blew a lead and lost to Austria in the quarters? Are you fricking kidding me?????
I'm still very, very upset about that.
Anyway, things definitely hadn't worked out for Freddy at D.C., and he'd been traded to RSL in something of a reboot, and this was going to be the start of his redemption tour. It was not just the start: You could posit it as the high point of his entire career. I certainly think it was.
Benfica did, too. They paid $2 million for him two weeks after the US run ended.
Bradley, meanwhile, was just 19 and was coming off his first season as a starter in the Eredivisie. His 2007-08 season would be even better as he scored 19 goals across all competitions and earned a move to Borussia Monchengladbach of the Bundesliga.
Worth Remembering: Dax McCarty wore the No. 10 for this team!
2009 U-17 World Cup
Best Prospect: Juan Agudelo (W/F), New York Red Bulls Academy
Best Player: Agudelo
That was in a frigging playoff game!
Agudelo, who was the first academy product to become a focal point at the USYNT level and a regular at the full USMNT level (he has almost 30 caps), scored other unreal goals as well, and got to Europe, and was/still is the youngest player to score in USMNT history.
But he was basically Altidore-light: a center forward who preferred to stand out on the wing trying to dribble guys instead of trying to score. The big difference after all these years is that while Altidore has found the net hundreds of times and generally functions as an actual center forward about 90 percent of the time, Agudelo never quite got it. He's 27 (it's amazing to me that he's still just 27), and he's never scored double-digit goals in a season. Last year, Bruce Arena mostly used him as a central midfielder.
And yes, of the 2009 US U-17 roster, Agudelo's had the best career. Only Perry Kitchen really has an argument.
Worth Remembering: The best prospect from this cohort was actually Charles Renken, who is one of the five (or so) best 15-year-olds I've ever seen for the US. Here's a bit from an old longform:
After just a few months in Bradenton, the midfielder had already earned a call to a US U-20 camp and dominated for the U-17s in a 2-0 win against Brazil in the Nike Friendlies. Reports surfaced claiming virtually every club in the English Premier League were interested. Trials were arranged at Arsenal and Reading in England and 1860 Munich in Germany. Articles with titles like “Renken the next big thing for US Soccer” were published. Message boards blew up.
“First impression of Charles was one of skepticism,” said Orlando City SC midfielder Amobi Okugo, who attended the residency program with Renken in 2007. “To hear about this random young African kid supposedly being the next Freddy Adu, everyone was anxious and interested to see what this guy was all about. But once we met Charles that quickly changed. He is one of the nicest, most polite kids I’ve ever come across. Once everyone heard how high-pitched his voice was he was treated like a little brother.
“On the field, he was never out of place. To be honest he was probably top three when it came to technical ability with our ‘91 age group and he's only a [‘93]. We would play the ‘90s in scrimmages and it didn't matter how physical they tried to be, he wouldn't react mainly because they couldn't touch him. He was the real deal.”
Here are the highlights from his goosebump-inducing performance in a win over Brazil's U-17s in December of 2007. He popped the ACL in his right knee a month later. He did it again a year after that, and thus wasn't on the roster for this World Cup, so technically I can't include him.
But anyway, he was never the same.
2009 U-20 World Cup
Best Prospect: Gale Agbossoumonde (CB), Miami FC
Best Player: Ike Opara
If Agudelo is the defining attacker of the Lost Generation, then Agbossoumonde is the defining defender. He was giant, athletic, and seemed to be relatively gifted in reading the game and using the ball. Bob Bradley liked what he saw enough to give Agbossoumonde a cap in November of 2010 against South Africa – the same game in which Agudelo made his debut.
But it was fool's gold with Agbossoumonde, who spend most of his crucial years on loan at clubs that didn't care to develop him, and never progressed at all. He tried to make it (and couldn't) in MLS in 2013 and '14 with Toronto FC, then kicked around the lower divisions for a few years before hanging 'em up at the age of 26.
Opara, of course, has turned into one of the best CBs in MLS history. He'd never gone a full season without injury entering 2017. He's since played three straight full seasons and been named Defender of the Year in two of them.
But as recently as 2016 he was another "oh man, what he could've been..." guy from this era. There were lots of them.
Worth Remembering: This was the Mix Diskerud debut team. After having lost out on Rossi and Subotic, there was a fanbase-wide sense of triumph when the US out-recruited Norway for Mix. Surely he'd be a game-changer for the entire program!
2011 U-17 World Cup
Best Prospect: Marc Pelosi (MF), De Anza Force
Best Player: Paul Arriola
Pelosi was big, strong, fast, left-footed central midfielder, and was always driving the game forward. He was very English in how he played, and he played so well – despite the fact that this US team really didn't play great soccer that summer – that Liverpool said, 'Hell yes!' and offered him a contract. He signed with them as a 17-year-old just months after this tournament, and while he wasn't considered an apex, "can't miss" talent, he was no more than one level below that. The Reds put him on a clear path to the first team.
It's obviously impossible to say whether or not he would've made it, but he became a regular starter for Liverpool's U-21s and was producing. Those U-21s are generally the last stop on the way up to the Premier League if you can hack it.
Pelosi suffered a double fracture to his right leg on a gruesome tackle in February of 2013. Liverpool, to their credit, extended his contract for another two years and tried to get him back to the player he was, but that wasn't going to happen. He was released in mid-2015, and he played a dozen games for the Quakes over the next two years before retiring. He is still just 25 years old.
Arriola is also just 25 years old, and has put together a nice career as a dogged and reliable two-way winger for club and country who can moonlight at right back or as a central midfield destroyer. He did his ACL earlier this year and is in the midst of rehabbing, but it's unlikely that proves to be a career-altering injury.
Worth Remembering: Kellyn Acosta, at age 15, was the youngest player on this team. He was a fullback back then.
2011 U-20 Concacaf Championship
Best Prospect: Joe Gyau (W), 1899 Hoffenheim
Best Player: Sebastian Lletget
How do you know when a Lost Generation is truly lost? When they don't make the World Cup. And in 2011, the US U-20s failed to make the Youth World Cup after they were knocked out by Guatemala in the quarterfinals of the Concacaf Championship. I remember it well. It made me sad.
Gyau, the 18-year-old who'd been one of the top prospects on the 2009 U-17 cohort (along with Agudelo and Renken) had surpassed Agbossoumonde as the top prospect with this group. The lightning-quick winger wasn't putting up huge numbers in the youth ranks, but he was making the bench for an occasional Bundesliga game and was just months from his first-team debut, in German Cup action.
But it wasn't to be. He mostly stalled out at Hoffenheim, then suffered a devastating series of knee injuries, and is now part of FC Cincinnati's rotation as a winger. He has one assist in 522 MLS minutes.
Lletget, like Gyau, seemed on the verge of breaking through in Europe (with West Ham, under Sam Allardyce of all people), but bad luck with injuries and illness kept derailing him. He moved to MLS in 2015, has mostly been a starter with the Galaxy and has definitely been better for the US than for LA. He's played 14 times for the US and has literally never had a bad game. If there was a World Cup qualifier tomorrow, he'd be in the XI.
Worth Remembering: Omar Salgado, the No. 1 pick in the 2011 MLS SuperDraft, was supposed to be one of the stars of this team. He was not.
2013 U-17 Concacaf Championship
Best Prospect: Rubio Rubin (F), Westside Timbers
Best Player: Corey Baird
First the U-20s missed the World Cup in 2011, then the U-17s took the L in 2013. This time it was against Honduras – they just got stomped by Alberth Elis – in the quarterfinals, and that was that.
Everyone talked themselves into Rubin being a fast, relentless and exciting off-the-ball, fox-in-the-box No. 9 who'd run off the back shoulder of the center backs and poach goals. The fact that he signed with FC Utrecht of the Eredivisie as soon as he turned 18 confirmed those beliefs for a lot of folks.
Rubin scored four goals for Utrecht in 43 appearances over three years. He has 10 career professional goals. Somehow, he also has seven USMNT caps.
Baird went through four years at Stanford, won three national titles and then signed with RSL as a Homegrown player. He was the 2018 Rookie of the Year, has mostly been a starter for a playoff team and earned four national-team appearances (notching an assist in his debut). Given the amount of talent coming up on the wings, he'll have to fight to keep his spot.
Worth Remembering: Justen Glad, Joel Sonora and Shaquell Moore are the three remaining players from this group who could, some day, end up becoming USMNT pool players. Glad's been to two camps and was likely going to be a starter for the US Olympic qualifying squad, while Moore actually made a handful of appearances with the US in 2018.
Sonora, who only just started getting first-team minutes in Argentina, could end up being a late-bloomer and work his way into the midfield mix.
But all three of those guys are staring at a depth chart with multiple names ahead of them and lots of promising young players coming through.
EDIT: There was some talk about Junior Flores, the playmaker for this group who signed with Borussia Dortmund, as being the best prospect. I'll let Adam Snavely, whose newsletter you should subscribe to, take it:
"Junior Flores spent exactly two weeks as the best player in his age group and got a Dortmund contract out of it."
By the time the tournament itself came around the bloom was off the rose. Flores wasn't going to be that guy.
2013 U-20 World Cup
Best Prospect: Luis Gil (MF), Real Salt Lake
Best Player: DeAndre Yedlin
Welcome back to the World Cup! You get to play *checks notes* France, Ghana and Spain! Oh good lord.
Yeah, the US got themselves back to the U-20 World Cup and got drawn into the Group of Death, where they promptly died. They managed to take a point off of France (who won the thing with Paul Pogba winning the Golden Ball), but Spain and Ghana stomped them. It was gruesome.
Gil, the No. 10, scored a consolation goal against Spain, but I could never quite figure out what people saw in him. He didn't have the touch, balance or vision of the guys who wore that No. 10 shirt through most of the 2000s, and since leaving RSL in 2015 he's become a journeyman with stops at six clubs, including three in MLS and one in the USL.
Yedlin, in 2013, was a revelation. He'd been starting for the Sounders since Day 1 of that season (which was Day 1 of his professional career), which included a lovely goal against Tigres in that year's CCL. Seattle won that series, which was the first knockout-round series win for an MLS team against a Liga MX side in the new-format CCL. Yedlin was a huge part of it.
He went on to play at the 2014 World Cup and has been a regular in the English Premier League ever since.
Worth Remembering: Jordan Morris was the last player cut from this team. John Brooks would've been, by far, the best prospect on this team and IMO best player as well, though that's more debatable. But he wasn't released for the tournament so, alas, he does not factor in here.
2015 U-17 World Cup
Best Prospect: Christian Pulisic (W), Borussia Dortmund
Best Player: Pulisic
Even with Pulisic, who signed with Dortmund several months before this tournament, and Tyler Adams, this team got murked in the group stage. They took a point off of Croatia in a 2-2 draw, but both Nigeria and Chile beat them by multiple goals.
A lot of the players from this team are still on pro rosters, though few are in key roles. It looks like when all is said and done "only" Pulisic and Adams will have come from this group, but hey... that's pretty good! I'll take that!
For what it's worth, while Pulisic and Adams were both clearly very good, neither was exactly dominant for this team. As you can probably tell by this point in the column, judging the relative potential of youth players is tricky business.
Worth Remembering: Weston McKennie was the last cut from this roster. So that kind of makes it three Champions League players from one U-17 cohort. The Lost Generation days are over, folks!
2015 U-20 World Cup
Best Prospect: Gedion Zelalem (MF), Arsenal
Best Player: Zack Steffen
He was supposed to be the next Cesc Fabregas. Let's track some quotes about Zelalem over time:
"He dribbles like Iniesta and he passes like Xavi." – Matt Pilkington, Olney Rangers head coach, 2013
"It won't be long before he is ready. He sees passes that not a lot of players can and he's so comfortable on the ball. Even in training, he's a nightmare to play against. He keeps the ball away from you and shields it. He's not very big but he's strong. He drifts in and out of players. Technically, he's right up there. He can use his left and right and he sees so many passes." – Jack Wilshere, Arsenal midfielder, 2014
“Everybody knows him: Quality, good on the ball, great vision. Everybody’s talking about him.” – Thierry Henry, 2014
"He is a player with a good eye and good technique and is very agile. He has the ambition to find the ball on the field. So he's the kind of player who could be of use to the United States. He's in some ways the type of player the U.S. was missing in the World Cup.
"He is potentially an international player, for sure. But the next two or three years he will have to show he has the mental qualities to fill that potential. That's what's at stake for him now. If he grows physically, since he's slim, and continues to develop his mentality, the potential is there for him to be a top professional player." – Arsene Wenger, 2016
Like so many of the other great prospects before him, Zelalem's career was at least partially derailed by injuries. But he was also derailed by the fact that he's a 'tweener – not an inventive enough passer to be a playmaker, but not enough of a defensive presence to be a No. 6.
At the time it felt like a massive win when the US got him to commit (Germany and Ethiopia were the other options), but a decent showing at this particular U-20 World Cup was his high point.
The US did well here to make the quarterfinals, but other than Steffen and Arriola, none of the players from this squad have really thrust themselves into the full USMNT picture on a full-time basis.
Worth Remembering: Steffen's performance throughout this tournament was simply sensational.
2017 U-17 World Cup
Best Prospect: Josh Sargent (F), IMG Academy
Best Player: Sergino Dest
This is the most fun I've had watching a US U-17 team since the great 1999 side with Donovan, Beasley, Beckerman and Onyewu. They played with style and ruthlessness, and it turns out it wasn't a mirage: Sargent is a Bundesliga regular; Tim Weah was sold for $10 million before he turned 19; Dest is going to be sold for twice that amount to Bayern Munich soon enough; James Sands and Chris Durkin, the starting CBs, are both starters for good their respective clubs in good leagues; Indiana Vassilev has already made his EPL debut; and there is an obvious path toward playing time for fullbacks Jaylin Lindsey and Chris Gloster.
Watch them just rip the freaking spleen out of Paraguay in the Round of 16:
Yes, they got crushed by England in the very next game. But that's the same England side that then went on to crush both Brazil and Spain, so "you are the company you keep" isn't so bad here. In fact it's very, very nice.
Things can still go wrong for any or all of these guys. The stories of O'Brien or Agudelo or even Agbsossoumonde should be enough of a warning (and yeah, Weah's injuries over the past year have me worried). But this is still an absurd amount of talent on one U-17 group.
Worth Remembering: Dest was an afterthought on this team, but he was at a club that has a proven (to put it mildly) developmental track record and lots of belief in their ability to develop young players.
Which is to say that talent matters a ton, and work ethic matters a ton, and good luck with injuries matters a ton. But never underestimate fit and opportunity on the club level. Some players hit the jackpot with that and others do not.
2017 U-20 World Cup
Best Prospect: Sargent
Best Player: Adams
At this point in 2017, Adams was considered a very, very good prospect, but the consensus was he was behind guys like Sargent, Cameron Carter-Vickers and maybe even Erik Palmer-Brown. Sure, he could compete and win the ball, but could he pass and keep it enough to be a full-time central midfielder?
The answer in 2017 seemed to be "no," as he struggled in the middle for the Red Bulls early in the season and thus spent most of the year at wingback in Jesse Marsch's 3-3-3-1. He did indeed play in central midfield at this tournament (alongside Derrick Jones, and yes, I've still got some Derrick Jones stock), but this was mostly a scrappy, defensive, "hang on for dear life" US team. And when they met Venezuela in the quarterfinals, Yangel Herrera absolutely bossed Adams.
But still... quarterfinals! Lots of good, solid center backs and fullbacks, and even if Adams wasn't going to be the best d-mid in the world, he was still going to be an asset.
Sargent played up a cohort and was excellent. Jeremy Ebobisse was more than just useful at center forward. This team didn't play joga bonita, but they fought, and they advanced, and a quarterfinal showing is legit.
Anyway, Adams is clearly the best player to come from this group... so far. And I wouldn't put money on anyone catching or passing him. But it could very well happen, especially if Sargent starts banging in goals. Which he very well could.
Worth Remembering: They won the U-20 Concacaf Championship, the first time the US had won it outright. And they did all of the above without Pulisic or McKennie, both of whom were eligible for this team and neither of whom was released by their respective clubs.
2019 U-17 World Cup
Best Prospect: Gio Reyna (W), Borussia Dortmund
Best Player: TBD
They played fun, free-flowing, attractive soccer in the U-17 Concacaf Championship. Then they played ugly, selfish soccer at the World Cup itself and went out in the group stage. Reyna was particularly guilty of said selfishness, but if he keeps doing this for Dortmund I'll forgive him:
Here's the nature of youth development: This was a super-disappointing World Cup, but if Reyna and Ricardo Pepi both hit, nobody will care! If Reyna, Pepi and Gianluca Busio all hit, then holy hell this is good stuff! If Reyna, Pepi, Busio, Danny Leyva and George Bello or Kobe Hernandez-Foster all hit, then we're rollin'!
Despite the crappy performance, there were clearly a lot of high-level prospects on this team. Reyna, Pepi and Busio are all already, to one degree or another, contributors for good teams. Hopefully their growth will be linear.
Worth Remembering: If NYCFC had a USL side, I'd drop a couple of bucks on Tayvon Gray being the best player out of this group. He's smart, he's calm, he reads the game well and he plays hard. He's mostly been a right back – and that could end up being a very good spot for him – but when I watch him play I keep thinking "move him to the 6."
2019 U-20 World Cup
Best Prospect: Chris Richards (CB), Bayern Munich
Best Player: Dest
Look, I want to list Paxton Pomykal as the best player here, but I can't in good conscience put him over Dest, who was a starter most of the year for a Champions League team that was going to win the Eredivisie, and who is going to be sold to Bayern Munich for probably upwards of $20 million. Have a taste:
That said I still think Pomykal – a modern, skilled, super-athletic CM who can do just about everything on both sides of the ball – is going to be the best player from this cohort.
But if you'd asked the scouts a year ago in the wake of the tournament, Richards was clearly the best prospect. And even though he had a pretty "meh" year with Bayern's reserves, he might still be. Richards is both a gifted soccer player and a gifted athlete, and that's a pretty great combination at any position.
Anyway, this team was great. They played fast and fun soccer, and absolutely deserved their knockout round win over France.
Worth Remembering: Like the 2017 group, this team won the U-20 Concacaf Championship, thumping Mexico in the final. Alex Mendez was the star of that tournament, but he's mostly struggled for club and country – including at the World Cup itself – in the subsequent 18 months.
Still, all these players are young enough where a change of scenery, a change of mindset, a change of training habits or a few extra pounds of muscle (looking Richie Ledezma's way with that one) can make all the difference. Don't write any of them off just yet.
One more thing to consider
If you're forcing me to give one, overarching takeaway from this column, here you go: talent production, even for the best teams in the world, ebbs and flows. You need luck for it to hit, and a run of bad luck – injuries and bad club situations being the most obvious – can destroy what at first looked like a golden generation, or turn an average generation into a Lost Generation.
The best way to get more dice rolls is to build out infrastructure. That not only allows you better opportunity to identify and develop players like Pulisic, Adams and McKennie, but it allows you to survive when a player like Nick Taitague – considered by many to be a Pulisic-level attacking talent – sees his career derailed by injuries.
Or when an Andrew Carleton stagnates, an Alex Mendez steps up. And when an Alex Mendez hits the wall, Richie Ledezma steps in. And when a Richie Ledezma can't make the leap to first-team playmaker (yet – I'm still hopeful he will), Brenden Aaronson is there to make a case.
This kind of infrastructure hasn't existed before in the US. It does now, and it represents what should be a massive, long-term step forward.