When the United States walks out of the tunnel and onto the pitch at Bielsko-Biała Stadium in southern Poland Friday for its first match of the FIFA U-20 World Cup, it does with massive expectations.
Head coach Tab Ramos, in his fourth cycle with the U-20s, has never had a more experienced group. Each of the 21 rostered players are professionals, which wasn’t true even two years ago when the US topped Group F and defeated New Zealand in the Round of 16 before losing to Venezuela in the quarterfinals.
“I think we have the best team we’ve had, we have the most talent we’ve had,” Ramos said at at roundtable discussion with reporters in lower Manhattan earlier this month.
It’s also in stark contrast to when Tony Meola played in what was then the FIFA World Youth Championship in Chile in 1987.
Men against boys
Meola was just entering his freshman year at the University of Virginia, where Jeff Agoos played. Kasey Keller was with Federal Way Force, Michael Constantino competed for the Brooklyn Italians and Lucas Martin was with the San Diego Nomads.
One of their group stage opponents — West Germany — had players from Bayern Munich, Eintracht Frankfurt, Hannover 96 and Bayer Leverkusen. All of Berti Vogts’ players were professionals. Every one of Derek Armstrong’s US squad were not.
It was the same age group, but it was very much men against boys. West Germany reached the final, falling on penalty kicks to Yugoslavia, which featured future legends Zvonimir Boban and Davor Suker, among others. The US lost to Bulgaria and West Germany, albeit in a pair of one-goal defeats, and beat Saudi Arabia, 1-0, to finish third in Group D.
“It was obviously completely different back then,” Meola told Pro Soccer USA. “The scouting was different, the club setup was completely different and quite honestly I don’t know how US Soccer and the coaches did it. I don’t know how they found players, I don’t know how they picked players.”
Player identification then, long before Twitter and YouTube highlights, consisted of regional teams playing each other in Colorado Springs in front of the US Soccer coaches.
“Who knows how many players you missed,” he said. “It’s really hard to say because we didn’t have social media, you weren’t seeing videos, you weren’t hearing about players. I can’t imagine what it was like for Derek Armstrong who was out of San Diego and Stevie Heighway, who was the Liverpool great, to pick players.”
Clearly, soccer development in the United States, from the youth level to the pros, is lightyears ahead of where it was 32 years ago. But Meola also sees a parallel.
His squad, though extremely green, formed the nucleus of the senior national team that qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 40 years in 1990. What followed was the 1994 World Cup in the United States, which, in turn, helped kickstart Major League Soccer.
Ironically, ground zero for that international soccer birth and the current rebirth of the senior national team was Trinidad & Tobago. Success in 1989 and despair in 2017.
“It’s kind of where we’re at right now,” Meola said. “Obviously, the game has changed, but as far as the cycle goes that’s where we’re at. We’re starting now with getting to the World Cup again.”
Next generation = new hope
While American soccer fans have largely soured on veterans who failed to qualify for a World Cup for the first time in 28 years, they have embraced the young starlets who have stepped on the field in the ashes of the aftermath. Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie and Josh Sargent are all part of the next generation who give those same fans hope.
The same is true of this U-20 squad.
Fair or not, these players carry the weight of expectations, current and future, on their shoulders every time they step on the field in Poland.
“You have essentially the whole country riding with you so there’s that pressure there,” defender Mark McKenzie told Pro Soccer USA in a phone interview from Poland Thursday. “But we’re over here on a mission and we’re here together as a group of 21 guys trying to put together good, collective performances in order to make a run for the trophy.”
McKenzie, the team’s captain, is a regular starter for the Philadelphia Union in central defense. He is one of 10 MLS players on the roster. McKenzie, along with the FC Dallas midfield duo of Paxton Pomykal and Edwin Cerrillo, LA Galaxy fullback Julian Araujo and D.C. United’s midfielder Chris Durkin, are regular starters for their club teams.
“When I look at MLS and how far that has come along, and that there are younger players playing and players in this pool that are actually playing for MLS teams or abroad, it says a lot about the state of soccer in the United States at the moment,” USMNT general manager Earnie Stewart told Pro Soccer USA in a phone interview from Poland. “It’s taken a leap from 1996 when the league started.”
There’s also Tim Weah, who scored four goals in 16 appearances with Scottish giants Celtic in a loan spell from Paris Saint-Germain, where he regularly trained with Kylian Mbappe, Neymar and Edinson Cavani.
And Sebastian Soto made his Bundesliga debut for Hannover 96 last month as a substitute against Wolfsburg.
“Players are becoming more and more competitive, and players are now fighting for time on their first teams, which is, I think, a great place to be and where we want it to be,” Ramos said.
Academy growth key
Of the 21 players on the roster, all but two played at least one season in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy and nine came up through their MLS academy sides, including McKenzie.
“Being in a professional environment, there’s really nothing like it,” he said. “To see things from a professional perspective, it gives you a different vantage point on how things are done, especially now when you get to this level and we’re at the U-20 World Cup where most of these guys at the top international teams are professionals at the top clubs in the different leagues.”
The investment MLS teams have made in their academies, according to Ramos, is a game-changer in youth national team development.
“You have to think if you’re an MLS team, and you’re investing millions of dollars in your academy, you want your investment to come into the first team that’s saving you money from buying players from somewhere else,” Ramos said. “So there’s a return on the investment there. And I think that’s part of the reason there’s the players are trained better, or in better environments.”
Added Stewart: “Even though the academies in the United States do not have the longest existence, I think you can truly see the new player coming out.”
Ramos said he struggled with his squad’s selection more than ever before. But the team that he’s assembled has a multitude of players who are comfortable on the ball, who can not only possess the ball, but also possess with a purpose, who can play the killer ball forward, who are willing to take on players one-v-one.
When Ramos was at this level, he was known as the guy who had those qualities. At 15, he scored twice to help the US qualify for the 1983 FIFA U-20 World Cup.
“Then we just didn’t have a lot of possession players, we had a really tough time keeping the ball. We just kind of got behind the ball and tried to counter a little bit because we couldn’t keep it,” Ramos said. “And now, I mentioned Frankie Amaya, but I could have said Chris Cappis or I could have said Brandon Aaronson. All these guys can keep the ball at the highest level. And then we have probably 100 guys under them who can keep the ball in possession.”
“I think we still could use more of those players,” Ramos added. “But in terms of possession, we’re in a completely different world. … We didn’t have that 25 years ago.”
McKenzie said the goal in Poland is to impose their will on teams, not the opposite. They will step on the field with a “humble swagger,” unwilling to bow down or “conforming” to other teams.
“We still have a lot to prove, we understand that as well, but we also know we have quality and we’re confident with what we’re doing,” McKenzie said. “We want to put on a show and prove that we can play football too in America.”
Success now, success later
The U-20 World Cup ends on June 15 with the final played at Stadion Widzewa in Łódź. Success for the US in the tournament is clear. It’s based on wins and losses and advancement out of the group stage and deep into the knockout stage.
But what will it mean beyond the three weeks in Poland? Will it translate to the senior national team?
“I think it’s not a big secret when you do well with the U-20s and the Olympic team, that gets really close to what the men’s national team is about,” Stewart said. “And if you have success at that level, you are playing against counterparts that you’re going to meet in four or five years from now at maybe even bigger tournaments. Doing well in these situations is definitely a stepping stone.
“The experiences that these players are going to take away from this tournament are very important for us because progress every single day on the training field, but also in games, is going to help them make that step to hopefully that senior men’s national team.”