Are the Bundesliga and RSL the best USMNT academies of all?
by Kartik Krishnaiyer
Thanks to Thursday’s 6-0 win over New Zealand the United States has advanced to a quarterfinal matchup with high-flying Venezuela in the FIFA U-20 World Cup.
Historically the United States has tended to put more emphasis on youth tournament performances than most major soccer playing nations. For years performances in qualifying tournaments and under-20 and under-17 World Cups have been a standard that players, coaches and ultimately the entire US Soccer program is judged by. This is perhaps as unhealthy, but a reality of the sport in this country.
Youth tournaments have had high water marks in 1989, 1999, 2007 and 2015 that generally correlated to future success for the program. The dips in youth tournaments most notably in the 2009-2013 period where the US’ results resembled that of the mid 1980’s when the sport wasn’t even close to being developed in a professional manner throughout the country foretold the senior national team struggles between 2011 and 2016 when the national team underwhelmed in so many ways. American fans and pundits have become obsessed with the exploits of certain players and coaches because of U-17 and U-20 success, again a phenomenon which isn’t ingrained in the rest of the world’s football experience – but might owe itself to the weakness of the club game here.
This particular US U-20 team is one of the most talented ever. With several players already plying their trade abroad and others having come through MLS Academies or USL clubs, the growth of infrastructure for the sport thanks to the financial investment of the USSF and the pro leagues, MLS and USL is paying off. Additionally, this pool of players has more guys that have come through youth academies or youth squads of big European clubs than any US team in memory.
That includes the trio of Americans at Schalke 04 of the Bundesliga not released for this tournament. One of those players, Weston McKennie has already worked his way into the first team of Bundesliga giants at the age of 18. McKennie made his Bundesliga debut last week for the Gelsenkirchen-based club. Next season, it is expected that Haji Wright who spent one year with the New York Cosmos, mostly featuring with the club’s reserve side in NPSL will get a first team opportunity.
Down the road about 25 miles in Dortmund, Christian Pulisic has become a first team stalwart with one of Europe’s best attacking sides – Borussia Dortmund. Pulisic also 18 has been so effective that he was long ago promoted to the Senior National Team and is effectively out of the youth national team selection permanently. Pulisic has the quality to become a global superstar – the first ever produced by the US, but it is important that his development continue without the pressures of having to save a struggling senior national side from itself.
The big revelation of the tournament for the US isn’t a player who has come from MLS or USL. He isn’t a player that went to Europe at a young age and featured in youth squad of a big continental powerhouse. Josh Sargent, scorer of four goals in four matches for the USA is from the vaunted youth club St Louis Scott Gallagher. Sargent is just 17 and had never played at the U-20 level before this tournament. But US Manager Tab Ramos felt he needed an instinctive scorer, and Sargent’s U-17 record of success was similar to that of Pulisic. After starring at the CONCACAF U-17 tournament in Panama earlier this year, Ramos decided he needed to have Sargent jump an age group – it was an inspired decision as the young man scored three times in the Group Stage and added the first in the 6-0 rout of New Zealand. Sargent now sits atop the single-tournament US U-20 World Cup scoring lists in a tie with Taylor Twellman (1999) and Jozy Altidore (2007).
Similarly effective going forward have been a duo of Real Salt Lake players – Luca de la Torre whose stoppage time goal against Ecuador rescued the US in the very first match of the competition and Brooks Lennon whose crosses and finding of space in midfield have given the US a trio of lethal attacking players when Sargent is factored in. Sargent has grabbed the headlines but a case could be made that any of three has been the player of the tournament thus far for the US. Lennon is on loan from Liverpool who he joined in 2015 when he turned 18, but realistically is unlikely to ever break into the first team there.
Cameron Carter-Vickers has repeatedly made the bench of Spurs this season, but his opportunities have been limited since Tottenham has one of the best centre back duos in Europe. Carter-Vickers return to the US U-20 team following Spurs 7-1 win over Hull City to close out the Premier League season. Carter-Vickers missed the first group stage game, a defensive nightmare in which the US escaped with a fortunate 3-3 draw against Ecuador. But the US captain’s presence for the second group stage match a 1-0 win over Senegal made all the difference as the defense looked poised and in control of the match.
Carter-Vickers returns for the quarterfinal match after his suspension as will Derrick Jones whose play in the group stage helped the US keep a steady balance in midfield. Jones was the first ever signing of Bethlehem Steel in USL on loan from parent club Philadelphia Union whose system he came through. He has had a tournament reminiscent of Dax McCarthy’s in 2007. In that year’s U-20’s McCarty then of FC Dallas was overshadowed by much bigger names on the US team but was the glue that held the side together. Jones has shown a similar character in this tournament.
Tab Ramos’ side is well-balanced and poised to keep going in this tournament. The next generation of US stars is growing up right now, not just in South Korea but in Gelsenkirchen and Dortmund as well.