The United States could qualify for another World Cup by the end of January, this one on the youth level, and coach Tab Ramos named a pro-heavy U.S. squad for the CONCACAF Under-20 Championship in Jamaica this month, with just three players having any college experience. Times have changed for the U.S. youth program, which now emphasizes getting players to the highest level as soon as possible.
“That's a strength. These are players who are completely dedicated to the sport — players who 100 percent of the time prepare,” Ramos said in a U.S. Soccer Q&A. “Overall, I feel this group is stronger than groups in the past from top to bottom.”
Earning the top spot in the group would ensure automatic qualification for the summer tournament, but even finishing as low as third could still send the U.S. to New Zealand.
The second- and third-placed teams will play each other based on group standing, with the winner of each one-off game also qualifying.
The U.S. bowed out in the group stage without a win in Turkey 2013 after failing to qualify for Colombia 2011. That broke a string of seven straight U-20 World Cup qualifications, and the U.S. also didn’t qualify for the 2012 Summer Olympics, marking a downturn for the U.S. youth.
The U.S. has tried to get back on track with more training camps and matches for both the U-20 and U-23 ages recently as part of technical director and senior men’s coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s renewed emphasis.
Klinsmann’s desire to see his players at the pro level has played into that, with just Conor Donovan (North Carolina State) and Shaquell Moore (unattached, but seeking opportunities in Europe) not playing professionally. Mexico's Club Tijuana placed four players on the squad (Paul Arriola, Amando Moreno, Fernando Arce and John Requejo), illustrating the Xolos’ continued scouring of the American youth market.
Here are five players to watch as the U.S. competes in the CONCACAF U-20 tournament, which kicks off on Friday:
Emerson Hyndman (M, Fulham)
Fulham released Hyndman to compete for the U-20s, while fellow senior-team newcomer Rubio Rubin remains at Utrecht.
Hyndman will serve as the team’s primary playmaker, and his experience at the first-team level and with more experienced national sides should allow his quality to shine through with players his own age.
He and Tottenham’s Cameron Carter-Vickers should play major roles with both the U-20s and the Olympic team.
“Sometimes, when you bring a player down from an older age group and have them play in their own age group, they don’t always react the right way,” Ramos said. “But I think these are two players that can be leaders, two players who are excited and two players who will help us be better.”
Tommy Thompson (F, San Jose Earthquakes)
Severely under-appreciated in an environment that values brute force over cleverness and technicality in San Jose, Thompson is one of MLS’s most underrated young players. He recovered well from a serious knee injury in 2013 to play an increasingly major role with the Earthquakes’ first team last season in a withdrawn-forward role.
Thompson stands just 5-foot-7, his slight frame certainly out of place in a league as direct and physical as MLS. However, his confidence on the ball and cleverness off it make him a frequent threat in the final third — and an easy candidate for a move abroad, perhaps pending a strong performance in Jamaica and New Zealand.
Junior Flores (M, Borussia Dortmund)
Flores is another young player gunning for a senior call-up off his strong play for Borussia Dortmund’s U-19 team. Both of his goals this season came in UEFA Youth League play, and he has featured in all but three league matches.
The 18-year-old finally moved to Europe in March 2014 after signing a four-year deal in 2012. He had to wait until he turned 18 due to FIFA regulations, but he continued to play with the U.S. residency program in Florida until he could fulfill his contract.
Zack Steffen (GK, Freiburg)
Spurning his final two seasons of college soccer at the University of Maryland, Steffen, a Philadelphia Union academy product, moved to struggling Bundesliga club Freiburg in early December. His athleticism makes him a top shot-stopper, but a move to Europe should ensure an improvement in his continuing tactical development.
Steffen has moved through the youth national team ranks from U-14 through the U-20s, and he remains a top option between the sticks for the Olympic team as well, along with Southampton’s Cody Cropper. The two of them and Bill Hamid comprise the wave of next-generation U.S. goalkeepers.
Kellyn Acosta (M, FC Dallas)
Part of FC Dallas’ Homegrown Player movement, Acosta was the youngest American player at the 2013 U-20 World Cup when he made the squad at 17. In two seasons of first-team action, Acosta established himself as one of the best young players in the league as he started 20 matches and made eight appearances off the bench.
“Kellyn is one of those guys that’s been involved with U.S. Soccer at every level, so he’s experienced it all,” Ramos said. “I think for us and for the future of our senior national team, it’s good to bring young players along and give them experiences so that hopefully, they can one day be 10- to-15-year national team players. In both Kellyn and Zack, we have two experienced players who I believe have a good future with the national team.”