The United States has just over a week to complete its 2015 Under-20 World Cup roster, most of which head coach Tab Ramos announced Thursday. He named 20 of his 21-player group, leaving the door open for Arsenal midfielder Gedion Zelalem, should he be cleared in time by FIFA.
The complete squad must be submitted by May 15, and Zelalem has been waiting for FIFA clearance since obtaining American citizenship and filing for eligibility in late December 2014 to represent the country where he spent some of his formative years.
“We’re leaving a little window here, a few more days, in case something can be worked out,” Ramos said in a conference call with media on Thursday. “I don’t know the specifics of the paperwork. Obviously, we’ve seen Gedion play a little bit, and we believe that he can help the team.”
Ramos risks little by leaving a spot open for Zelalem. If he receives clearance within a week, he goes to New Zealand; if not, Ramos can call another attacking player, such as the Philadelphia Union's Zach Pfeffer.
Pfeffer is one of several players who made the U.S.’s last roster, for friendlies against Qatar and Croatia in late April, but did not make the World Cup team. That list also includes Borussia Dortmund midfielder Junior Flores and the Seattle Sounders' Cristian Roldan, who are also in line for the final roster spot if Zelalem remains unavailable for selection or if others have to miss out through injury.
“If it doesn’t happen, we have Zach Pfeffer, who’s ready to go. I’ve already spoken with him,” Ramos said. “We are prepared to make that call as well.”
Of the players who did make the team, only 11 played in the 2015 CONCACAF U-20 Championship, which doubled as World Cup qualifying. The team opened the tournament with a 1-1 draw against Guatemala and a 1-0 loss to Panama, followed by four straight wins to qualify via a must-win match against El Salvador.
Tottenham Hotspur center back Cameron Carter-Vickers is the youngest player on the squad at 17 years old—and he played every minute in qualifying—while Kellyn Acosta and Zack Steffen will play in their second U-20 World Cups.
“We have a number of combinations that we can use on defense,” Ramos said. “Cameron Vickers, obviously, is our youngest player, but yet he plays like a veteran. I have no concerns there at all.”
Steffen, who left University of Maryland early to join Freiburg in the Bundesliga, will start in goal for the U.S. He’s one of the youngest on a shortlist of prospects that coaches are hoping will pan out to replace the ageing senior corps.
His top backup, Ethan Horvath, preceded him in signing for a European club when he joined Molde FK in Norway in 2013. However, Steffen has played all but one match when both of them are present on a roster, with Horvath keeping a shutout in the U.S.’s 8-0 win over Aruba in qualifying.
The roster is also littered with MLS prospects, particularly in the attack.
“The thought right now is to be playing in a 4-4-2,” Ramos said. “It depends on the players sometimes. … According to the opponents, there may be situations where we will have to go into a 4-3-3 because that might be better for us.”
With his selection, Jordan Allen completes his comeback from a season-ending knee injury in his first season as a professional in 2014. He is listed as a forward, though he plays primarily in midfield for Real Salt Lake.
He came up against Bradford Jamieson IV one night prior to the roster announcement, as RSL and the LA Galaxy played out a scoreless draw on Wednesday. It’s somewhat unusual to see two young Americans with such an impact, but they both played pivotal roles in their teams’ attacking movements.
“We’ve been fortunate enough with the national team now that, as far as our attacking options, we can select whatever players are in best form at this particular moment,” Ramos said. “This is a message that we’ve given our youth players all along.”
On the other hand, Tommy Thompson has received limited playing time for the San Jose Earthquakes in 2015, but he’s an easy selection for the U-20s. One of the most creative and technical players in the pool, Thompson will be a focal point of the U.S. attack in New Zealand.
“Tommy Thompson can fit into a number of different positions,” Ramos said. “He finds space all over the field, so he can play wide on either side of a 4-4-2, and he could also play up front.”
He is the U.S.’s most experienced player at this level along with Club Tijuana fullback John Requejo, both having earned 16 caps prior to the World Cup. Requejo’s teammate and former Galaxy academy winger Paul Arriola also made Ramos’ list.
Arriola and FC Dallas's Acosta comprise the U.S.’s natural wingers on the roster. Acosta can also play fullback, as he showed when he began the 2014 season as Dallas’ starting right back.
One player who skipped MLS but already has three senior caps is forward Rubio Rubín, whom Utrecht had earmarked for a contract before he even turned 18. Add in U.S.-born Maki Tall, who has also played for the Ivory Coast and France at the youth level, and the American attack oozes explosive potential.
“Although in qualifying, we created a lot of chances and we had more shots than any team in qualifying, we didn’t convert,” Ramos said. “I think we have to be a lot more clinic and be able to put our chances away in the World Cup because certainly, there aren’t going to be as many chances.”
Defensively, a number of less-experienced players will have a chance to prove their worth against their own age group. Improving performances in league play point to New York Red Bulls center back Matt Miazga as the back line’s most obvious leader.
He’s started all but the first game of the season for the Red Bulls, when he came on as a substitute for an injured Ronald Zubar. Since then, Miazga played an important role in the Red Bulls’ one-loss season, as its seven-game unbeaten run to open 2015 just ended with a loss to the New England Revolution last Saturday.
“In qualifying, I was very happy with the way we played defensively,” Ramos said. “The team did very well in terms of limiting opportunities for other teams. We were solid at the end of the tournament … and we ended up with four shutouts in a row.”
Finally, Fulham midfielder Emerson Hyndman will be tasked with linking defense and attack as the team’s best passer. He also has a senior cap to his name, as well as nine first-team appearances in the English Championship, although none have come since the New Year.
The U.S. kicks off the World Cup at the end of the month, taking on a group that includes Myanmar, host New Zealand and Ukraine.
The matches will take place in the early hours of the morning in the U.S., with the opener at midnight ET May 30 and the next two at 3 a.m. on June 2 and 5.
The Americans did not win a game two years ago in Turkey, although this group is considerably easier than facing Spain, eventual champion France and eventual third-place team Ghana. Beyond playing for their country, the U.S. players will be aiming to use the U-20 World Cup as a career jumping-off point, as DeAndre Yedlin did in 2013.
“I think the participation of a player in the U-20 World Cup and being in U-20 camps prepares them to go to the first team a little bit better,” Ramos said. “Results are very important, but also what’s important is that we advance players to our first team.”
U.S. U-20 World Cup Roster (one spot remains)
GOALKEEPERS: Jeff Caldwell (University of Virginia), Ethan Horvath (Molde FK), Zack Steffen (SC Freiburg)
DEFENDERS: Cameron Carter-Vickers (Tottenham Hotspur), Matt Miazga (New York Red Bulls), Shaquell Moore (Unattached), Erik Palmer-Brown (Sporting Kansas City), Desevio Payne (FC Groningen), John Requejo (Club Tijuana)
MIDFIELDERS: Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Paul Arriola (Club Tijuana), Russell Canouse (Hoffenheim), Marco Delgado (Toronto FC), Emerson Hyndman (Fulham), Joel Soñora (CA Boca Juniors)
FORWARDS: Jordan Allen (Real Salt Lake), Bradford Jamieson IV (LA Galaxy), Rubio Rubin (Utrecht), Maki Tall (Red Star), Tommy Thompson (San Jose Earthquakes)