Since we at YA wrote about the recently completed games of the Revelations Cup taking place in Celaya, Mexico, we thought it would be a good idea to take a quick look at what, if anything we can take out of the performance.
First it’s useful to have some preliminary comments about the overall context of the team’s targets in the next few years. At this point, the focus of U-20 team development is twofold: preparation for next summer’s CONCACAF U-20 Championship in the Dominican Republic, and, pending a top-four finish there, building up to the 2023 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Indonesia.
Most likely due to scheduling disruptions for youth teams brought on by the global Covid-19 crisis, next summer’s CONCACAF Championship will also be the qualifying tournament for the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris, however we won’t worry about that primarily U-23 tournament now.
Therefore, the player selections that Mikey Varas made for the Revelations Cup, his player selections moving forward, and also the general outlook provided by the team’s performances should be viewed strictly with the 2023 tournament in Indonesia as the primary goal.
For selections, this has limited Varas to focusing on players who, according to official FIFA and CONCACAF regulations for the two tournaments (trust me, I looked), were born on January 1, 2003 or afterwards. This excludes several of the youngest senior USMNT players who fans might have had some hope would be available for the final tournament in 2023.
- Joe Scally, Born on Dec. 31 2002, is one day too old. One day.
- Current USMNT starter Yunus Musah is just over a month too old.
- Giovanni Reyna misses the cut by a little more than two months.
- Gianluca Busio is about half a year too old.
These guys are out for the 2023 tournament, so any complaining over why they don’t get the call next summer for the CONCACAF tournament, or fretting over whether their clubs will release them in 2023 can be put to rest. They can’t play.
In fact, the only senior-team youngster who’s been a regular call-up for the recent qualifiers is Ricardo Pepi. There is of course no guarantee that whichever team he’s playing for in 2023 (this YA writer is rooting for it to be a team in Italy!) will release young Pepi for the tournament, but technically he’s in the mix, even if only by eight days.
So let’s get back to the main point: what about the Revelations Cup performance?
Sure, the last-place finish by the team was a disappointment. Even throwing out the 4-0 loss to Brazil, which to be fair saw a coach who was hired only five days before the game, playing with a team that had gathered at most three days before the game, the overall performance was underwhelming.
However, to be fair, the U-20 team has been an afterthought for the USSF for the last 22 months due to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, and the opponents – Mexico, Brazil and Colombia – are no pushovers. Many words could be written to lambast US Soccer for utterly neglecting the youth teams during the last 22 month, but I’ll limit it to one sentence then move on.
We understand that games have been hard to schedule in the recent situation, but this all felt similar to studying a semester’s worth of material for my elective sociology course, that I attended once or twice (generously), in the final three days before the exam during my last semester before graduation.
Procrastination is easy in a pandemic, but it still sucks.
(sorry, that was two sentences)
Is Mikey Varas the right guy to lead this team through qualification in the Dominican Republic and to the final tournament in Indonesia? He has great background qualifications as developer of youth talent at FC Dallas (which spawned Pepi, Tanner Tessmann, Dante Sealy and Jesús Ferreira, amongst others) and hasn’t done anything wrong during his first two-plus weeks on the job, so I’d even venture to say that this is as much of a slam dunk as the USSF could have managed with or without their procrastination. The jury is out until next summer.
The team performances were not strong. Against both Colombia and Mexico, they dropped points they had in their hands, allowing Colombia to draw in the final seconds, and also conceding a winner after having pulled even.
The Colombia result was the worse of the two, as the equalizer occurred in the last action of the game, and followed a wholly unnecessary red card by Quinn Sullivan that left the team shorthanded. The loss to Mexico was simply a matter of the stronger team finding a winner.
Still, had they even held on to only the victory against Colombia, they would have finished on a much more encouraging four points, albeit still only up to third place (where they also would have been had the draw with Mexico stood in combination with a Colombia win). Closing out tight games is something that will have to be instilled in future iterations of this squad by Varas.
Individually, there are some real reasons for optimism. This is by no means an exhaustive player-by-player or positional analysis of the squad, just a few things that caught my eye.
Most notably, it’s clear that Caden Clark, currently in New York, but soon moving to RB Leipzig (perhaps with an immediate loan to Salzburg for a better chance at playing time) is the maestro of the team. His diminishing role with RBNY this season had been a reason for concern, but his work in bamboozling defenders to get forward and overall ability to dictate the attack means he will likely be a key catalyst of whatever this team manages between now and summer 2023. His skill on the ball might even be wasted in a low-touch position like forward, so it will be interesting to see how Varas and the coach of whichever team he plays for in the Red Bull system develops him in the coming months.
Cade Cowell, who can already be considered a veteran with 50 first-team appearances for San Jose in MLS, is also a leading figure. He showed his full quality against Mexico, being responsible for all but the last kick on the team’s lone goal, and generally being a nuisance for the Mexicans. He’s physically a beast on the field, has the instinct to match, and is developing one of the finest hair-games of any player in the US system.
Fashion notes aside, Cowell could become what we’re all disappointed Josh Sargent didn’t become.
It would be irresponsible to mention Clark and Cowell on the attack while the ignoring goalscorer against Mexico, Diego Luna. Luna is a short, bulky, scrappy attacking midfielder playing for a USL club in El Paso, who should be a hot commodity for MLS clubs in the upcoming off-season. He’s not a graceful performer that will have in-game commentators composing poetry about his movement and skills, but he proved he can get the job done at this level, and will only grow in 2022 and 2023 against better competition than what USL provides.
Paxten Aaronson looked promising as a midfield presence, but this is already expected considering his shared genetics with his older brother Brenden. The younger Aaronson is skillful, showed he has a good sense of the game, and will be an important piece for Varas moving forward.
Sullivan’s red card against Colombia, which frankly played a major role in costing the win, was a pointless mistake, but in all fairness a harsh call by the referee. A yellow would have been equally as justified, if not moreso. In any case, this isn’t a permanent mark on the midfielder’s record.
Without pointing out any players, the defense needs a lot of work. They didn’t look organized under pressure, they lost points on the board against Colombia and Mexico as already described earlier, and showed no sign of being a cohesive unit. This aspect was the biggest victim of the short preparation time, so subsequent camps, with more days allowed to gain chemistry on the practice field, will provide a better baseline about whether this is an inherent issue with this bunch or an early glitch.
Both keepers who played – Chicago Fire phenom Gabriel Slonina and Fulham’s Alexander Borto – put in solid performances. Borto was, in retrospect, slightly mispositioned on the last-second Colombia equalizing goal, but also made a spectacular fingertip deflection early in the game. Even ignoring the Brazil debacle, Slonina did give up more goals than Borto and was tricked off his line on the winning Mexico goal, but made several quality stops.
Likely, Slonina’s increased chances for competitive, first-team games with Chicago will win out in the long run, however it won’t be for any lack of competition from Borto.
What about the Yanks Abroad who were called up for the tournament? After all, that’s the main topic and namesake of this site. Borto and future YA Clark were already covered above, which leaves attackers Dante Sealy and Malick Sanogo. To put it simply, neither had much of a impact, and were easily outshined by Clark and Cowell as the main attacking leaders, so we’ll have to wait until a less last-second U-20 camp to see their quality.
All in all, the Revelations Cup showed that US Soccer is just as good at procrastinating as a last-semester college student finishing elective courses, that the U-20 team has some promising talents but still needs a ton of work, and that, by and large, MLS will be the day-to-day training ground for the squad pushing for success in the upcoming U-20 tournaments.
With the CONCACAF U-20 Championship only a few months away, we will hopefully have several more opportunities to see the evolving team from Mikey Varas throughout the winter and spring. As of the publishing of this article, there has been no official announcement by US Soccer about upcoming gatherings. I’m looking to December as the next possibility, either concurrently with the senior USMNT camp or, Varas somehow joining up with Berhalter for a MLS-heavy squad featuring a number of the current U-20 players.