The young U-20 MNT squad from Mikey Varas will begin the 2023 World Cup on Saturday against the same opponent who ended their run four years earlier, when they face Ecuador in San Juan, Argentina.
Despite a rough run of final warm-up games against France, England and Serbia two months ago, this iteration of the American U-20 squad enters the tournament with high expectations on their shoulders.
Considering the wealth of experience that Varas has at his disposal, even with a few key players missing early on, such expectations can be considered reasonable, even if their road to a potential run in the knockout round isn’t without multiple points of peril.
The team can consider themselves lucky that their toughest opponent – Ecuador – was drawn as their first game in Group B, which will also be the overall opening game of the tournament. Even if they slip up out of the gates, this schedule will afford them the chance to secure one of the 16 spots in the knockout phase with strong followup performances against group punching bags Fiji and a weaker Slovakia team in their final two games.
Taken in a vacuum, one might be lured into seeing Ecuador as a likely win for the Americans, given that the architects of the South Americans’ successful run four years ago are all long graduated from this age group, and the current batch barely squeaked through CONMEBOL qualification earlier this year.
In that South American qualification tournament, the team barely grabbed the fourth and final spot thanks to a narrow win over Paraguay in the final game, although it was clear that there was a gulf of quality separating them from the top three of Brazil, Uruguay and Colombia.
However, the team that will suit up to face the young Americans on Saturday is a very different squad than that which struggled in February. For one, head coach Miguel Bravo was installed to guide the squad through the tournament, after having guided Independiente Juniors, the reserve team of Ecuadorian top-flight club Independiente del Valle, since 2022.
Furthermore, there are only six players carried over from that earlier squad into the final roster for this tournament, with a large number of additions who are either playing overseas, or gaining first-team experience in Ecuador.
The most notable of these is also one of the youngest players in the entire tournament, the 16 year-old midfield prospect Kendry Páez, who was just acquired by Chelsea for a fee rumored to be in excess of €20 million. Considered one of the top prospects in South America, this will be his first chance to shine on the international stage before his move to the Blues following his 18th birthday in 2025.
While having yet to feature with the Ecuador U20 squad, he has already been playing with Independiente de Valle’s first team, and will be one of the most watched prospects in the tournament.
Midfield is a strength for the Ecuadorians, as they will also feature Anderlecht player Nilson Angulo, who has been capped thrice with the senior national team, and has also featured on multiple occasions for his Belgian side.
In the attack, Independiente’s Justin Cuero will be the team’s main weapon, having scored four times in nine games for the U20 squad, despite having missed the qualification tournament. He also comes from the Independiente system, meaning that Bravo can be expected to utilize him heavily.
Also notable is midfielder Denil Castillo, a U20 regular who did help with their qualification campaign, and was acquired by Ukrainian’s Shakhtar Donetsk several weeks ago for a transfer in the coming summer window.
In all, Bravo has five players based overseas, several of which are in or around their respective first-team squads, the two aforementioned who have made agreements to move across the pond, and several more with limited first-team, top-flight domestic experience.
Still, in comparison, the established experience available to Varas will be a point of confidence for the team.
Amongst the 21 players named to the squad, four have already appeared for the senior USMNT – the most senior-capped players on any squad in this tournament – and most members of the team have already played as first-team professionals, many as experienced starters over multiple seasons.
Three likely starters are unavailable on Saturday for various reasons; San Jose forward Cade Cowell is still suspended due to penalty carried over from CONCACAF qualification tournament, while both Rokas Puktas and Kevin Paredes are only available beginning with the knockout round.
One key factor who is guaranteed to be in the starting XI is midfielder and team captain Daniel Edelman, who could be paired alongside Philly starter Jack McGlynn and Austin regular Owen Wolff. Continuing the thread of experience up to the front three, Darren Yapi, who has bounced between a sub and starting role at Colorado, could be flanked by Quinn Sullivan and defender/winger hybrid Caleb Wiley in an advanced role.
In goal, Chelsea prospect Gabriel Slonina will undoubtedly start, and is poised for a breakout tournament, which could help his search for a top loan destination during the summer transfer window.
The four defenders helping Slonina to thwart the Ecuadorian attack do present the most significant points of uncertainty. Likely right back starter Mauricio Cuevas had to be replaced during the final days of preparation by Michael Halliday due to an ankle injury, who has, as a result, had limited time to work with the team prior to kickoff.
Brandan Craig is a likely starter in central defense, and could be paired with either Hoffenheim reserve Justin Che or Louisville’s Joshua Wynder, although Che has been recently injured for his German club. Should Wiley be moved forward into the attack on the left wing, Real Sociedad’s Jonathan Gomez is a near-certain starter at left back.
The game kicks off at the Estadio San Juan del Bicentenario on Saturday at 3pm local time, 2pm Eastern time.