U-20 World Cup: 5 players that can shine for USA in Argentina

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The U.S. U-20 National Team kicks off the FIFA U-20 World Cup on Saturday with a group-stage opener against Ecuador, (2 p.m. ET, FOX Soccer Plus). Matches against Fiji and Slovakia will follow later this month. And despite the absence of several age-eligible players, including senior team striker Ricardo Pepi, coach Mikey Varas and his players fancy their chances of making a deep run in Argentina.

“If your expectations are not to try to win it, I think that’s the wrong mindset,” Varas told reporters on a Zoom call Friday. “Our first definite goal is to get out of the group stage. And to do that, we have to start collecting points.

“We’re here,” he added, “to win.”

The U.S. has never won the U20 World Cup. At the same time, the Americans have every reason to believe that they can return to the biennial event from 2019 on their first trip. (The 2021 edition was canceled due to the global COVID-19 pandemic). While only a handful of traditional powers have captured the senior World Cup, this tournament is different. Ukraine won it all last time. Ghana, Serbia and Mexico are among the other recent champions.

And while Pepi is missing, an established senior team could start the USMNT in next month’s CONCACAF Nations League semifinal against Mexico, along with several players who were not released for the tournament for his club teams, Varas has a surprisingly experienced team. Four members of the coach’s 21-man squad have already played for the United States at the senior level, more than any other team in the 24-nation field.

Furthermore, many participants had even less luck in gathering a full-strength cohort; France, the 2013 champions, rejected no less than 28 requests for release. For those who got the go-ahead, the trip could prove priceless. Future superstars, from Diego Maradona to Lionel Messi and Erling Haaland, have starred in previous editions. For most others, the U20 World Cup is their only chance to represent their homeland on the world stage.

“This is an incredible development opportunity,” Varas said. “But part of that development equation is finding ways to win.”

With that in mind, here are five American players to keep an eye on when the action begins:

Come in: Cade Cowell, Earthquakes of Sant Josep

With 92 MLS appearances and 44 starts, including 11 for the Quakes in 2023, the physical winger has plenty of experience. He has already won three international caps for the US men and was the USMNT’s most dangerous attacking player in January’s 2-1 loss to Serbia. He also started last month’s 1-1 draw with Mexico.

Cowell is suspended for the Ecuador match for his role in a post-match altercation following a qualifier against Costa Rica, but Varas will lean heavily on the Californian when he returns.

Midfielder: Daniel Edelman, New York Red Bulls

A tough defensive midfielder, Edelman has emerged as a starter for the Red Bulls this season. The American captain arrived in Argentina on the back of perhaps his two best performances as a professional: last week’s 1-0 derby against New York City FC and another against DC United in the US Open Cup. Edelman logged 90 minutes in both 1-0 wins.

“I feel like I’m in great shape right now,” he said on the eve of Saturday’s opener. “Coming into this camp after these two games, I feel like I’m flying.”

Midfielder: Jack McGlynn, Philadelphia Union

With former Union teammate Paxten Aaronson denied a call-up by German club Eintracht Frankfurt, the left-handed McGlynn will be counted on to play in the middle of the pitch between Edelman and projected starting striker Darren Yapi.

“Philly presses, so he’s very comfortable because we tend to attack a little bit with longer possessions,” Varas said of McGlynn, who has made eight consecutive starts in all competitions for the 2022 MLS Cup runner-up, including both legs of 2023. CONCACAF Champions League semi-final against LAFC. “He’s an incredible player, he’s able to adapt and do what the coach needs.”

Porter: Gabriel “Gaga” Slonina, Chelsea (England)

It’s rare for a teenager to start every week at club level. For a goalie it’s almost unheard of. However, the 6’4″ Slonina, who turned 19 on Monday, did it last season with the Chicago Fire. English titan Chelsea bought him for a transfer fee of $10 million, and still who is still a long way from being the blue number 1, these performances will be invaluable in Argentina.

“He’s one of the best professionals I’ve ever met,” Varas said of Slonina, who was outstanding in his USMNT debut earlier this year. “Having played so many games with the Chicago Fire gives him experience in terms of more pressure moments that the group will definitely benefit from.”

Defensive midfielder: Caleb Wiley, Atlanta United

Still only 18, Wiley won his first senior cap last month and has been a breakout star for his club this season, with three goals and two assists in 12 MLS games (11 starts). Those attacks will come in handy with fellow winger and winger Kevin Paredes not expected to arrive from Germany’s Wolfsburg until the knockout stage.

“We see what he’s doing with this club right now in Atlanta,” Edelman said. “Being able to play left back, or left back, or honestly wherever we need him, he’s just a guy who shows his leadership by example and talking on the field.

“Maybe we’re short because we don’t have some of the guys, or some of the guys that come later,” Edelman continued. “But we’re very confident in what we have here.”

Doug McIntyre is a football writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a writer for ESPN and Yahoo Sports, and has covered the US men’s and women’s national teams at several FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter at @ByDougMcIntyre.

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