Next wave of U.S. stars will pay their dues in Under-20 World Cup qualifying
The United States under-20 men's national team kicks off qualifying for this spring's FIFA U20 World Cup at the CONCACAF U-20 Championship on Saturday, and while the Americans hope to make the main event in South Korea without too much trouble, there are plenty of reasons why domestic fans should care.
For one, the U.S. has never won a CONCACAF Championship.
Only three countries -- including Brazil and Spain -- have more U-20 World Cup appearances than the Americans' 14. Yet rather amazingly, the U.S., which at the senior level has topped CONCACAF for the past three World Cup cycles, has never won a regional U-20 title. (The confederation didn't actually crown a champion between 1998 and 2007, but even Canada has two wins.)
The U.S. enters the 2017 event in Costa Rica as one of the favorites. Tab Ramos' team opens against a tricky Panama side on Saturday afternoon. Los Canaleros beat the U.S. two years ago, denying it a spot in the final. But a defeat this time wouldn't be fatal, unless the U.S. also slips up against what should be two overmatched foes in Haiti and St. Kitts and Nevis. A top-half first-round finish is all Ramos' side needs to get to the classification stage, where it would only have to avoid finishing last in a three-team group to advance to South Korea.
But the main reason to watch the kids, of course, is to see future senior national team players on display.
Most of the all-time best American players came through the U-20 ranks, including current roster locks like Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard. And you never know when the next blue-chipper will break out.
In 2013, DeAndre Yedlin didn't make Ramos' team for qualifying, but he went on to start in Turkey a few months later. The following year, Yedlin played an important role for the varsity squad as it advanced to the second round of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. And while his case is an outlier, it's worth nothing that four of the players who led the U-20s to the World Cup quarterfinals in New Zealand two years ago -- Paul Arriola, Kellyn Acosta, Emerson Hyndman and Matt Miazga -- have since received caps at senior level.
The Americans won't have access to all of their best talent for this CONCACAF championship, though. At 18, Christian Pulisic is an established U.S. senior team member and needed by Champions League knockout-stage participants Borussia Dortmund.
German-born Bayern Munich prospect Timothy Tillman has so far turned down Ramos' advances, and other Europe-based players like Tottenham's Cameron Carter-Vickers, VVV-Venlo's Gedion Zelalem, Fiorentina's Josh Perez and Schalke duo Weston McKinney and Nick Taitague were similarly unavailable with their clubs in-season.
"These are all guys that we were hoping to count on," Ramos told reporters on Thursday via conference call from Costa Rica, which is hosting the competition. "Obviously, it's difficult at this moment."
That's not a slight on the players who are there.
Sporting Kansas City defender Erik Palmer-Brown, once a target of Serie A giants Juventus, is the captain and headliner. The 2015 U-20 World Cup vet is coming off a successful year-long loan with Porto B, which he helped win the Portuguese second-tier title last season.
"Last cycle he had both Matt Miazga and Cameron Carter-Vickers there, who are both top-class center-backs, so he had to take a back seat to them," said Ramos, adding that the imposing Palmer-Brown could also be used in midfield over the next few weeks. "He's become a leader not just on the field, but now his maturity off the field has helped the team a lot."
New York Red Bulls midfielder Tyler Adams is the second-youngest player on the roster, having just turned 18 on Feb. 14. But he's been among the training-camp standouts by all accounts.
And well-regarded University of California goalkeeper Jonathan Klinsmann, the son of former U.S. coach and World Cup-winning Germany international striker Jurgen, will backstop the Yanks in Costa Rica.
Ramos, who took over from Thomas Rongen in 2011 when the U.S. last failed to qualify, thinks his current side has enough experience and quality to make a third straight World Cup trip on his watch.
"I'm very confident that this group is as good as either one of the other cycles," Ramos said.
That's high praise considering that his 2015 squad was eliminated by eventual champion Serbia on penalties. Can this team, with a little luck, make noise at the main event, too?
"We have tremendously talented players skill-wise, but we also have a physical component," said Ramos. "That's really important for -- hopefully, after we get through here -- to compete with some of the best teams in the world."
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.