Talking about the Under-20 World Cup

The USA Under-20 victory over France gave me some mixed, weird emotions. I was excited - anytime an American team wins, I'm happy about it - but also...something I can't put my finger on. There's something about the general discourse around the team that has created a weird churn in my stomach. 

A couple acknowledgements before we dig into it:

  1. I don't mind when people hype young players. Sports are about fun and entertainment, and getting excited about young talent is both fun and entertaining. 

  2. The teenage male players coming through the US might be better than than they were 15 years ago. This U20 group might be the best one ever. I am writing this because I think that decision needs to be made with more context than people are giving it.

Let's look at the time horizon of three straight Under 20 World Cups, since it’s relevant right now. The United States has qualified for three straight quarter finals, in 2015, 2017, and 2019. What does that mean in the arc of American soccer? Let's look back at 2003, 2005, and 2007 to compare.

The 2003, 2005, and 2007 Under-20 men's national teams all won their groups at the World Cup. In those tournaments they:

Beat: Paraguay, South Korea, Ivory Coast, Argentina,  Egypt, Poland, Brazil, Uruguay

Lost to: Germany, Argentina, Italy, Austria

Tied: Germany, South Korea

That's a collective 8-4-2 with wins over traditional powers Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay

The 2015 and 2019 teams got 2nd in their groups, while the 2017 team won the group. In those tournaments, they:

Beat: Myanmar, New Zealand x2, Colombia, Senegal, Nigeria, Qatar, France

Lost to: Ukraine x2, Venezuela

Tied: Serbia, Ecuador, Saudi Arabia.

That's a collective 8 - 3 - 3 with wins over traditional powers France and Colombia. 

It seems to me that when you look at the full body of work over the three cycles, and take away the idea that the team "made three straight quarter finals," which is inherent to the luck of tournament play, the bodies of work are pretty similar (if not more flattering to 2003-2007).*

The idea that recent Under-20 World Cup results make some sweeping statement about the state of soccer in the country is precarious. (Not to mention the question about whether Under-20 World Cup results matter at all.)

Where does the current gap in perception happen then? It seems to me that there are two things that play a huge role:

1) "Look at how many teenagers we have in Europe right now." Maybe the fact that more players on the current U20 team play in Europe than every before correlates to player quality. Maybe Alex Mendez, Richie Ledezma, and Sebastian Soto, who play for Freiburg, PSV, and Hannover respectively, are better than Benny Feilhaber, Sacha Klejstan, and Nathan Sturgis, who played at UCLA, Seton Hall, and Clemson heading into the World Cup. Or maybe the world is more globalized now. Maybe European teams spend more on scouting and people travel more. Does the number of players in Europe indicate a change in player quality or a change in the way the world works?

2) Social media. It's easier to both clip the best plays of a player and show the world, and collectively get excited about those plays. We see the tweet of Konrad de la Fuente beating someone on the dribble and everyone gets excited. In reality, Twitter also would have broken over Sal Zizzo, Kamani Hill, and Justin Mapp. It's easier now to see a player's brilliance and get swept away by that brilliance.

With all that said, do I think this current U20 is very good? Yes, I do. They've been a joy to watch. But I also remember watching the 2003, 2005, and 2007 teams and thinking the same thing.

Do I believe that this U20 group has an overall higher mean and median of quality; more so, do I think US men's soccer is moving in the right direction? I think the answer to both of those is yes (though I’m not 100% positive). 

But I also think people are a little ahead of themselves at the moment. It’s important that we have some perspective to what’s taking place and what it means.

What our U20 team is doing right now isn't new. Almost every tweet and comment I've seen about this group of players I could have cut and paste into guys from the 2003, 2005, and 2007 teams. Perhaps I’m protectionist over my generation of players; perhaps I’ve seen players hyped too often — but it also just feels wrong to act like we haven’t seen this before. I don’t mind when people note that the players are talented - American players have always been undervalued - but it’s the idea that the players now are undoubtedly more talented than the players before them that creates some weird feelings for me.

What are the parts that I’m excited excited about?

The *average* quality of 19 year old players across the country is higher. The pool is *deeper* than ever before. I’m not sure the 2019 starters beat the 2007 starters, but it seems clear that the 2019 B/C teams would beat the 2007 B/C teams. A single youth team’s results come down to the best 14 players, but the strength of a soccer nation comes down to the quantity of players over a certain quality threshold. We have more rolls of the dice in a very uncertain game than ever before.

On top of that, the pipeline for American teenagers is better than ever. While I could make the argument that the 2005 Under-20 men’s national team could beat the 2015 team, it’s nearly impossible to say the players who played in the 2005 tournament departed to better development situations than the players now. Being good at 18 isn’t nearly as important as getting high-level minutes at 18. 

Those are the talking points right now. They are positive things taking place. Saying that this team is better than teams before it and therefore making a declaration of American soccer is, to me, inaccurate and takes away from the ability to have the real conversations. It might not matter at all, or it might be the difference between making the World Cup and not. 

Be excited. Build hype. But keep context in it as well. 

*There’s something to be said about the trend of top players skipping the U20 World Cup recently - Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams, and Josh Sargent, specifically - and I’m not exactly sure how to factor that into the equation yet. I’m not sure if it’s evident of their quality of players or the lack of quality of the full team at the moment. Would any of them, at their current ability, be key figures in Bob Bradley’s 2007 full national team? I’m not sure it’s valid to say we’ve taken a step forward because we have players skipping the U20 World Cup; it might be an indignation more than anything else. But it could be fair to say that the U20s would have won these two World Cups, in which case the conversation could be different.