Where Do the U-20 World Cup Players Go Next?

The US Under-20 team lost to Ecuador in the quarterfinal of the U-20 World Cup on Saturday. The Baby Yanks put up a decent fight but the South American champions were made of sterner stuff. In all honesty, this was the only game I watched, so I cannot speak in-depth towards many of the overall tournament performances. However, I feel confident that I can asses where the players from this tournament will fit into future national teams.

2021 U-20 World Cup Cycle

Every year Tab Ramos is sure to include at least a few players in his U-20 squad who are age eligible for the subsequent U-20 World Cup Cycle. This year there were four players:

Ulyses Llanez – Llanez played well with his few minutes in this year’s tournament. He recently joined Wolfsburg and might struggle to crack their lineup for regular minutes in the ’19/’20 season. He has a better chance in ’20/’21 leading up to the next U-20 World Cup. Wouldn’t be shocked if he’s breaking into the senior team at that point ala players like Tyler Adams who skip playing the U-20 tournament a second time.

David Ochoa – Plays for RSL 2nd team in the USL Championship. Might be able to play for RSL if 39 year old Nick Rimmando retires soon. Definitely won’t be in the conversation for U-23 or senior team at this age. Very few GK’s would be.

Julian Araujo – Currently starting with LA Galaxy in MLS. He has a chance to play with the U-23 team in this Olympic cycle but would have to beat out the likes of Reggie Cannon, Serginio Dest, and Kyle Duncan who are all playing at a similar level. Also might skip out on the 2021 U-20 WC if he’s breaking the senior team roster.

Konrad de la Fuente – Play’s for Barcelona’s U19 team and occasionally appears for Barcelona B. Hopefully he continues that trajectory and is starting to crack Barcelona’s first team in 2021 (unlikely, but I’ll keep my fingers crossed). Again, could also be cracking the senior team roster by 2021 if everything goes right.

Need More Minutes with Their Club

This group likely won’t be in any immediate plans on either the U-23 team or the senior team, but they may figure into the picture eventually if they play well for their club team:

CJ Dos Santos – Plays for Benfica’s U19s currently and recently signed an extension with the club through 2023 so he’ll be there for a good while. Also not in the U-23 or senior team convo.

Chris Durkin – Durkin will get minutes where he can behind Russell Canouse at DC United. There were rumors he might be on the move this summer before this U-20 World Cup but I have a feeling his price has dropped after his poor performance at the tournament. He might figure into the U-23 picture because we are shallow at defensive midfield in that age group. However, after this tournament I am not looking forward to more Durkin in a US shirt.

Brandon Servania – Playing for FC Dallas’ 2nd team in USL League 1. Honestly I hope another MLS team trades for him because he needs to play at a higher level in the coming years. At Dallas he’s behind someone at the depth chart …

Edwin Cerrillo – Despite not playing in this tournament, Cerillo has started for Dallas to start the 2019 season. Hopefully that continues and Jason Kreis likes him a little more than Tab Ramos did. If so he might make the U-23 roster (as might Durkin or Servania because our U-23’s might be shallow at defensive midfield).

Matt Real – Currently on Phildelphia’s depth chart at fullback but not getting many minutes. I don’t see Real figuring into any national team picture much in the future.

Aboubakar Keita – Playing with the Richmond Kickers in USL League 1. I also do not expect much from Keita in the near future at the international level.

Justin Rennicks – Perhaps Bruce Arena will take a liking to Rennicks’ never-say-die fighter mentality. I bet New England is going to undergo an overhaul and that might be a ripe opportunity for Rennicks. But he won’t figure for the U-23’s or senior team any time soon, barring a meteoric rise.

Brady Scott – Was playing for Koln’s U-19 side until he was injured earlier this year. Whether he gets back into the groove or not I doubt he’ll figure into the U-23 or senior team in the near future.

U-23 Olympic Team

Olympic Qualifying starts in late 2019/early 2020 and the US should definitely draw from this pool of players to stock that roster.

Serginio Dest – Currently plays for Ajax’s 2nd team in the Dutch 2nd division but he has already signed a first team contract. We have options at right back at the U-23 level, as mentioned above, but I don’t think any of them are necessarily better than Dest at this point.

Alex Mendez – Mendez’s stock surprisingly went down this tournament. He’s been playing for Freiburg’s U-19’s in Germany and I think he needs to get first team minutes soon or else he’s going to fall behind his peers physically. If he does get those minutes, he has a chance to compete for one of those 8/10 spots in the U-23 team.

Richie Ledezma – First things first, Ledezma has to stay healthy as he has been injured for PSV’s youth teams for most of the last year. He would be competing with Mendez for an 8/10 spot in the U-23 team. Remember both McKennie, and Pulisic are U-23 eligible so they probably own the starting spots there. And someone later on this list might be ahead of Ledezma and Mendez …

Mark McKenzie – McKenzie fell out of favor this season at Philadelphia so he needs to earn his spot back there first. His teammate Trusty is also U-23 eligible and they will be competing with each other for the CB4 spot on the U-23 roster behind Cameron Carter-Vickers, Miles Robinson, and Chris Richards (spoiler).

Sebastian Soto – Soto saw a few minutes for Hanover at the end of this Bundesliga season. With Hanover dropping to the second division, I would expect Soto to enter the regular rotation at striker. If he performs well, he might surpass Jeremy Ebobisse on the U-23 striker depth chart. It’ll be tough for him to surpass Sargent who will hopefully (likely?) be playing a good chunk of minutes in the league above Soto. Although, I think those two players are more comparable than most people would like to admit.

Senior National Team

These are players who might start getting call-up for the senior team as soon as our CONCACAF Nations League games in the fall.

Chris Gloster – Since the USMNT hasn’t had a good LB in a decade, Gloster could get fast-tracked right to the senior team as he was one of the most complete players for the US at the U-20 WC. I also think he’ll definitely be involved with the U-23’s

Paxton Pomykal – So if Pulisic and McKennie are the first choice 8/10’s I think Pomykal has a good argument for the 3rd spot behind them. Although, Holmes may prove me wrong at the Gold Cup in the coming weeks. Holmes isn’t U-23 eligible so I fully expect Pomykal to be on that roster.

Chris Richards – Richards is going to play with Bayern Munich II in the German 3rd division next season. He has trained with the first team sporadically, and I am interested to see if that becomes more frequent. He’ll be in the U-23 picture for sure, and might get a few senior team call-ups before that.

Timothy Weah –  Has already appeared for the senior team and definitely fills a need for a dangerous winger. He is still a PSG player but I would expect him to either get sold or loaned somewhere else for this season.

Come back for more USMNT news!

USMNT 2019 U-20 World Cup Roster Reaction

The USMNT roster for the 2019 Under-20 World Cup was released earlier this week and I’m here to break it down for you! The U20’s start play against Ukraine on May 24th on FS1, followed by games against Nigeria on May 27th (also FS1), and Qatar on May 30th (FS2). Below is the roster head coach Tab Ramos called in for the competition:

2019 FIFA U-20 World Cup Roster by Position (Club; Hometown; U-20 Caps/Goals)

GOALKEEPERS (3): CJ Dos Santos (Benfica/POR; Foxchase, Pa.; 2/0), David Ochoa (Real Salt Lake; Oxnard, Calif.; 4/0), Brady Scott (Köln/GER; Petaluma, Calif.; 9/0)
DEFENDERS (6): Sergino Dest (Ajax/NED; Almere-Stad, Netherlands; 8/1), Chris Gloster (Hannover 96/GER; Montclair, N.J.; 11/0), Aboubacar Keita (Richmond Kickers; Columbus, Ohio; 2/0), Mark McKenzie (Philadelphia Union; Bear, Del.; 10/3), Matthew Real (Philadelphia Union; Drexel Hill, Pa.; 10/0), Chris Richards (Bayern Munich/GER; Birmingham, Ala.; 8/0)
MIDFIELDERS (6): Edwin Cerrillo (FC Dallas; Frisco, Texas; 0/0), Chris Durkin (D.C. United; Glen Allen, Va.; 2/0), Richard Ledezma (PSV Eindhoven/NED; Phoenix, Ariz.; 4/0), Alex Mendez (Freiburg/GER; Los Angeles, Calif.; 15/8), Paxton Pomykal (FC Dallas; Highland Village, Texas; 9/3), Brandon Servania (FC Dallas; Dallas, Texas; 8/2)
FORWARDS (6): Ayo Akinola (Toronto FC/CAN; Brampton, Ont.; 12/9), Konrad De La Fuente (Barcelona/ESP; Miami, Fla.; 2/1), Ulysses Llanez (Wolfsburg/GER; Lynwood, Calif.; 11/7), Justin Rennicks (New England Revolution; South Hamilton, Mass.; 13/6), Sebastian Soto (Hannover 96/GER; San Diego, Calif.; 5/2), Tim Weah (Celtic FC/SCO; Rosedale, N.Y.; 0/0)

The big news of this roster is that Timothy Weah is playing with the U20 side and not the senior national team at this summer’s Gold Cup. There have been reports that Weah wanted to play in the U20 World Cup, perhaps seeing it as an opportunity to see the field more. Weah is a PSG youngster who spent the second half of this season loaned out to Celtic of the Scottish Premiere League. Celtic won the league while Weah contributed 4 goals and 1 assist through 17 appearances across all competitions. He also already has 8 caps and 1 goal for the senior national team. While those numbers may not jump off the page, you have to remember that this is a youth competition; many of the players Weah will be going up against have never played a professional minute of soccer and have only played at the youth levels.

Players who have already made their professional debuts do not play in these youth competitions. For example, Tyler Adams has played in 8 games for Bundesliga side Red Bull Leipzig since joining the team in January, he has 10 caps for the senior national team, and he was not called into this roster despite being age-eligible. This is usually because the parent club won’t release the player, the player does not want to play at that level, or they are already contributing to the senior team. I fully expect Adams to be in this summer’s Gold Cup roster. Josh Sargent and Jonathan Amon might be in a similar boat to Adams but I do not feel as confident in their inclusion in Berhalter’s Gold Cup roster, but that’s an article for another day. The above is also why this is Weah’s first appearance for the U20’s this cycle.

Outside of headliner Timothy Weah, there is still a LOT of talent on this roster. Personally, I’m super excited about Mendez, Dest, Pomykal, Llanez, and Servania (even though Servania might be the third choice defensive midfielder on this roster). Mendez is the centerpiece of this team. He is the engine in the midfield who can pass up, over, around, and through teams. Pomykal was deployed mostly as a winger in qualifying but has played more centrally for FC Dallas as he’s experienced a breakout season in 2019. Pomykal is a great ‘connective tissue’ kind of player who allows other players to look good while also having some flashes of brilliance on his own. Llanez is a dynamic, speedey left winger who can beat defenders with his pace and with his ball skills. Dest is a no-nonsense defender who is great at stopping an attack before it starts. he also provides some silky passes up the right side. Lastly Servania is the defensive midfielder you want when you’re dominating a game. He has some defensive bite and his real asset comes in attack where he can unlock a defense with one line-splitting pass. Those were the players who really impressed me in the CONCACAF U20 Championship where the US dominated almost every team they faced.

Other players who I have not seen play as much, but have a lot of hype around them are Durkin, Ledezma, Richards, Soto, Cerrillo, and De La Fuente. Remember, any professional minutes for guys at this age is huge. With that said, Durkin started for DC United for the first half of the last year (1500 mins on the season) before Canouse came back from injury. He’s played ~400 mins so far this season. Cerrilo has surpassed Servania on FC Dallas’ depth chart and has played 592 minutes so far this season. Soto got his first pro minutes a few weeks back making 2 late substitute appearances for Hannover 96 in the Bundesliga. The rest are on the cusp of getting professional minutes. Richards is an FC Dallas product who was sold to Bayern Munich for a little over $1 million last December. He has trained with the first team, but has only played for the reserve teams. De La Fuente comes from the Barcelona Academy and has only played for Barca’s U19 squad to this point. Lastly, Ledezma plays in the PSV youth system but hasn’t played much due to injury. I don’t know what to expect from him since he’s only just recovered enough to practice. I will be content if he is the impact sub for this team.

The rest of the field players (McKenzie, Real, Keita, Gloster, Rennicks, and Akinola) are varying levels of solid. From what I’ve seen McKenzie, Real, Keita, and Gloster can all handle the U-20 level well, but to be honest none have been tested that hard by the opposition they’ve played. This tournament will likely separate the boys from the men in that group. Akinola has the physicality to play at the pro level (he’s played 230 mins for Toronto so far this season), but needs to develop the skills, i.e. touch on the ball, finishing, and passing ability. If we run out of ideas in attack, I’d expect us to start lumping up long balls to Akinola’s head. Rennicks on the other hand had a great CONCACAF U20 Championship where he sometimes looked better than the more-often-hyped Soto. However, Rennicks has struggled to find playing time on a bad New England Revolution team (the Revs are a MESS so that might not be his fault, but I digress). If any of these guys have a big tournament, and the above players play as expected, the US will be in really good shape.

Lastly, goalkeeper is a bit of a question mark going into this U20 World Cup. Brady Scott would be the assumed starter, as he was for the CONCACAF tournament, however he has just returned from injury. Ochoa has been getting regular minutes with Real Salt Lakes B team in USL, and CJ Dos Santos is the starter for the U17 team (Tab always likes to take a U17 ‘keeper for the experience). I would expect Scott to start as long as he is healthy for the sake of chemistry.

With that, here is the starting lineup I expect Tab to go with (4-3-3:

Llanez – Weah – De La Fuente

Pomykal – Durkin – Mendez

Gloster – McKenzie – Richards – Dest

Scott

For me, Llanez, Weah, Pomykal, Mendez, Richards, Dest, and Gloster’s names are written in ink. You could talk me into Cerrillo getting the start over Durkin since he and Pomykal have chemistry from playing this season in Dallas together. McKenzie and Scott have both been nursing injuries so perhaps they aren’t ready in game one. And Akinola is a favorite of Tab’s so I wouldn’t be shocked in he starts him over De La Fuente despite Akinola being the less skilled player.

Off the bench, Ledezma is the impact sub for Mendez/Pomykal, Akinola is there if we need more physicality, Cerillo, and Servania are CDM depth, and Keita is CB depth. Having Soto and Rennicks feels redundant, since Tab only plays a one striker system, and I’m not sure either work well on the wing.  Also worth noting is that natural LB Matt Real is our only fullback depth on the roster. If Dest get’s injured, perhaps Real plays RB or maybe one of Cerrillo/Durkin/Servania get’s shoehorned in there.

After dominating the CONCACAF Qualifying tournament, Tab Ramos’ side have some high expectations for this year’s U20 World Cup. The 2017 squad made it to the quarterfinals of the competition, losing to eventual runners-up Venezuela. That’s where the bar is set. Anything less than that would be a decided disappointment, equaling that would be unsatisfactory, and surpassing it is the goal.

Come back for a reaction to the group stage games in a few weeks!

Predictions for Berhalter’s USMNT in March

The upcoming March USMNT friendlies against Ecuador (March 21st @ 8:00pm) and Chile (March 26th @ 8:00 pm) will be a step up in quality and difficulty from the January games. Here are my predictions/questions/things to look out for from those friendlies:

Berhalter will call in a European-centric roster supplemented by players who understand his system.

Many are predicting that Berhalter will call in a theoretical best squad possible for these March friendlies. I don’t think that is necessarily the case. Berhalter was able to call-in most of the domestic players he wanted to in January (some players like Altidore and Morris are recovering from injury but even they stopped by to visit). He has yet to see any European-based player in camp yet. I think that he will want to strike a balance between giving as many European-based players an opportunity to prove themselves and calling in enough players from January who understand his system in order to help teach the system to the European-based players. Now, that blend of players may also be the best possible roster Berhalter can call-in, but I don’t feel ready to make that assumption. Before I give you the 23 (maybe more?) I think he’ll call-in, I need to make another prediction.

Berhalter will stick with his Guardiola-esque 4-4-2/3-2-2-3 formation. 

In the games against Panama and Costa Rica Berhalter had the USMNT playing a unique formation. In defense, it looked like a 4-4-2, where the top “2” players pressed the opposing team’s CBs and the wing players in the midfield “4” selectively pressed as the ball entered their area and the other 6 players made a formidable defensive block. In attack, this formation shifted quite a bit into a 3-2-2-3. You can see how that shift happened below.Essentially, from Defense to Attack, Mihailovic moved back, while Ebobisse, Baird, Roldan, and Lima all pushed up (These names are from the starting lineup against Panama)

4-4-2 (Defense)

Mihailovic – Zardes

Ebobisse – Bradley – Roldan – Baird

Lovitz – Long – Zimmerann – Lima

Steffen

3-2-2-3 (Attack)

Ebobisse – Zardes – Baird

Mihailovice – Roldan

Bradley – Lima

Lovitz – Long – Zimmerann

Steffen

In an interview after the January camp, Berhalter mentioned that he preferred this system because it allows for the US to get numbers forward in attack without sending our fullbacks forward. He believes that sending our fullbacks forward on overlaps will leave the defense overly exposed which is punished more at the international level. Therefore, assuming that Berhalter will continue to play this system he will be looking for specific attributes at each position:

  • A GK who’s comfortable with the ball at his feet
  • CBs who are quick passers/ can make line splitting passes.
  • A RB who can move up and play CM
  • A LB who can also play CB
  • A CDM who can make line-splitting passes
  • Advanced Midfielders who can run a lot, have some level of creativity
  • Wingers who can defend and send in smart crosses
  • A striker who can get physical with the other team’s defense and put away tap-in goals

With that in mind, here’s the 23+ I think Berhalter will call-in

Goalkeepers (3)– Zac Steffen, Ethan Horvath, Sean Johnson

Just missed the cut: Brad Guzan, Jonathan Klinsmann, Brady Scott

  • Steffen needs the caps in order to secure his work permit and join Manchester City this summer so his inclusion is a given. Plus Steffen is quite familiar with Berhalter’s system.
  • Horvath is the only notable American GK playing in Europe these days.
  • Johnson seemed like the No. 2 behind Steffen in January so he wins the third spot.
  • Klinsmann is a 3rd string ‘keeper for Hertha Berlin and Scott was the US U-20 ‘keeper last November, and is on Koln’s roster. Neither has seen any first team minutes.
  • Guzan is still in the picture but he doesn’t play in Europe and he wasn’t present in January Camp so he’s not in this camp.

Defenders (8) – Aaron Long, John Brooks, Matt Miazga, Nick Lima, DeAndre Yedlin, Tyler Adams, Tim Ream, Daniel Lovitz

Just missed the cut: Antonee Robinson, Cameron Carter-Vickers (CCV), Walker Zimmerman, Erik Palmer-Brown EPB), Shaq Moore, Graham Zusi, Matt Besler, Sergino Dest, Chris Gloster, Chris Richards

  • Long beats Zimmermann as Long captained the USMNT for both January Camp games and I think Berhalter will want that continuity in the next camp.
  • Lima and Lovitz are there to help teach the system.
  • Brooks and Miazga have the most talent of our CBs in Europe and beat out CCV, and EPB.
  • Yes I have Tyler Adams at RB because he has experience at RB and CM which is what Berhalter wants out of his RB. Lima is there to teach the role and Yedlin is there because of his talent. I wouldn’t be shocked if Yedlin becomes a winger as Bobby Warshaw has suggested.
  • Then, Ream wins the LB/CB spot since he has experience at both positions. Plus our only other LB option, Robinson, isn’t much of a CB and he hasn’t featured for his club team since getting injured in November. An injury which had a 4 week recover timeline. It’s been about 10 weeks since that injury …
  • I include Besler and Zusi under “Just Missed the Cut” because I think Zusi would fit well at RB/CM and Besler would fit well at LB/CB but, similarly to Guzan, neither play in Europe nor were they present in January Camp.
  • Dest (just signed for Ajax), Gloster (plays for Hannover’s B team), and Richards (plays for Bayern’s B team) are all U-20 players who might get a shot ala Mihailovic in January. All three will definitely feature for the US in this summer’s U-20 World Cup.

Midfielders (9) – Michael Bradley, Wil Trapp, Weston McKennie, Christian Pulisic, Timo Weah, Cristian Roldan, Paul Arriola, Fabian Johnson, Jonathan Amon

Just missed the Cut: Duane Holmes, Danny Williams, Alfredo Morales, Alex Mendez, Richie Ledezma, Romain Gall, Julian Green, Kellyn Accosta, Sebastian Lletget, Djorde Mihailovic, Luca De La Torre,

  • Bradley, Trapp, Roldan, and Arriola are here to teach the system. I think Bradley makes the starting XI but I’m less sure about the rest.
  • Pulisic, Weah, and McKennie are all young and talented and are practically “must-call-in” players if not “must-start” players. I think Pulisic and Weah feature on the wing and McKennie features in the middle, taking the place of Mihailovic. I wouldn’t be shocked in Weah plays striker rather than wing.
  • Amon is more of a flyer than anything else. He looked good in his friendly appearances last fall. I could see any of the “Just Missed the Cut” players taking that spot. If not Amon, it would be cool to see Holmes get his first call-up.
  • I see a lot of analysts putting Lletget into their 23-man rosters. I think that he’s there if this is a “best possible squad” camp, because he’s talented and provided assists in both January games. However, Berhalter said he was slow to pick-up the tactics, which is why he started on the bench for both of those January games. And if the point of this camp is to teach European players the system/give them a shot to learn the system, I think adding Lletget and taking away someone like Amon or Holmes would be unfair. By no means am I saying that Lletget doesn’t have a spot on this team in the future, just not in this camp.
  • Williams, Morales, Gall, Green, and De La Torre are a mixed bag of less talented players but who knows! Maybe Berhalter sees a role for them.
  • Accosta was cut from last camp and Berhalter was pretty vocal about him not being fit enough and didn’t pick up the system well enough. Similar to Lletget, it’d be unfair to our European players for him to take up a roster spot when he already had an opportunity to learn the system.
  • Ledezma (just signed for PSV) and Mendez (Plays for Freiburg’s B team) are also U-20 players who will definitely feature in the U-20 World Cup and might get a shot. These two would both fit Berhalter’s advanced midfielder role very well.

Forwards (3) – Gyassi Zardes, Josh Sargent, Andy Novakovich

Just Missed the Cut: Bobby Wood, Jozy Altidore, Christian Ramirez, Jordan Morris, Sebastian Soto

  • Zardes is here to help teach the system.
  • Perhaps my boldest prediction here is that Novakovich beats out Wood for a call-up. I think Novakovich will really fit what Berhalter wants, a big physical striker who is good with his feet. Novakovich’s biggest weakness is that he is slow but I don’t believe Berhalter’s system relies on the speed of it’s striker as much as their physicality.
  • Sargent is an obvious pick as he’s seeing minutes in the Bundesliga as a teenager.
  • Wood is a solid striker but I’m not sure he’ll fit what Berhalter is looking for.
  • Similar to other players mentioned above, Jozy and Jordan Morris miss out because they don’t play in Europe and didn’t play in January.
  • Ramirez loses to Zardes for the “he knows Berhalter’s system spot” because Zardes has a full year under Berhalter while Ramirez just has a few weeks.
  • Soto (plays for Hannover’s B team) is another young player who will definitely feature in the U-20 World Cup this summer.

Given the players named above here would be my starting lineup:

4-4-2 (Defense)

McKennie – Zardes

Weah – Bradley – Roldan – Pulisic

Ream – Brooks – Long – Adams

Steffen

3-2-2-3 (Attack)

Weah – Zardes – Pulisic

McKennie – Roldan

Bradley – Adams

Ream – Brooks – Long

Steffen

Subs: Horvath, Lima, Miazga, Arriola, Trapp, Sargent, Holmes

This set-up is more likely for the first game as it keeps a spine of players who played in January (Zardes, Roldan, Bradley, Long, Steffen). I could easily see Sargent or Novakovich over Zardes. I also wouldn’t be shocked to see Adams in the midfield over Roldan, and then Lima again at RB/CM. I also wouldn’t be shocked if Miazga starts over Long. Theoretically, Long could play LB/CB instead of Ream if Berhalter wants to squeeze his leadership onto the pitch. I think Pulisic will do more damage on the wing in this set-up. You could even throw Weah up top, Pulisic on the left wing, and then put DeAndre Yedlin on the right wing. The possibilities are truly endless.

Lastly, as you can see I included a ton of players under “Just Missed the Cut” so I would not be shocked if more than 23 players get called into camp but then some/many either leave or do not feature in the games.

Check back here for a breakdown of how the games against Ecuador and Chile went!

Why you should watch the CONCACAF Champions League

Are you a soccer fan in North America, or a general sports fan in North America for that matter? Yes? Then I have an exciting competition to introduce you to: The CONCACAF Champions League.

The Basics

The Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) is the governing body of soccer in the western hemisphere north of the Panama Canal. Each continent has their own confederation which oversees and organizes different club and national team competitions between member nations. The most famous of which is the United European Football Association, or UEFA. CONCACAF works similarly to UEFA so think of it through that lens if you are familiar with UEFA.

CONCACAF organizes the CONCACAF Champions League (CCL) where the best club teams on the continent compete for a trophy and a birth into the FIFA Club World Cup. Club teams qualify for the Champions League by performing well in their domestic league. Bigger leagues, receive multiple births into the Champions League; for the 2019 edition Mexico and the United States received 4 births each, Canada, Costa Rica, Panama, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras all received 1 birth each, a Caribbean league including multiple countries received 1 birth, and 1 final birth is awarded to the winner of a qualification tournament which includes many smaller CONCACAF nations. In total 16 teams will participate.

The Champions League itself is more of a tournament with a straight bracket, starting with a Round of 16, then Quarterfinals, then Semi-finals, and lastly a single-game Final to decide a champion. Every round beside the final round is a two-legged affair, meaning there will be two games, one where each participating team gets to host.  The bracket is decided by placing teams into pots. The Mexican, and American teams are placed in one pot, and the rest are placed in another pot. Then match-ups are made by picking one name from each pot.

Now that you have the basic facts of the tournament, here are some reasons you should watch:

The Best Soccer Played on the Continent

Personally, as a fan of MLS, I want MLS to be one of the best leagues in the world. Of course, it is very far away from that. The first step in the process is being the best league on this continent, which MLS has yet to prove (Mexican teams have won the last 10 CCL titles). Additionally, if you are a fan of any sport, you should support that sport at a local level. Your support, especially financial support, allows that local product to improve. After enough support from enough people over a long enough period of time, any local sports team can become the best in the world. Since CCL is the best version of local soccer you’ll see on this continent, you should definitely support it. This goes for Mexican fans too. Even though you have already showed dominance in this competition, you need to prove it every year and continue to push it forward.

Multiple Rooting Interests

Personally, I support one team in MLS during the regular season, and that team often plays in CCL, but barring an MLS vs. MLS match, I root for all MLS teams in this competition. Watching Toronto and New York down Mexican teams last year was exciting regardless of being a regular fan or not. Plus, if one MLS team wins CCL, it is good for the whole league. It shows domestic and foreign players that MLS is just as good as Liga MX. As the saying goes, rising tides lift all boats. Luckily there are more MLS teams than any other league (4 American and 1 Canadian; it helps that the two geographically largest countries play in one league). Therefore, there are plenty of games with rooting interests.

More Competitive Now Than in the Past

Historically speaking, Mexican teams have dominated this competition, but last year hinted that that trend may be coming to a close. Toronto FC made it to the Final of the 2018 edition of CCL and quite frankly should have won. They outplayed the eventual winners, Chivas Guadalajara, but Chivas caught some lucky bounces and were clinical with the few chances they had. Chivas similarly beat the New York Red Bulls in the semi-final prior. Before falling to Chivas, RBNY beat Mexican powerhouse Tijuana, and Toronto beat tournament favorites Tigres and Club America, both from Mexico. This year we will find out whether MLS turned a corner or whether 2018 was a blip on the radar. And I haven’t mentioned them much but teams from Costa Rica are not push overs. Costa Rican side Saprissa are making their 8th appearance in the last 10 years of CCL, the most of any team in the 2019 iteration. They know what to expect. Lastly, only one team participating this year has previously won CCL (Monterrey of Liga MX).

Qualification for the FIFA Club World Cup

The winner of this competition gets to play against the best club team from Europe, South America, Africa, Asia, and Oceania in a tournament known as the Club World Cup. The European teams dominate this competition while playing mostly substitutes and/or reserves but it’s another way to measure the gap between CONCACAF competition against the best in the world. In fact it’s the only ‘competitive’ tournament where we can do that. I have to mention that FIFA is looking at making changes to the Club World Cup to make it more competitive. It looks like The Club World Cup may replace the Confederations Cup and would take place every 4 years, they year prior to a World Cup. The format would be expanded to include multiple Champions League winners from each continent, although with a decided preference for European teams (the suggested format had 24 teams, 12 coming from Europe). Regardless of format changes, the winner of CCL will still have an opportunity to play in the FIFA Club World Cup.

I hope I’ve convinced you and that you too catch #CCLFever this Febuary! Dates and times for all Round of 16 games can be found here!

Profiling MLS Teams Off-of-the-Field in 2018

This has been a personal interest of mine for awhile. This whole project is kind of like an almanac of the structures of MLS clubs. What I am interested in is how current MLS teams stack-up against one another in some off-of-the-field categories. I have to credit Brian Strauss for his incredible reporting on the MLS Expansion hopefuls that inspired me to do something similar for teams already in the league. His article talks much more about ownership groups than I would like to go into but that’s necessary when half of these clubs don’t exist yet.

I’ve written four articles on the four off-field areas that I think are the biggest investments teams make. Those four areas are: Stadiums, Training Facilities, Academies/Reserve Teams, and First Team Roster Construction. Each article more so groups publicly available information into a single space. I believe I have gone as in-depth as I can without actually going out and interviewing club officials. Here I will summarize my over-arching findings and link the other articles which go into more depth.

Quick disclaimer: a lot of this information was difficult to find. There are certain numbers I could not find e.g. how much NYCFC spent on their training facility, or how much Barcelona bought Tabla from Montreal for. If you see any errors, by all means leave a comment and I will gladly look into it.

1. Training Facilities

By Training Facilities, I am referring to the the fields, locker rooms, and buildings where the team practices. These size, and complexity of these facilities varies widely. 6 teams (DC, Columbus, Seattle, Orlando, Minnesota, and Houston) lease their fields from a local park/facility/stadium. New England used New England Patriots practice fields. 3 teams (New York, Portland, and San Jose) spent $10 million or less on their training facilities. 2 teams (Montreal, and Chicago) spent between $10-$20 million on their training facilities. 3 teams (Cincinnati, LAFC, and Toronto) spent between $20-$30 million on their training facilities. 2 teams (Vancouver, and Dallas) spent between $30-$40 million on their training facilities. 0 teams spent between $40-$50 million on their training facilities. 3 teams (RSL, SKC, and Atlanta) spent over $50 million on their training facilities. 2 teams (LA Galaxy, Colorado) built their training facilities in conjunction with their stadiums, i.e. their training facility and stadium are in the same complex. There are 2 teams (NYCFC, and Philadelphia) where it is unclear how much they spent.

10 of these MLS training facilities were built within the last 5 years. DC, Orlando, and New England have plans to build new training facilities within the next few years. Columbus plans on converting their current stadium into a training facility once their new stadium is built.

2. Academies/Reserve Teams

Overall, all MLS academies have produced 188 Homegrown players signed to first team contracts. In total, 21 of those players were sold/traded onto another club (including trades within MLS). Of the sales we know the value of (6/21) all of these players have been sold for a collective $26. 5 (Alphonso Davies is almost half of that number; does not include players sold for an “undisclosed fee” such as Ballou-Tabla). 7 Homegrown players were sold for an undisclosed fee. The 8 other Homegrown players who were dealt by their club were traded within MLS for either other players, allocation money, and/or an international spot

10 MLS clubs operate a “2 Team” in USL, meaning the USL team is dirctly controlled by the MLS team, ala New York Red Bulls and New York red Bulls II. 9 MLS teams are affiliated with an USL team, meaning the MLS team does not directly operate the USL team but the two are partnered with one another ala the Chicago Fire’s relationship with the Tulsa Roughnecks. 4 MLS teams did not have any USL affiliated club in 2018. Cincinnati played in USL last year and will join MLS this year.

6 MLS teams have a U-23 team. U-23 teams play in a semi-pro league which allows college players to learn the club’s system in the summer, while they are not playing in college. No huge names have come from MLS U-23 teams but having one shows a commitment to developing talent at all levels.

Most teams have academy teams between the ages of U-12 to U-19. Minnesota and LAFC don’t go as high as U-19 because their academies are new. Montreal have the youngest teams at U-8(!), and interestingly, RSL, Seattle, and Vancouver only have U-15 through U-19. I find the last note interesting because RSL, Seattle, and Vancouver have three of the more productive academies in MLS despite having fewer academy teams. Perhaps a case of quality over quantity.

3. Stadiums

Here are some averages/medians on the stadiums across the league:

Avg. Construction Cost -$141.67 million (only including stadiums built by MLS teams)

Capacity (using reduced capacities for larger stadiums) – 20,973 (Median) 23,585 (Average)

2018 Avg. Attendance – 19,384 (Median), 21,852 (Average, like an Average of a the teams’ averages)

% Capacity Full – 92.4% (Median), 92.6% (Average)

Home Field Advantage (based on record at home over the last 3 years) – 1.87 ppg

17/23 Soccer Specific Stadiums, and 17/23 on Grass (not the same 17 for both)

In terms of Capacity and Attendance, considering the outliers in this data (Seattle and Atlanta), the median numbers are more representative of the league as a whole. Seattle and Atlanta definitely set the standard for the league in terms of attendance. They do play on turf, but the pros outweigh the cons here. As of right now, a realistic goal/expectation for every other MLS team would be to almost sell out or totally sell out a soccer-specific stadium that has a capacity of 20,000-25,000. Currently, Portland, Sporting Kansas City, LAFC, LA Galaxy, Toronto FC and Orlando City already do that. In my article I bumped Orlando City and LA Galaxy down a tier for having low Home Field Advantages.

It’s really cool to see that most teams play in a soccer-specific stadium as that has not always been the case. There are teams that are in need of some upgrades such as Chicago, New England, NYCFC, Dallas, Colorado, and infamously Columbus. Chicago, Dallas, and Columbus need a stadium relocation. New England and NYCFC need to be in soccer specific stadiums. I’m not sure what Colorado needs. Perhaps a downtown stadium would boost attendance, but so might a higher quality of play on the field.

Every other team lies somewhere in the middle. You’ll have to check out my article to find out more!

4. First Team Roster Construction

Here are how I categorized where/how teams signed each player on their team. The rosters were as of the Fall Roster Freeze date (September 14th, 2018).

  1. Overseas – These are players signed from overseas. On my spreadsheet I noted what country they last played in, not necessarily what country they are originally from. Like Zlatan came to MLS from the Premiere League, not Sweden.
  2. Academy – these are players who, at some point, signed a homegrown contract for their club, meaning they played in the club’s academy for at least one year. If a homegrown player was traded, I counted that as a “Trade” for the current team they are on.
  3. Trade – Players who came from another team within the league. Doesn’t matter what was exchanged for them (draft picks, another player, allocation money, etc.)
  4. Super Draft – these are players who were drafted into the league after playing college. The draft has become less important as academies have become more prominent, but there are still some gems in there.
  5. Lower Leagues – these are players who came from a team in the United States that is not MLS. Most of them come from USL. An academy player who played on a USL team still counts as an academy player, like Tyler Adams on the New York Red Bulls.
  6. MLS Scrap Heap – Since MLS is single entity, there are some weird mechanisms used to pick up players who still have contracts with the league, but are no longer playing for their team. These include waivers, the Re-entry Draft, the Expansion Draft, and Free Agency. I used this umbrella term to encompass all of these. I also included trialists under this umbrella as well. These are players that any MLS team could have signed, which is what makes them significantly different from trades.

As you can imagine, this is a lot of information. I wont post my entire spreadsheet here (all of this information is publicly available on mlssoccer.com)

I also included how much each team spent on their roster 

The Average 2018 MLS Team

Overseas – 11, Academy – 4, Trade – 4.5,  Super Draft – 4, Lower Leagues – 2.5, MLS Scrap Heap – 2

Money Spent – $11.12 Million

Notes: I made this average in order to know where teams are relative to the rest of the league. I do not have the numbers to support this, but I would wager that over the last 5 years the number of overseas, and academy signings have increased while the number of Super Draft and Scrap Heap signings has decreased. Those players who would have bounced around the bottom of MLS rosters are now filling out the lower league rosters. While the MLS Scrap Heap and the Super Draft have become less prominent, there are still gems in both (Maxi Urutti on Dallas, Jeff Lawrenowitz on Atlanta, to name a few). I would also expect the number of academy and lower league signings to increase over the next five years. I would hope that the number of overseas signings decreases, but I won’t be so bold as to claim that it definitely will.

The 2018 Average Playoff Team

Overseas – 11, Academy – 4, Trade – 4.5, Super Draft – 4, Lower Leagues – 3, MLS Scrap Heap – 2

Money Spent – $10.56 M

Notes: Slightly above average in Lower League players, and about $.5 M below average in salaries.

The 2018 Average Non-Playoff Team

Overseas – 11, Academy – 4, Trade – 5, Super Draft – 4, Lower Leagues – 2.5, MLS Scrap Heap – 2

Money Spent – $11.74 M

Notes: Slightly above average number of players traded for and about $.5 M above average in salaries.

So what were my takeaways from this exercise?

  1. Good teams tend to use more mechanisms
    1. Look at the two best teams in the league, Atlanta and New York. Atlanta has more overseas signings but New York has more Academy players. Atlanta has more Scrap Heap players but New York has more Lower League players. Both have their signings spread across many categories.
  2. How/Where you spend matters (duh)
    1. Colorado and DC both spend about $9.7 M on their salaries with one player making over $2 M. However, Colorado’s big name player is Tim Howard ($2.5 M), and DC’s is Wayne Rooney ($2.8 M). Just an interesting parallel as they ended in vastly different places in the standings.
    2. 2 of the top 5 spenders did not make the playoffs this year (Toronto, and Chicago). Same goes for 3 of the top 10 (add Montreal).
    3. 2 of the bottom 5 spenders did make the playoffs this year (New York Red Bulls, and Columbus).
    4. The bottom spender, Houston, won the US Open Cup.
    5. The average playoff team spent ~ $1.2 M *less* on their salaries than the average non-playoff team.
  3. If you’re going to rely on one mechanism it should be overseas signings
    1. NYCFC and Portland have 15 and 18 overseas signings, respectively, which is well above average. Both of them made the playoffs this year.
  4. It’s not the mechanism that matters, its how you use it
    1. Look at Dallas and New England who both have above the average number of Super Draft signings. Dallas get way more out of their Super Draft picks than New England does, finishing higher in the standings. Or Look at New York Red Bulls’ three Lower League players versus Sporting Kansas City’s three. The New York guys are starters or off-the-bench options when healthy. Meanwhile SKC’s have played a collective 65 minutes this season.
  5. We mainly scout players in Europe and Latin America (Neither is inherently better than the other)
    1. There are a total of 11 overseas signings from outside of Europe and Latin America (4 from China, 3 from Cameroon, 1 from South Africa, 1 from Tunisia, 1 from Australia, and 1 from Egypt). There are a total of 253 overseas signings. Of course, there is higher quality soccer played in Europe and Latin America than anywhere else in the world so it is partially warranted. However, MLS has room to grow in terms of international scouting.
  6. Draft heavy teams tend to be small market/low spending teams
    1. Here are the teams with more than 5 Draft picks on their roster and how much they spent on their player salaries in 2018: Chicago ($15.5 M), Columbus ($7.7 M), Dallas ($9.3 M), New England ($7.5 M), San Jose ($8.3 M), and Philadelphia ($8.9 M). Chicago stands out having spent much more than the rest of these teams. But, Schweinsteiger is 1/3 of their salary budget.
  7. “Money Ball” is possible, but difficult
    1. By “Money Ball” I mean outperforming your spending. Notice how many of the above “Draft heavy” teams made the playoffs this year (Dallas, Columbus, and Philadelphia). When teams scout the draft well and develop the players they draft they make the rest of their roster construction easier. It’s worth noting there are other “Money Ball” teams that don’t focus on the draft such as RSL, RBNY, and DC; these three teams are below average in spending. New England, Vancouver, and Houston are examples of low spenders who didn’t make the playoffs.
  8. Academy/Lower League players tend to raise a team’s floor.
    1. Here are the teams with more than 8 (average would be 6.5) combined Academy and Lower League players: New York, Dallas, Vancouver, Toronto, Seattle, RSL, and San Jose. San Jose really tanked this year, but all of these teams made the playoffs this year or last year (San Jose, Vancouver and Toronto made it in 2017).
  9. Having a high number of trades isn’t a good thing
    1. Here are the teams with more than 6 players acquired via trade: Orlando, Houston, DC, and Minnesota. If it were not for DC’s signing of Wayne Rooney, all of these teams would have missed the playoffs. I suppose that’s the nature of a trade though: it is more of a band-aid than a permanent solution.
  10. Teams with Low Overseas numbers
    1. Teams with under 10 overseas signings: Seattle, Philadelphia, LAFC, Chicago and DC. This is an interesting group of playoff teams (except Chicago). None of these teams were considered the best in the league this year, but they were all considered contenders. Even though teams with high Overseas numbers made the playoffs in 2018 (Portland, and NYCFC), there is not a direct correlation.

If you want more info, analysis on any of these categories click the headers at the top of each section!