The Under-20 World Cup kicked off this Thursday, and there’s no shortage of players who will be hoping to shine on the big stage in Poland. We run through the squads to pick out 10 young stars looking to get noticed: Five are on the United States team or based in MLS, and the rest are from elsewhere.
Players from the U.S. or Major League Soccer
This summer will see MLS sides lose plenty of talent to international duty, especially with the CONCACAF Gold Cup and CONMEBOL Copa America taking place. But it’s the younger set battling for World Cup glory that deserve more attention. –– Arch Bell
— Carlisle: Sebastian Soto’s ready for World Cup challenge
Timothy Weah, FW, United States
In the aftermath of the USMNT’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, a slew of young players in the national team pool got a shot with the senior team. Weah was one of the leaders in that regard, having notched eight senior caps to this point. Although he did not play with the U20s at last fall’s CONCACAF Championship, the striker stands to make a big impact in Poland.
A lack of playing time at Paris Saint-Germain led to a loan move to Celtic, which should greatly benefit the 19-year-old. In Scotland, he scored four goals in 17 matches, and he enters the tournament with an impressive résumé at both the club and national team level. After he scored a hat trick in a 5-0 win over Paraguay at the 2017 U17 World Cup, there’s no reason to think Weah can’t put up similar numbers at this World Cup.
Alex Mendez, MF, United States
Mendez is a special talent, already drawing attention in his first few months in Europe with Freiburg’s Under-19 team. Mendez scored both goals for the U.S. in the 2-0 win over Mexico in the final of the 2018 CONCACAF U20 Championship last November and took home tournament MVP honors, proof that he thrives under the bright lights.
Mendez is a left-footed midfielder who is calm with the ball at his feet and possesses a passing technique beyond his years. In international competition, it can be critical to have a player who can be trusted to possess the ball in sticky situations and find solutions. Mendez is that kind of player. He also shows plenty of commitment in getting back to defend and is not afraid to be physical to recover possession. After two stellar seasons with LA Galaxy II, he has continued to improve in Germany and will no doubt be one to watch in Poland.
Ezequiel Barco, MF, Atlanta United/Argentina
Atlanta’s Argentine midfielder has been in the professional ranks so long that one forgets he’s still only 20. Barco’s big breakout at the club level came in 2017, when he helped lead Independiente to the Copa Sudamericana title at age 18, scoring the decisive goal in the second leg of the final in Brazil against Flamengo.
Having finally hit his stride with Atlanta United in season two and having matched his 2018 total with four goals, Barco looks to put his stamp on Argentina’s U20 team. An injury prevented him from competing in the South American U20, but the early signs are that he’ll be one of the baby Albiceleste’s main men in Poland. With Miguel Almiron‘s departure for Newcastle over the winter, Barco has taken over as Atlanta’s primary playmaker, a role that should suit him well for his national team.
Wesly Decas, DF, Atlanta United 2/Honduras
A U20 World Cup is nothing new for this Atlanta United 2 defender. Decas played in the U20 World Cup two years ago in South Korea, appearing in all three of the Catrachos’ matches. Since then, it has been an interesting 24 months for the defender, with spells in Mexico’s second flight with FC Juarez and a short stint in Portugal before he joined Atlanta United’s reserve team, even though Decas was under the impression that he’d be with the first team.
Decas’ national team situation is much clearer. On the heels of playing six matches with Honduras at the 2018 CONCACAF U20 Championship, the experienced left-back will likely captain the Catrachos in Poland. He exudes confidence with the ball at his feet, doesn’t hesitate to flight in a crossfield pass and anticipates well when the opposition comes to his side. He is also a threat in the air and a weapon on set pieces.
Saed Diaz, FW, Bethlehem Steel/Panama
There is not a lot expected from Panama at the U20 World Cup, but Saed Diaz could be a player who stands out for the Canaleros at the tournament. He is a big, physical forward who showed off his good first touch in the area during the CONCACAF U20 Championship when he scored four goals, including a match-winning brace versus Canada.
The Philadelphia Union are considered to have one of the best youth systems in MLS, and they moved quickly to scoop up Diaz, who has four matches under his belt with the Bethlehem Steel in the USL Championship.
Diaz will get the opportunity of a lifetime in the group stage, when he goes up against tournament favorite France’s talent-laden squad. Panama aren’t likely to see much of the ball in that contest, so Diaz’s aerial threat will be one of the Central American side’s best chances to score. A good game against Les Bleus, and Diaz’s profile will be raised.
REST OF WORLD
Much is expected of six-time U20 champions Argentina as well as traditional powers such as Italy, Portugal and France, but there’s talent everywhere, especially given that current champions England failed to qualify after enduring a miserable European Championships. — Nick Ames
Dan-Axel Zagadou, DF, Borussia Dortmund/France
Zagadou already holds one significant record at this Under-20 World Cup, albeit jointly. At 6-foot-5, he and Nigeria goalkeeper Olewade Olemade tower above every other player on show, and the France centre-back can outdo most in terms of pedigree too. Borussia Dortmund might have fallen agonisingly short of pipping Bayern Munich to the Bundesliga title, but Zagadou, who made 17 league appearances and started three Champions League games, keeping clean sheets in all three, can count the campaign as a big personal success.
It is no mean feat for a centre-back to feature so prominently at his age; there have been mistakes along the way, but his strength, composure and ability to make vital contributions at the other end of the pitch have already made him a favourite. If he continues along these lines, Zagadou, who arrived from Paris Saint-Germain in 2017, should become one of the world’s most exciting defenders; he should certainly be among the most dominant in Poland this summer.
Radoslaw Majecki, GK, Legia Warsaw/Poland
Poland’s production line of outstanding goalkeepers just keeps on going. The latest is Majecki, who is just 19 but has already made 14 league appearances for Legia Warsaw, the country’s biggest club, after cementing his place earlier this season. During the winter, he was heavily linked with Arsenal, former stomping ground of fellow Poles Wojciech Szczesny and Lukasz Fabianski. He certainly fits the sweeper-keeper bracket in which Unai Emery would be searching and, at 6-foot-3, cuts a commanding figure between the posts.
A strong showing at his home tournament would intensify speculation that he’s set for a big move. While Polish keepers are in vogue, they tend not to cost much when purchased straight from the domestic league, and one of the continent’s giants could be in for a bargain. First of all, he hopes to help Poland match, at the very least, their third-place finish from 1983.
Erling Haaland, FW, Red Bull Salzburg/Norway
The name Haaland might be familiar: Erling’s father, Alf-Inge, enjoyed 10 years in England with Nottingham Forest, Manchester City and Leeds United, making his name as a tough utility player before a famous challenge from Roy Keane arguably ended his career. The 6-foot-3 Erling, who does not turn 19 until July, is cut from the same powerful cloth but does his best work around the opponents’ penalty area. He scored 14 times for Molde in Norway’s top flight before moving in January to Red Bull Salzburg, who have a formidable track record of developing some of the world’s best youngsters, in January.
Earlier in May, he netted his first goal for the Austrian champions in a win over Linz, and there should be more to come. Despite his size, Haaland — who was born in Leeds — has exceptional feet and sharp vision, drawing loose comparisons to Romelu Lukaku and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. At any rate, he has every chance of outdoing his father’s achievements.
Juan Camilo “Cucho” Hernandez, FW, Watford/Colombia
How many players in this year’s tournament have scored at both the Bernabeu and the Camp Nou in the past nine months? Huesca, with whom Hernandez spent a second consecutive season on loan from Watford, might have been relegated from La Liga with something to spare, but in putting them in front from close range at Barcelona (they eventually lost 8-2) in September, the 20-year-old announced himself to the world. When he did exactly the same against Real in March, with a sweet, first-time strike, it confirmed that he has a knack for troubling the big boys, and his parent club might put that to the test in the Premier League next term.
Hernandez, who scored 16 times during Huesca’s promotion from the Segunda Division in 2017-18, also made his senior Colombia debut in October and found the net twice against Costa Rica. His first goal came 32 seconds after he came off the bench. Long regarded as one of the world’s most exciting talents, he stands on the verge of a major breakthrough.
Tom Dele-Bashiru, MF, Manchester City/Nigeria
Dele-Bashiru has had scouts excited for years, and his name might feature prominently in the headlines this summer, not least because he has rejected a new contract at Manchester City, and other big guns around Europe have been circling. Atalanta are among those who have been linked, and there will be plenty of opportunity for them and others to take a close look in Poland, where the 19-year-old will be charged with running the midfield for Nigeria.
He was born in Manchester and has represented England at Under-16 level but committed to the Super Eagles earlier this year. Yaya Toure, a former Man City fixture, was a significant influence earlier in his career, and Dele-Bashiru has been compared favourably to the former Ivory Coast star. Whether he can emulate Toure remains to be seen, but Nigeria’s hopes have been pinned firmly on a flying start from their new recruit over the next few weeks.