This weekend's Kevin Baxter On Soccer column in the LA Times focused on the United States U-20 squad that just fell out of the group stage in the FIFA U-20 World Cup last Thursday. The message was that U-20 success isn't measured in wins and loses, but how many players take it as a stepping stone to the next level (though someone should tell Baxter stepping stone is two words).
In 2001, when the tournament was still known as the FIFA World Youth Championship, the US made it out of their group as a second place team but lost in the first knockout match to Egypt. The US side was full of future stars Landon Donovan, Edson Buddle, Bobby Convey, DaMarcus Beasley, Oguchi Onyewu, Brad Davis, and Kyle Martino just to name a few. A 4-1 victory over Chile in the group stage would see Davis, Buddle, and Beasley all notch goals.
Two years later, Mike Magee and Eddie Johnson were plying their trade. Clint Dempsey came off the bench.
Not every career takes the same path. Landon Donovan and Dempsey have been US national team standouts and club leaders their whole career, while Eddie Johnson had to reassert himself recently. Mike Magee has never made a senior side appearance, and Edson Buddle has fallen out of favor after getting a solid look around the 2010 World Cup.
It's the World Cups where we see if the U-20 program has been a success. That players like Davis, Beasley, and Donovan were identified at such a young age certainly factors into the US being a World Cup regular through the 2000s. That those names are still populating the senior squad also shows that this current crop of U-20 players are going to have a place for them in the near future.
Jose Villarreal, DeAndre Yedlin, and Luis Gil, just to use the MLS standouts, could very well be involved in the US senior side come the next World Cup cycle. At that point it won't be their play in the U-20 World Cup that will matter, but the maturity they gained from it.
Right now the US has turned over the centerback position to Omar Gonzalez, who skipped U-20s and went straight to the senior side, and Matt Besler who made one appearance with the U-20s. They've stepped up as Carlos Bocanegra, who played in the 1999 Youth Championship, has been phased out.
So it's not just that the U-20 program can be a stepping stone. It's how the US has developed it's talent for the senior squad. With the college system as it is, there are still going to be Graham Zusi's who don't get on the radar until later in their career. However, Jose Villarreal should be proud to know he's following in the footsteps of some of the best talent the US has ever produced.