2019 is shaping up to be a big year for US Soccer. There’s obviously the World Cup where the US Women’s National Team will defend their world title and the Gold Cup where Gregg Berhalter will be able to see what his team can do in a competitive tournament. Aside from the senior men’s team, the U-20s will go to Poland for the youth World Cup tournament being held there this year. Just which of those players will be available for Tab Ramos may be limited though.
With more U-20 players getting playing time in MLS and more of them being developed in MLS academies, teams face the choice of letting regular starters leave their squads for the U-20 World Cup or keeping them stateside. 2019 will be a packed year for MLS, the league shortened the season to eliminate the tedious two month playoff cycle that saw the championship played in December. The result is more mid-week games and a compressed schedule that will stress depth in a league notorious for having significant drop off in terms of talent once teams need to rotate players for rest or injury.
In recent weeks, Tab Ramos has expressed his discontent with teams in the league that do not release players. Last week The Athletic published an article in which he noted that DC United held Chris Durkin out of the team while Atlanta United did not release Andrew Carleton and George Bello at times last year. He also noted that he had gotten a letter from a different MLS team that they would not release a U-20 player if he was starting. That prompted this reaction from Ramos that ended up in a neatly clipped tweet:
Six months ahead of the U-20 World Cup, Tab Ramos is already running into roster-building roadblocks. @PaulTenorio speaks with the U.S. U-20 head coach: https://t.co/Osd0vINA9E pic.twitter.com/Iwiv1oQX5Q— The Athletic Soccer (@TheAthleticSCCR) January 16, 2019
It now seems that we know who that player is with Jonathan Tannewald reporting that the Philadelphia Union may refuse to release Mark McKenzie for the tournament. If this was a senior squad tournament, clubs would have to release players and that would be that, but with the youth events FIFA doesn’t compel clubs to let their players go.
In the end with MLS clubs having to play over the summer through the U-20 World Cup, unlike the Gold Cup which MLS does break for, the managers and front office decision makers are the ones who hold the cards in this case. Still, everyone is in a difficult position. Jim Curtin and Ramos are paid to win soccer games and McKenzie can only be in one place at one time.
Add to it that there are flimsy arguments about the benefits of playing in the tournament that underlie Ramos’ predicament. If a player like McKenzie is getting regular competitive minutes, and is even being held up as a center piece of his team, it’s dubious that he’s missing much in terms of development by skipping the World Cup.
Should players like Bello, Carleton, McKenzie, and Durkin not be available, a significant portion of the core of the team could be missing in Poland. Should other MLS players join them in being held out, the US could be sending a weak squad to the tournament. Ironically, the result could be that while the US men are undergoing a resurgent youth movement, that may not translate as success in the year’s biggest international event for young players.