The United States Men’s National Team triumphed in the 2022 CONCACAF U-20 Championship, qualifying for the upcoming U-20 World Cup and Olympic Games. Despite the prodigious level of talent on display, a few of the most exciting names were absent from the roster. Justin Che was eligible for the squad but left off the final list. The 18-year-old defender is currently on loan with Hoffenheim from FC Dallas and could be on the verge of a breakthrough season.
Justin Che is a 17-year-old central defender.— B/R Football (@brfootball) September 12, 2021
And yet he still made this run pic.twitter.com/maIoO95g0S
Che was born in Richardson, Texas and joined the FC Dallas Academy – where his father, a former professional player, coaches – in 2009, originally deployed as an attacker while being praised for his “calm and collected” nature. During the 2020 season, he was promoted to the reserve team, North Texas SC, and made 16 total appearances, establishing him as a force on the back line while maintaining a high passing accuracy. Following several strong performances, the defender was named to the USL League One All-League Team and nominated for Young Player of the Year.
That winter, FC Dallas signed him to a Homegrown Player contract, with the player “looking forward” to the next steps. Che then went on a training stint with Bayern Munich and impressed the coaches as having “a lot of potential.” He joined the German super-club’s reserve team on loan, described as “an amazing experience that can change [his] future,” with fellow American international Chris Richards showing the way and acting “like a big brother.”
“It’s definitely been something I’ve really enjoyed,” said Che. “The atmosphere has been different. The coaches are very different here. I’ve had the blessing to learn from top players, top ex-pros and really add some things they’ve taught me into my game. I’ve gotten the chance to play in the first team with the best players in the world and really look and see how they train firsthand. For me, all of this is a learning experience so that I could be the best I could potentially be one day. It’s not a walk in the park, they take every training 150% and that’s why they’re the best players in the world. All you can do is learn from it and make sure the next time you have that chance, do better.”
After eight appearances in the 3. Liga, the defender returned to Dallas, with Bayern “optimistic” that a permanent deal would be completed. Back in MLS, Che played 15 matches during the second half of the season. Despite dealing with a minor injury, he was a regular fixture in the starting lineup and contributed three assists. The focus was on “improving everything little by little” and “doing what [was] best for the team,” including playing a variety of positions.
During the winter transfer window, Che was loaned to Bundesliga side Hoffenheim among inquiries from “four other European clubs,” with interest from Bayern Munich having “cooled off.” His short-term deal lasts through June of 2023 and includes an option to buy. FC Dallas also extended his contract through 2025 with an option for 2026. Then-manager Sebastian Hoeneß praised his “dynamism and flexibility,” believing the teenager to be a “first-team option.”
Che began his tenure with the reserves in the fourth-tier Regionalliga Südwest, making six appearances with the intention to bring him into the squad slowly. His first-team debut came in March against Hertha BSC, playing 13 minutes in a 3-0 loss. His next match was as a substitute at center back in the season-ending blowout defeat to Borussia Mönchengladbach.
At the international level, Che is eligible to play for the United States, Cameroon, Russia, and Germany. He has appeared with the former program, starting at the U-16 level and helping win the 2019 UEFA Development Tournament. The defender received two call-ups to the senior team in May of 2021 and December of 2021 but failed to appear against either Switzerland or Bosnia and Herzegovina, respectively. Despite being included on the provisional roster for the 2022 CONCACAF U-20 Championship, the decision was made for him to not attend.
His international preference remains open, with Germany holding a place in his heart. “I’m still very young so I have a lot of time,” Che said last year. “I think as it stands right now, I don’t really have a primary choice. To me, the team that gives me the most opportunity and the team that embraces me and allows me to represent their country is the team that I’d choose. It’s all about having a chance. If you don’t have a chance, you won’t be seen and no one will know your name. It’s about opportunity and having the pride to represent your country.”
A versatile and rangy defender at 6’1”, Che is capable of lining up at center and right back, with his future likely at the latter position due to an “elite skill set” that involves well-timed tackles and dribbling out of trouble. He is described as being “strong, [able to] distribute the ball, and solid defensively,” with “good technical skills” and a “confident passing game.” A background as an attacker enables him to be comfortable in possession and on the counter-attack, with long transition passes and tip-toeing, sideline-hugging solo runs his best assets.
Next season should bring more playing time, although Hoffenheim is in the market for a center back. With a total of eight on the roster, Che’s best chance at earning playing time may be on the wing. He has time to convince the club to convert his loan into a permanent move, but being a high-potential player at a top-division European club offers few guarantees. With increased opportunities and development, the United States could have another impactful defender to add to the depth chart for the next World Cup cycle.