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SSFC Spotlight: Mauricio Cuevas could play key role at CONCACAF U-20 Championship

The Brugge fullback is a two-way talent.

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Los Angeles Galaxy II v Portland Timbers 2 Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

United States U-20 Men’s National Team manager Mikey Varas named a 20-player squad for the upcoming 2022 CONCACAF U-20 Championship in Honduras. The competition serves as qualification for both the 2023 FIFA U-20 World Cup and the 2024 Summer Olympics. One notable inclusion on the roster is Mauricio Cuevas. The 19-year-old defender joined Club Brugge during the winter transfer window and could be a key player during the tournament.

Cuevas was born in Los Angeles, California and joined the LA Galaxy Academy in 2016, named to the Development Academy Western Conference Best XI while being scouted by Chivas Guadalajara. At 16 years old, he was promoted to the reserve side. “Mauricio is a talented young defender and we are excited for him [to] begin his professional career in our organization,” said then-General Manager Dennis te Kloese. “We are enthusiastic about [his] future within our club.”

In his first season, Cuevas played in four USL Championship matches, notching his first career assist in a match against Fresno FC. The next year, he contributed four goals and four assists in 17 appearances, maintaining a 74% passing percentage and frequently winning duels, registering the most tackles and second-most interceptions among defenders. Incredibly, all of his finishes came from free kicks, a specialist increasing the likelihood of every dead ball finding the back of the net.

“I try to get focused on the ball as much as possible,” said the set-piece maestro. “Think about how I’m going to hit it, the distance that I’m going to hit it, and just getting over the wall and putting it on frame. I get that moment, that feel, that I’m going to hit this ball good. And then once I hit it right, it’s just, you know, and the ball’s already in. It’s just something I’ve always worked on, been crafting. I think it’s very important to have… It’s a big weight on my shoulders, but I can handle it.”

After his breakout year, the Galaxy included him on the first-team roster for preseason, while the league listed the teenager as a “top-five fullback.” Despite being one of the competition’s most exciting young talents, Cuevas failed to appear during 2021 and declined signing a contract extension. At the conclusion of the schedule, he was a free agent, and the club announced his departure.

In January, Cuevas joined 18-time and reigning Belgian champions Club Brugge. He began his tenure with the reserve team, Club NXT, registering an assist in his debut. The defender quickly became a regular in the rotation and has made an immediate impact with dangerous crosses and overlapping play.

At the international level, Cuevas is eligible to play for the USMNT and Mexico. The defender has received regular call-ups with the former program, beginning at the U-16 level. He made three appearances at the 2019 CONCACAF U-17 Championship, a run that ended with a second-place finish, but was left off the roster for the ensuing World Cup. The decision to exclude the talented prospect was described as a “robbery.” Mundo Deportivo reported that El Tri manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino is monitoring his progress.

Cuevas is an intelligent wide defender capable of playing on both sides of the formation with an obvious talent for set pieces and possesses “the creativity to get [his team] out of difficult situations in the build-up.” A little undersized at 5’7”, he can sometimes struggle in more physical match-ups but displays “good shape” and footwork in one-on-one battles. His slide tackles are frequent and impeccably timed, with the 19-year-old regaining possession and immediately looking to move the ball forward. Chasing a Cup praised him as “one of the more technically gifted attacking fullbacks in the pool,” noting his dribbling, pace, athleticism, and “ability to hit a cross on a dime.” The CIES Football Observatory listed him as a top global prospect in the 2003 age group.

“Cuevas is very comfortable on the ball, can dribble it forward quickly, and shows no significant problem using his left foot to control, dribble, or pass the ball,” wrote Juan Gafas for BabaGol. “He is very much forward-thinking, trying to progress the ball up the field quickly, and has the quality to make it count. [He is] often looking for the line-breaking passes, even getting the forwards in behind the opposition [defense] when the option is there, which he executes well. His range of passing comes into use when delivering accurate diagonal switch balls too. In general, he shows good quality in the building phase and when going forward.”

Youth international tournaments could be viewed as a novelty but also provide a valuable glimpse into developing talents yet to truly break through on the club scene. Despite being marked as a top prospect, Cuevas essentially missed out on a year of match experience before moving to Brugge. Both the CONCACAF Championship and the upcoming World Cup could provide him with valuable playing time against top competition and ideally raise his profile. If the United States is going to emerge victorious, his attacking prowess will likely play a key role.