“Can you guys stop? Stop being childish…so immature,” USMNT U-20 and Philadelphia Union defender Brandan Craig turned in his seat and jokingly chided his teammates from the beautiful, sun-stricken beach in Clearwater, Florida. Members of the team could be seen in the background playing games and tossing objects over and around him while we chatted via Zoom. Brandan and the rest of the Union squad were participating in preseason camp on Florida’s west coast, shortly after he returned from his January USMNT U-20 call-up alongside fellow club players Jack McGlynn and Quinn Sullivan.
“It’s really nice, we’re staying at a hotel right on the beach, which is lovely,” he said shortly after he watched something go sailing over his head into the sand behind him.
It was a moment of respite for an otherwise busy Brandan Craig, who’s been occupied not only preparing for the upcoming MLS season - one in which he’ll likely feature more consistently as a vital part of Jim Curtin’s side - but also for the FIFA U-20 World Cup that kicks off May 20th in Indonesia.
The young defender has staked his claim as a steadfast part of that United States U-20 squad, helping them qualify for this edition of the World Cup while also qualifying the United States in men’s soccer for the 2024 Olympics in Paris. His 2022 was exceptionally busy; his defensive prowess was vital in making sure the United States gave up only two goals in the U-20 Concacaf Championship in Honduras, both to Canada, while they subsequently netted an insane 31 of their own. He then played a part only a short couple of months later in the Revelations Cup in Mexico, where he scored in a 3-1 win over Peru.
“It’s funny,” Brandan chuckled when asked about that goal. “I remember [U-20 assistant coach] Shaun Tsakiris...he told me before the game, ‘I want a set piece goal.’ And I was like ’Shaunee, I gotchu.’ As soon as we got that free kick at the top of the box, I think he told some of the other players, ‘This is a goal.’ So obviously, having that confidence in me is huge.”
That game was also a huge test of character for the young guys, Craig said. “In the first half we weren’t that great with the ball…it was really, really hard but we went through the highs and lows together. We bent, but we didn’t break in that game. Which makes a good team a great team, that’s the difference. We never give up on anything…that’s not in our DNA. We bleed, sweat, and die together.”
It wasn’t always club and country football for Brandan, though. He was raised playing the beautiful game because of his own parent’s love for soccer after they met while both playing for Temple University in Philadelphia.
“They introduced me to the game when I was very young, kicking a soccer ball around the house, in the backyard and everything. I grew up playing with all my neighborhood friends, and then I slowly moved to a club team, which then became a travel team and I was traveling all over the country playing in different tournaments.”
“Ultimately from there, I got scouted from the Union, joined their Union Futures and Juniors programs. And then after that, I joined the academy when I was…10-11 years old.”
Being a hometown kid, Brandan’s entire life essentially revolved around the Union from that point onward.
“We have a really special club, obviously we have a school, which is first and foremost unique. That’s great because it helps us recruit a lot of players. I went to the school, my little brother, who’s on the U-17s right now, he goes to the school now, too.”
The 18 year-old defender praised the academy, director Tommy Wilson, Richie Graham, and the entire Graham family for both his success and that of so many other young players that Philly’s world-class institution has produced. Brandan’s own tenure has included the aforementioned time in the Union academy before moving up to Philadelphia Union II in 2020, where he had 32 appearances, a captaincy, and 2 goals to his name. He then signed his homegrown contract in early 2021 and made his first appearance for the first team against D.C. United.
While it was immediately clear that Brandan was proud of both his and his family’s accomplishments, his face glowed when he spoke about his call-ups to United States youth teams.
“Being called up to the national team is a huge honor, whether it be U-15s, U-17s, the [U-20s], or the [USMNT], like obviously it’s a huge honor…not only for me but for my entire family, the club, everybody that I know, I’m representing them. I’m playing for them and for everybody else who isn’t watching, every U.S. citizen. That’s what makes me proud, I’m playing for guys who have no idea about us.”
“We have a really, really good team, and we have a really, really good coach, too, Mikey Varas. I think he’s the perfect suit for us. I think we’re going to have a strong World Cup.”
The constant travel and camaraderie involved with being a part of a national team can be infectious, and Brandan noted how those moments are so fleeting. He reminisced a bit during the short break he had after the most recent U-20 camp.
“I’m going to watch the U-17s in Guatemala. I got bored and was sitting on my couch and thinking, so I watched our [U-20] games on FS1 against Costa Rica, Honduras, and the Dominican Republic…and I was smiling and laughing because I want to relive that moment. You only get to live that moment once, in the present.”
It’s a valuable life lesson that’s already been grasped at such a young age, and one that shows his maturity. But that doesn’t stop him from looking forward to his future goals and dreams.
“I want to win as many trophies and lift as many trophies as possible, for both club and country.”
The path wasn’t always straightforward, though. Brandan also spoke about the adversity he overcame when asked about his prior national team call-ups. After playing with the U-15s and helping them get to the Concacaf Championship through the qualifiers, the COVID pandemic struck and threw everything upside down.
“I didn’t go to the first Revelations Cup, but obviously I was really super excited for Jack [McGlynn], Paxten [Aaronson], and Quinn [Sullivan] to be a part of that...I used that for fire and motivation for myself. These guys…I’m not [at the time], I wouldn’t say jealous but I want to be a part of the national team, too, again. I missed that feeling, and I really, really, really wanted that back. And luckily I did and I made the most of my opportunities, and now here I am today.”
When asked about what the USMNT U-20s were doing to move forward and prepare for Indonesia - and with the MLS season rapidly approaching - the main focus, he said, is his club career because that’ll inevitably lead to further success with the national team.
“The next time I get a call-up, I’ll be ready,” he said. “When that call happens, I’m ready to do whatever it takes.”
One of the most important aspects of being a part of a team, though, was what U-20 coach Mikey Varas described as “quality time over quantity.” Brandan said that for the tournament in Honduras, they showed up only eight days prior to the first match and they had to turn away an early friendly with El Salvador because they weren’t even in the country yet.
“We have games, like fun hotel games, chemistry-building, team-bonding games. It really helps us, brings a smile out of everybody.”
“Somebody always brings a PS5, an Xbox,” Brandan laughed when asked about playing FIFA. “We play charades, or Pictionary…but it’s basically a new game every time. Not only do the players play, but the staff play, too. That’s what our relationship is, we really have fun and spend quality time with each other. We stick together through the highs and lows.”
Until the next camp, though, his responsibilities with the Union are what ultimately advance his career and head coach Jim Curtin made it clear he would be needed this season.
“We have so many games, we could play up to like…60-something, which is an absurd amount. So we need every single guy on our roster. When you’re called upon, show up and take the most of that opportunity. That’s something he said to be ready for. There may be games where we play three in the back…I think it’s something that’ll suit us in the regular season. Be ready for it, because the opportunities are coming.”
The end of the conversation approached and it seemed the shenanigans from the teammates were starting to pick back up again, but Brandan had to give a shout-out of his own.
“I have a younger brother [with the Union], he’s also a really technical player but he’s really aggressive,” Brandan said as he described his brother’s strength and ability. He’s left-footed and his left foot is better than my right at 15. He’s one I see up and coming in the national team. One day when he gets his first invite I can’t wait to see his reaction.”
That lifelong connection to Philly and the support both to and from his family is incredibly clear when speaking with Brandan Craig, as it’s truly been what’s shaped his life up to this point. His talent is unmistakable, and his work ethic is clearly top notch. With a club and country career that are just kicking into high-gear alongside other young Union talent, he only had one thing left to say about his teammates.
“Ohhhh, they’re getting dunked in the pool after this!”