There is a very real chance that, 10 days from now, the United States will have won the most recent FIFA World Cups at both senior and youth levels.
No, seriously. In 10 days, that could be fact.
The U.S. women triumphed back in 2015, and now, amid the fury and malaise stemming from the U.S. men’s failure to qualify for next summer’s tournament, a group of teenagers is doing its best to wash away all the negative feelings swirling about American soccer.
The Under-17 World Cup has reached the quarterfinal stage, and the U.S. is still alive. The “Baby Nats” are preparing for a Saturday showdown with England, the reigning U-20 World Cup champs. You can watch the game at 10:30 a.m. ET on Fox Sports 2. And you should watch. Because the U.S. U-17s aren’t just alive; they’re soaring.
They’re one of the most promising youth teams the U.S. has ever had on the men’s side, and after a so-so group stage, they exploded in the Round of 16 against Paraguay. Timothy Weah, the son of former World Player of the Year George Weah, bagged three goals, one of which was this screamer:
But in a way, that screamer wasn’t even the most impressive of the five the U.S. scored in a 5-0 romp. Because this under-17 team isn’t just about one player. It’s got a boatload of talent.
Go back and watch the above highlights again, and start from the beginning. The very first pass you see is one of the most impressive balls you’ll ever see from a 17-year-old. It was played by Andrew Carleton, an Atlanta United starlet who’s the most skilled playmaker in the squad. The quick-trigger, half-volley, outside-of-the-foot through-ball to Ayo Akinola, who crossed to Weah for the opener, was incredible. How many players on the current men’s national team could have played that?
And how many current men’s national team strikers consistently show the combination of composure, movement and finishing ability that U-17 No. 9 Josh Sargent showed on the third and fourth goals?
Sargent is the biggest prospect of the bunch. He’s 17 as well, but also played at the Under-20 World Cup earlier this year. He was that tournament’s joint-second-leading scorer, and his four goals helped propel the U.S. to the quarterfinals. He parlayed that performance, along with his overall promise, into a contract with German Bundesliga side Werder Bremen, where he’ll officially sign once he turns 18. He had caught the eye of clubs as grand as Bayern Munich as well. He’s widely considered the best young American striker since Jozy Altidore.
It is always very tough to evaluate the potential of 17-year-olds, and despite the team’s exploits, this group is no different. There is a very real chance that half the starting 11, and/or half the entire 21-player squad, never even sniffs the senior national team, and struggles to put together a solid pro career. But based on what we’ve seen in the admittedly small sample size of four World Cup games, there’s a lot to be excited about.
The two first-choice center backs, Chris Durkin and James Sands, aren’t even center backs, but have been thrown into their roles by injuries and a lack of defensive depth. They’ve responded well, and have bright futures, whether it’s in the center of defense or in defensive midfield. Durkin is especially promising as a No. 6.
At fullback, Serginho Dest, from the Ajax system, has impressed. Jaylin Lindsey and Chris Gloster, of Sporting Kansas City and the New York Red Bulls, respectively, are also regulars.
The midfield standouts have been Chris Goslin, a versatile, well-rounded Atlanta United product who can potentially play as a No. 6, 8 or 10. Blaine Ferri, an 8, has started alongside him, and is good on the ball. George Acosta can slot in as a 10 in a 4-3-3 if Carleton plays wide.
Carleton has no good comparison to a player on the current senior national team, which is part of what makes him so exciting. He’s not Christian Pulisic. He’s not Clint Dempsey. He’s closer to Pulisic than Dempsey, but not quite as quick as the Borussia Dortmund star. He does, though, have a little bit of Dempsey’s swagger.
And Weah, a Brooklyn native who moved to PSG’s academy three years ago, hasn’t even been a surefire starter for the Baby Nats, because Akinola gives him stiff competition out wide. Akinola is a Detroit native who moved to Ontario as a kid. He’s developed in Toronto FC’s academy, and into a fast, direct winger.
This is the group of players that will battle England on Saturday. The winner will advance to a semifinal matchup with either Germany or Brazil. But more importantly, it’s the group of players that will join with the likes of Pulisic, and Weston McKennie, and Tyler Adams, and possibly Johnathan Gonzalez, to form the men’s national team’s next young core.
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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.