Of the 21 players on the U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team that is in New Zealand for the FIFA U-20 World Cup, 17 have been on a U.S. U-17 or U-20 team at one point or another entering 2015.
Maki Tall, Desevio Payne, Gedion Zelalem and Thomas Olsen had not.
The four players were called to their first U.S. Youth Team over the past two months and here they are representing the USA at the U-20 World Cup.
Pride for the USA, Not a Tall Order
“The USA is becoming a great football nation, so just being invited to the team was a great honor,” said Tall of being called to his first U-20 camp in England this past March. “And to play in a World Cup, that’s not an every day thing. Every player wants to play in one, and we had been fighting for roster spots. And now that we’re here, everybody wants a shot to help the team do great things.”
Tall and his two brothers and sister were born in Washington D.C. Their father is from France and their mother is from Ivory Coast. Because of his father’s job, the family moved to Senegal and then Ivory Coast before Maki was offered an opportunity to try out with clubs in France. He elected to join the youth academy at Le Mans and then signed with Lille in 2012.
Along the way he was called in to play for France’s U-18 and U-19 teams, where he appeared in nine friendlies – including a match against the U.S. in 2013. Through it all, he was never distant from his hometown, made much easier when his mom and his two younger siblings moved back to D.C. a few years ago.
Tall scored against England’s U-20s during his USA debut in March, and then again last week against Australia. And while it took a while to put on the USA jersey, he’s excited and ready for the current opportunity to proudly represent his nation.
“I can’t regret the time past, because without those experiences I probably wouldn’t be here,” said the forward, who has scored eight goals while on loan to Red Star since January. “I’m really happy about the future and I see great things down the road.”
U-20 MNT members Maki Tall, Gedion Zelalem and Tommy Thompson kick the ball around during training.
No Payne, No Gain
Defender Desevio Payne also made his first USA appearance during the England camp last March.
Born in Greewood, South Carolina, Payne was only a year-and-a-half when his family moved to the Netherlands. He comes from a sporting family - his father is from Trinidad and Tobago, and his mom is from Holland. The two met at Landers University when they went to play soccer and softball, respectively.
Growing up in Holland, Payne spoke English with his father and Dutch with his mom. Among his siblings, they speak English with each other.
At age 13, he joined the academy of 100-year-old HFC Haarlem. However when the club dissolved, he moved to lower tier side Zeeburgia. In 2013 he signed with Groningen in the Eirdevisie, and was eventually invited to a Holland U-18 camp. He made his professional debut with Groningen on Feb. 22, 2015 in a 3-1 loss to Heerenveen. A short time later, he received a call from U-20 MNT head coach Tab Ramos.
“Tab called me to introduce himself, and ask about me and tell me about the England camp,” Payne said. “I was excited for the invitation, but I didn’t know what to expect. I just told him that I would do my best in England and wanted to show myself.”
In early May, the former judo competitor was contacted again.
“It’s all happened so quick,” he said. “I thought I had a good first camp, so I was hopeful I would get another call from Tab. I was nervous as the weeks went by, but was really happy when I got that email that I was going to the World Cup.”
U-20 MNT's Desevio Payne walks to training with Landon Donovan.
American Dream is Worth the Wait
Unlike the rest of his World Cup teammates, Gedion Zelalem had not been to any camps before meeting the team in Australia on May 18. Born in Germany to Ethiopian parents, Zelalem and his family moved to Bethesda, Maryland when he was 10 years old. After middle school, he attended Walter Johnson High School and played club soccer on various teams.
In 2011, while playing for Olney Rangers at the prestigious Dallas Cup, he was seen by an Arsenal scout and attended try outs. He first joined the Gunners’ academy and then eventually made his senior team debut in January 2014.
Zelalem also played for Germany from the U-15 age group through the U-17s, but dreamed of a chance to play for the USA. After obtaining his citizenship late in 2014, he was granted a one-time switch from FIFA in mid-May and was added to the U-20 World Cup roster.
“I’ve always wanted to represent the USA,” Zelalem said. “I feel more American than I feel German, so it was a no-brainer for me on which country to chose. Ever since I left the U.S. to go play in England, I’ve wanted to play for the U.S.”
Zelalem is now getting his chance. And like all his teammates, he has bigger dreams.
“I want to make the most of this World Cup,” he said. “And I want to keep going to make it to the first team.”
Not lost on him is the chance to be with fellow American players his age again.
“It’s been great, all the guys are great,” he said of his first week in camp. “They’re all down-to-earth guys. We’re all together here, and there isn’t one player who thinks he’s better than the other. I really like that about this group, and I’m really happy to be here.”
U-20 MNT midfielder Gedion Zelalem is interviewed by the media before practice.
From Campus to the World Stage
Thomas Olsen is one of two college players on the roster. However, unlike Jeff Caldwell, his USA teammate from the University of Virginia, Olsen had never been part of a USA camp before March.
Caldwell was on the U.S. U-17 MNT at the 2013 CONCACAF U-17 Championship, and was part of several other camps in different age levels.
Olsen, who was named the 2014 WCC Freshman of the Year at the University of San Diego, earned his first USA invite for the camp in England.
“You’re shocked initially to see that you’ve reach that level,” Olsen said. “You see the names and see they are pros, and you’re in college. And the first thing I thought was, ‘awesome, now let’s see if I can play with these guys.’”
Olsen backed up Caldwell in the match against England’s U-21s on March 30. But in the back of his head, he thought he had a good camp and kept a sliver of hope that maybe he could make the U-20 World Cup roster.
When the initial squad was announced on May 7, the three goalkeepers were Zack Steffen, Caldwell, and Ethan Horvath. However, almost immediately, Olsen received a call from U-20 goalkeeper coach Russell Payne telling him to come to camp in Carson, California, the following week.
Olsen showed up at StubHub Center when camp broke on May 11 and learned the situation. There was a chance that Horvath wouldn’t be released by his club in Norway. He returned to San Diego to take two more finals on Wednesday, and it was then when he was officially informed that he would be added to the roster in place of Horvath.
“Being a competitor, no matter on what team, you want to be the one,” Olsen said. “Obviously, on this team I have to take a step back and realize that I’m blessed to be here. For me this is more of a learning experience, taking on what coach Payne says, and getting to train with all of these guys. And how I can contribute is by being a leader, by pushing people at training – especially Zack (Steffen) and Jeff – and by being ready if my number is called.”
U-20 MNT's Thomas Olsen stands with goalkeeper coach Russell Payne in Australia.
The U.S. Under-23 Men’s National Team will continue its run at the 2015 Toulon Tournament with a match against the Netherlands on Friday, May 29 (11 a.m. ET, BeIN Sport).
The U-23’s are coming off of a 3-1 opening-game loss to host-France. The U.S. battled in the second half and Jordan Morris scored his third goal of 2015 with the U-23’s, but the team could not overcome the 3-0 first-half deficit.
Netherlands opened with a 3-2 win over Costa Rica behind a pair of goals from Rai Vloe and a score from Anwar El Ghazi. The Dutch and Costa Rica sides played in Stadeo Le Lagrange, just before the U.S. kicked off against France.
The USA has been drawn into Group A of the 2015 Toulon Tournament alongside host France, Netherlands, Costa Rica and Qatar. The U.S. is set to play Netherlands on Friday, followed by matches with Costa Rica (May 31, 11 a.m. ET), and Qatar (June 2, 12 p.m. ET). The top team from the group will advance to the final, while the second-place finisher will move on to play for third. The advancing pair from Group A will match up with the top two finishers from Group B, which includes China PR, England, Ivory Coast, Mexico and Morocco. The placement matches will be played on June 7.
The game against the Netherlands, and all of the following U.S. group-stage tournament games will be broadcast on BeIN SPORTS. Fans can also follow the U.S. games on Twitter @ussoccer.
- Post-game Quote Sheet: USA vs. France
- Q&A: U-23 MNT Head Coach Andi Herzog Talks Toulon
- U-23 MNT 2015 Toulon Tournament Roster
U.S. Tournament Notes:
- With his goal against France, Jordan Morris has now scored in back-to-back games with the U-23s and three straight for the U.S. overall counting his goal with the senior team in its 2-0 win against Mexico on April 15.
- Morris is the U-23’s leading scorer, having tallied three goals in 2015. In five career games with the U-23’s, Morris has scored four goals.
- Getting the start in the match against France, Marc Pelosi made his first appearance in a U.S. uniform in more than two years, having recovered from a series of injuries. He earned his first cap with the U-23 MNT and tallied an assist.
- Coming on as second-half subs against France, Alfred Koroma Shams (62nd minute) and Sam Strong (73rd minute) earned their first caps with the U-23 MNT.
- The Match between France and the USA was the first at the U-23 age level.
- Benji Joya, who scored the lone goal for the U.S. in the match against France in the 2013 Toulon Tournament (when the teams met as U-20 opponents), captained the team in this year’s game against France. Joya and Shane O’Neill started in the match with France and are the only players on the roster to have started all four games in 2015.
- Julian Green earned his first cap with the U-23 MNT.
USA vs. Netherlands Notes
- The USA has faced Netherlands one time in Olympic history, when the pair faced off in Tianjin, China as a part of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. The teams drew 2-2 in the second group game, with goals from Sacha Kljestan and Jozy Altidore.
- Netherlands midfielder Thom Haye plays for Dutch Eredivisie club AZ Alkmaar, where he is teammates with U.S. MNT forward Aron Johannsson.
- 20-year-old Anwar El Ghazi scored nine goals for Dutch Eridivisie club Ajax, and earned honors as the AFC Ajax Talent of the Year for 2015.
Six-year-old Whitney Engen watched Kerri Strug’s final vault during the 1996 Olympics and decided there and then that she was going to be a gymnast. Fully absorbed in her gymnast aspirations, Engen had no intention of playing soccer.
“But my Mom and Dad basically said, ‘Sorry, you have to do this, you gotta play two sports a year’ – I think they just did that because I was such an active kid that they just wanted me to be tired before bed,” laughs Engen.
While she didn’t care much for the game itself, she did like the rituals surrounding it: 1) She got candy after every practice, and 2) When her dad drove her to the game in his old diesel Mercedes, he blasted opera music as they wound up the hill toward the field. They both jokingly sang along, car-rattle helping their operatic vibrato.
Engen in her early days as a soccer player
Then, in her third season of gymnastics, she was dismissed from her gym because she was too big.
“I wanted to be a gymnast more than anything in the world,” says Engen. “But when you’re a 5’7, 100-pound third grader, it doesn’t really work out for you. I was a huge, huge kid. I’ve basically been this tall my whole life. I don’t want to say it was traumatizing, but it was definitely impactful. I towered over everyone.”
On the soccer field, things weren’t going much better than gymnastics.
It was #USWNT Media Day at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square yesterday! More than 190 media members came to speak to the players, making for a memorable day in Manhattan.