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.