Current Birmingham Legion FC midfielder Mikey Lopez is one of numerous alumni of the FIFA U-20 World Cup that currently compete in the USL Championship.
Six years ago, current Birmingham Legion FC midfielder Mikey Lopez was in France, part of a United States U-20 National Team competing at the prestigious Toulon Tournament. It was a final audition of sorts. Following the event, the final cutdown was set to arrive as Head Coach Tab Ramos selected his squad for the following month’s FIFA U-20 World Cup in Turkey.
To say there were butterflies for the then-recently signed Sporting Kansas City MLS SuperDraft selection might be a slight understatement.
“I was just anxious and nervous,” said Lopez recently. “From the beginning of that cycle I was with the team the whole time and I was part of the team that made it to the final in qualifiers, so it was just anxious as we waited to figure out what the final squad was going to be, who was going to make it to the World Cup.”
Lopez made the cut, joining teammates like current U.S. Men’s National Team players Zack Steffen, DeAndre Yedlin and Wil Trapp in what he and other alumni of the tournament describe as one of the most incredible opportunities of their lives. As this year’s tournament gets set to kick off on Thursday, we caught up with a trio of players currently competing in the USL Championship to look back at their experiences.
Current Portland Timbers 2 standout Eryk Williamson was part of the United States side that reached the Quarterfinals of the 2017 FIFA U-20 World Cup in South Korea.
Like Lopez, it was a face-to-face experience two years ago for current Portland Timbers 2 standout Eryk Williamson with Ramos that let him know he had made the team for the 2017 edition of the tournament.
“Right when he told me then it was one of those [moments] where I was excited, but I couldn’t really show too much excitement because I was right in front of him,” said Williamson. “I went back to the room and screamed into my pillow. It’s always been something I’ve wanted to go to, it’s always been something I wanted to compete in, so I was happy I was able to make the squad.”
For both Williamson and current San Antonio FC loanee Bradford Jamieson IV, there were also the same nerves accompanying the build-up to the tournament. As much as all three players had been involved in the previous two-year cycle, including featuring at the Concacaf U-20 Championship, there was still a feeling of anxiousness until the conversation with Ramos that they were in the final squad arrived.
“You always had that little bit of doubt in the back of your mind just because you know there had been so many other guys that had been working hard as well and had a lot of good qualities,” said Jamieson. “You get so nervous because it’s something that you’ve worked so hard for, and a lot of it is relief. Obviously, once you get that call, you get this big drive of confidence because 1. Someone has shown that confidence in you and 2. Something you’ve been working hard for has come to fruition. I was over the moon.”
If a conversation with Ramos was what confirmed a player was headed to represent his country, the moment that it really hit home for Williamson was maybe one of the most standard a player would go through in the buildup to the tournament.
“I think the moment was when we received all of our gear for the World Cup,” said Williamson. “All the guys who got their gear realized they were part of the squad. It was surreal, we were all like, ‘wow, we’re heading to Korea now.’”
Each of the teams had pretournament preparation elsewhere before going on to the tournament’s host nation. For Lopez and his squad, it was a trip from France to Portugal for the final leg of training camp. For Jamieson and his teammates, it was a stop in Australia on the way to New Zealand four years ago that got things moving, while Williamson and his squad stopped off in Japan before the final arrival in South Korea.
And as the tournament got closer, the level of attention to detail certainly ramped up.
“They packed everything for us, gave us recovery kits, things that on a normal trip you wouldn’t normally do, but on this kind of stage and this kind of tournament we needed everything and beyond to make sure we were fully ready to go,” said Williamson. “The medical staff and the physical staff had everything set up to where we were in the best state. It was to the point where they had planned out when we were sleeping [during the flight for] the time change, so it was a situation where you listened to everything and put yourself in the right spot.”
When you finally arrive, though, there’s no feeling quite like it.
“When we got to New Zealand it really kind of hits you why you’re there,” said Jamieson. “You’re like, ‘OK, now it’s time to work.’ Every time we were going out to the ceremonies before the tournament it definitely brings a whole series of emotions that you’re going through.”
Current San Antonio FC forward Bradford Jamieson IV was part of the United States' squad at the 2015 FIFA U-20 World Cup and scored against host New Zealand during the team's run to the Quarterfinals.
It’s one thing to play on the international stage for your country, but what’s it like to score against a host nation in front of a packed crowd?
“You’re not really thinking about the work you’ve put in to get to those moments,” he said of his goal against New Zealand which opened a 4-0 group stage victory in Auckland. “At that time, I was worrying about putting it in the back of the net, and once it hit the back of the net, I got this whole influx of emotions. All the guys you’d been going to war with are smiling at you, and at the same time you’re doing this all for the country that you love. It can’t really be explained to a ‘T’, but it’s something that I’ll never forget, that’s for sure. Unforgettable feeling.”
Staying in the moment is maybe the biggest key to success, according to all three, as you try to put the big-picture meaning of the games aside and focus on controlling what you can control for 90 minutes.
“You can’t get caught up in a mistake and worrying about, ‘hey, this is the World Cup, this mistake has cost us this and that,’ it’s a question of putting that behind you,” said Williamson. “If you make a mistake it’s not the end of the world, you have 10 other guys who have your back, it’s just a matter of staying tuned into the moment and then after the 90 minutes you can either reflect on it or not, if it’s a game you don’t want to reflect on you just move past it and move on from there.”
And if you’re in a situation like Lopez faced, going head-to-head against future stars like France’s Paul Pogba, embrace a moment you’ll carry with you for years to come.
“It’s something we tell our new teammates, that I was able to play against [Pogba] and play against other people that were in that World Cup,” said Lopez. “It’s crazy to think about it, honestly.”
Now the captain of Birmingham Legion FC, Mikey Lopez still remains in touch with many of the teammates he played alongside at the 2013 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Turkey. | Photo courtesy Mark Guthrel / Saint Louis FC
With as much focus as competing at the U-20 World Cup can take, it means plenty of meals and downtime together. But, for Williamson and his teammates in South Korea, the opportunity to make the most of scheduled days off was a great chance to get out and about in the host cities.
“We stayed pretty much in the center of Incheon when we played in that city and we had one or two days where we were totally free,” said Williamson. “We all got on Segways and guys had a good time, fully out and about in the city. We went out and got Korean Barbecue – that was a signature in the city – and we got to experience the culture of Korea.”
Opportunities like those, coupled with the reality that for the duration of pre-tournament preparation and the tournament itself, you’re going to be seeing the same faces day-in and day-out can also make for lifelong friendships. Lopez said he still stays in touch with former teammates like Juan Pablo Ocegueda, Benji Joya, Victor Pineda, Daniel Cuevas, Luis Gil, Wil Trapp, and DeAndre Yedlin, with the bond between the group one that’s hard to break.
“The people who are on that team really become a family because you’re in a place where you don’t speak the language, it’s a very foreign place so all you have is your teammates,” said Lopez. “You don’t really leave the hotel because you’re always preparing for the next training or the next game, so the downtime you have is with those guys and you cherish those experiences because a lot of times you won’t ever get to experience something like that again.”
Eryk Williamson has made the most of his opportunities for T2 this season, while also earning call-ups to the United States U-23 National Team preparing for 2020 Tokyo Olympic qualifying. | Photo courtesy Sam Ortega / Portland Timbers 2
If there’s one thing Lopez wishes had existed more fully when he was preparing for the 2013 edition of the tournament, it would have been the opportunities that current members of the U-20 squad are afforded in the USL Championship and League One.
“I think that was one of the things that was difficult for me, because at that time I wasn’t getting a lot of time [with Sporting Kansas City], so I wasn’t as sharp as I wanted to be when it came to the pre-camp before and going into the World Cup,” said Lopez. “Having these experiences before, playing in USL games and getting a lot of minutes definitely helps the players.”
Williamson agrees. While he was still at the University of Maryland when he was called up, as one of the standout players for T2 over the past two seasons he has had the chance to go up against players who are getting ready to represent the United States in this cycle and believes between the experience the side has in the USL Championship and in Europe this year’s squad is going to be better prepared as a result.
“They’re in a better seat than we were,” said Williamson. “They have guys playing in Europe, they have guys getting USL experience, they took that first step early where they went pro instead of taking the easy route and I think it shows. I’ve played against some of the guys in the Championship where I know they’re the next U.S. U-20s. If they’re good enough to play against me now, two years after I was playing in the World Cup, the fact that they’re competing against better players, competing against older players, it really helps you put your head down and grind.”
On loan with San Antonio FC from the LA Galaxy this season, Bradford Jamieson IV still carries the experience of playing at the FIFA U-20 World Cup with him. | Photo courtesy Darren Abate / San Antonio FC
The FIFA U-20 World Cup has historically been a tournament that has acted like a springboard for players at the start of their professional careers. Two years ago, it was players like former USL Cup-winner Tyler Adams and Josh Sargent that started paving the way to a move to top European clubs and the full United States national team.
For others, though, the tournament might serve as the pinnacle of a player’s international career, reason for everyone to embrace the opportunity they’re presented with in Poland over the next three weeks.
“It was obviously an experience you can’t really relate to anything else in your career except other World Cups,” said Jamieson. “I think especially as a young player it’s the most elite tournament you’ll find yourself at. Even if you’re playing in professional settings, there are no matches like country versus country. It’s definitely something you can’t take for granted, and if you get to take advantage of the chances, the options afterward, they go on forever.”
And as the United States prepares to kick off its campaign on Friday against Ukraine (2:30 p.m. ET | FS1), Lopez has a message for those that are about to take the step he and his teammates did previously.
“Fight for your brother next to you, fight for the badge, fight for the country,” said Lopez. “We will be supporting and rooting for you all the way.”