Moving into the Top 10 of the 2019 USL 20 Under 20, we find three players who could be part of the United States U-17 National Team squad that will head to Brazil this month for the FIFA U-17 World Cup, a returning standout and captain of the United States U-20 National Team, and a smooth midfield prospect who could become a local favorite for the Timbers Army.
Named to the list for a second consecutive year, Bethlehem Steel FC’s Matt Real has had a positive 12 months for both club and country as he approaches his 60th appearance for Bethlehem since his debut as an Academy signing in the 2016 season.
Real was the captain of the United States U-20 National Team that claimed the 2018 Concacaf U-20 Championship for a second consecutive edition and was subsequently named in the squad for the 2019 FIFA U-20 World Cup held in Poland earlier this year.
While having played as a center back at times, Real projects to be primarily a right back, and has recorded two assists and 12 key passes so far this season in 18 appearances for Steel FC.
Currently second all-time in minutes for Steel FC to veteran James Chambers, Real figures to soon follow Bethlehem alumni Brenden Aaronson, Mark McKenzie and Auston Trusty in earning regular minutes with the Philadelphia Union.
- This is Matt’s second year on the 20 Under 20, where have you see the biggest growth in his game from a year ago?
Matt has continued to grow in both leadership and maturity this year. He has stepped into a young Steel FC side multiple times and has been pushed into leadership roles as the team gets younger and younger. He is naturally gifted at attacking from defensive positions, so this year he has been focusing on and has improved his defensive capabilities.
- Did you see a difference in Matt after his time away with the U.S. U-20 National Team at the FIFA U-20 World Cup earlier this year?
Time with the national team in general is a great accomplishment for any player as it builds confidence for the player, but unfortunately Matt didn’t play much there. I think the Under-20 World Cup didn’t make too big of a difference in his development, but training with the Union and matches with the Steel have really helped him progress.
- Matt has seen some action for the Union the past two seasons, what’s going to be the next step in his progression to becoming a full-time starter at that level?
There is always tough competition for playing time in the Union First Team and unfortunately for Matt he is competing with Kai Wagner, who is for sure one of the best players in MLS at that position. Despite there being competition, there is always some opportunity to step in over the course of a season as he has done already and will be able to do more in the coming season. Matt is on his way by earning a lot of trust from the coaches and that is a good base for increasing his playing time in the future.
Cervantes made history at Orange County by becoming the then-youngest signing in club history at just 15 before the 2018 USL Championship season. This year he’s been called upon to step into a starting role for the club, but it’s shown off exactly why the club had the belief it had a future standout in its Academy.
A potential selection for the U.S. U-17 National Team that will head to the 2019 FIFA U-17 World Cup later this month, Cervantes has recorded three shutouts in 11 appearances while making 21 saves for the veteran-laden Orange County squad.
Those saves have included some standout moments, which have seen Cervantes twice win the Championship’s Save of the Week award this campaign.
He may no longer be the youngest signing in club history, supplanted by history-making 14-year-old Francis Jacobs, but Cervantes looks on the right track for a long and successful career.
- We knew the club was excited about Aaron’s potential when he was signed to a pro deal last year, how do you think he’s handled his first season of action at the first team level?
I think he’s handled it tremendously. He’s a kid I’ve got to know for a long time, I actually got to work with him when he was 10, 11, 12 years old, and I could see it then, his ambition, his work ethic and his drive. That’s ultimately why I brought him to the club. Last year he didn’t get any action, I didn’t think he was quite ready yet, but he worked tremendously hard and he worked a lot off the field watching game tape and videos and working with our goalkeeper coaches and our Technical Director Frans Hoek, and all that paid dividends going into this season. He did really well in preseason, and then under the circumstances we were under early in the season he got his opportunity, and he definitely made the most of his opportunity and built his confidence from there.
- It can be hard having a young goalkeeper behind a side with as much experience as OCSC has in its squad, has that been good for Aaron, the pressure of expectation that comes from within the group?
One-hundred percent, and every day these guys don’t take him lightly and don’t let up on him in the training sessions. These are experienced guys who’ve played at the top level and they expect him to be able to perform, and being the goalkeeper you’re going to be put into situations where you’re the last man standing, and you’re going to have to defend the goal and make big saves at the right moment, and you need the guys in front of you to trust you. I think when it came to shot-stopping, he made a couple of key saves in a couple of big games that definitely started to earn a lot more trust and confidence from the players in front of him.
- It feels like each game we start to see Aaron take positive steps forward. Where do you think his high-end potential currently sits?
He’s doing everything he’s been asked. He’s progressed a lot more I think than maybe a lot of us expected right now, but the sky’s the limit. I think for him to get into next season and keep gaining minutes and confidence, I think he’ll be ready for that next move probably in a year’s time to get up to the next level.
When he made his debut for Tacoma Defiance last September, Danny Leyva became the second-youngest player to record a start in the Championship’s history. This year, the 16-year-old has continued to turn heads in the same way he did to earn an invitation to the Seattle Sounders Academy from his native Las Vegas just two years ago.
Leyva has recorded nine key passes and a passing accuracy rate of 81.7 percent on 67 passes per 90 minutes across 11 appearances this season for the Defiance, while also making six appearances for the Sounders.
His most notable work on the field this year, however, has come for the United States U-17 National Team, where he was named to the 2019 Concacaf U-17 Championship’s Best XI after leading his side to the final and a place in the 2019 FIFA U-17 World Cup this month in Brazil.
One of the exciting young players forging their path in the Pacific Northwest, Leyva is going to have plenty of eyes on him over the next 12 months.
- What is it about Danny’s game that has so many people excited for his future?
Danny shows a maturity beyond his years and has fit seamlessly into both USL Championship and MLS games. He is able to control games in terms of tempo and understanding, a rarity in a 16-year-old.
- Danny has made 11 appearances for Tacoma this season around U-17 National Team duties. What do you think 2020 is going to hold for him?
We would anticipate Danny playing in 30-to-40 professional matches in 2020 between the USL Championship and Major League Soccer.
In his first season as a professional, Carlos Anguiano has gone from fringe player for the Portland Timbers 2 to one of the club’s mainstays despite only just having turned 20 years old. The Salem, Ore. native’s smooth passing ability in the middle of the field has shown a composure beyond his years as his responsibility levels have ramped up in 2019.
Having initially made his debut as a USL Academy signing in 2017, Anguiano has more than doubled his appearances and minutes each year, going from less than 500 minutes in 2018 to more than 1,600 so far this season.
Even with that rise in minutes, Anguiano’s numbers have risen as well, compiling an 88.9 accuracy rate over 45.6 passes per 90 minutes, with four assists and 18 key passes mixed in.
While Portland has pulled talent from around the globe to build its MLS roster, the Timbers Army might soon have one of their own to cheer for at the north end of Providence Park.
- What feels notable about Carlos is how in control he seems to be with the ball at his feet. Where does that part of his game come from?
Carlos has spent a lot of time improving his technical ability and has a good understanding of the game. He has always been a player that wants the ball and wants to facilitate possession.
- He’s very much a product of the Timbers’ development system, coming from the Capital City Timbers originally, is there an element of pride in seeing a player take those steps up the ranks?
There is always a lot of pride in seeing a player come through the academy system, play professional games and ultimately sign a professional contract. Our club infrastructure is designed to promote this type of development and hopefully we can continue to have players work their way through the ranks.
- What are the next steps you’re hoping to see for Carlos to continue that progression into the Timbers’ First Team?
Carlos has developed a lot in his first professional season and there is still a lot of growth in him yet. We have challenged him to be more aggressive in possession, more of a leader on the field and more of a scoring threat going forward. For his continued development he needs more experience in games and to challenge himself to consistently perform at a higher level every day.
Going into the inaugural USL League One season there was no player that fans were more eager to see than United States U17 international and FC Dallas Academy standout Ricardo Pepi as he moved into the professional ranks as the first signing for North Texas SC.
After recording a hat trick in his first game, Pepi has scored nine times at a rate of a goal every 114.8 minutes in his 12 appearances for NTSC this season, while also making his FC Dallas debut in Major League Soccer.
Add in his three goals for the U.S. U-17s at the Concacaf U-17 Championship this summer, and the 16-year-old has established himself as one of the top talents to watch in the U.S. Youth National Team program.
If this season – and upcoming FIFA U-17 World Cup in Brazil that Pepi is expected to be part of – are the prelude, the future couldn’t be brighter for the El Paso, Texas native.
- With his status in the academy and the USYNT set-up, there were plenty of expectations for Ricardo going into this year. How do you think he’s handled that spotlight?
There are no guarantees coming out of the academy or USYNT set-up, the responsibility still remains with the player to progress and realize their potential. The environment is important, but the player provides the ambition and drive to be successful and Pepi has managed that well.
There has been a lot of attention placed on Pepi’s rise this year and the expectations surrounding it. The first thing to remember is that he has the quality. He’s managed his first year with all the demands and changes in competitions, camps, etc. extremely well. How he continues to manage this spotlight will determine how far he goes, because the talent is there.
- With this being a U-17 World Cup year, how do you think he’s fared juggling playing for club and country over the course of the season?
He’s been busy with a demanding training, game, and travel schedule. In this year alone he’s been part of multiple rosters when you include Academy, National teams, and Pros. It’s been demanding but he’s embraced the opportunities.
Representing the National Team at a World Cup is a special accomplishment, and he has earned his place. We are confident that he will represent the country and himself well if selected.
- We’ve seen the FC Dallas Academy produce a lot of talented players. Where does Ricardo’s potential stack up against those who’ve come before him?
He rates with those talented players that have come before him. Pepi has his own unique skill-set, character and potential as a player, but ultimately he will set himself apart as he continues to remain focused, balanced and hungry for the next opportunity.