Louisville City FC center back Joshua Wynder's rise from the club's Academy to a first United States Men's National Team call-up in April is one of the most notable stories in American soccer's current landscape. | Photo courtesy Louisville City FC
When the United States U-20 Men’s National Team kicks off the FIFA Men’s U-20 World Cup on Saturday, it will be less than a year since Louisville City FC’s Joshua Wynder made his first appearance at any youth international level.
But given what the 18-year-old had shown in the USL Championship and up-close for the coaches at both the U-19 and U-20 levels since his debut last June against England’s U-19s, there was little doubt he had earned his place in the final 21-man squad.
“What really made the exclamation mark for me was in the last camp,” said United States U-20 Men’s National Team Head Coach Mikey Varas at a press conference last week. “He showed me that he has savage inside him when it comes to defending. At the end of the day, when you’re a defender, you need to be able to defend first. Your job is to be a physical player who wants to protect the goal, and that takes a certain type of personality.
“When he showed that, it was clear to me that he needed to be in our roster.”
Wynder’s rise from playing at the USL Academy Cup for LouCity’s nascent Academy in 2020, to making his USL Championship debut the following year, to now being linked with a major move to Europe this summer – as well as a place in Varas’ squad in Argentina, and his first senior United States Men’s National Team call-up in April – marks a notable landmark for youth development within the United Soccer League’s ecosystem.
Louisville City FC's Joshua Wynder has made 41 appearances in the USL Championship since his debut as a 16-year-old in the 2021 season. | Photo courtesy Em-Dash Photography / Louisville City FC
While 14 of the 21 players selected to the United States U-20s squad have previously played in the USL Championship or League One, many are the products of MLS Academy programs.
Wynder’s success, on the other hand, shows how young, talented players can now grab the spotlight at the professional level for their hometown clubs in the USL Championship or League One and thrive. The combination of visibility provided by the leagues and opportunity for First Team soccer at an early age now offers a major step toward future aspirations for players and the clubs they represent.
“In terms of the academy system, it’s been massive,” said Varas. “We’re all part of the same ecosystem, and I think once we really, really embrace that, that idea that we’re all in this together, we’re going to really become a huge potential in the sport. All the clubs making these investments has been absolutely incredible – the strides MLS has taken, the strides USL is taking – and my hope is that we continue to evolve in terms of really seeing the United States as one whole.”
The exponential increase in professional environments for players to compete in, and the expansion of the youth national team programs on the men’s and women’s side, has been a big plus for Varas and his staff. Having used the opportunity to see more players and build depth with the U-19 program running alongside it, the U.S. squad has high hopes for this year’s U-20 World Cup.
According to Varas, Wynder is among those ready for the opportunity to step up.
“[Joshua] earned his way on, he fought his way into this roster,” said Varas. “Clearly with his work with the U-19s and then coming to Marbella and competing and really proving a point. I think it’s another testament to U.S. Soccer having a U-19 Coach and the work that Marko [Mitrović] did in terms of preparing players that maybe weren’t either ready or weren’t called in to U-20s. [Austin FC’s] Owen Wolff is the same thing, and [Colorado Rapids’ Darren] Yapi. All three of these guys weren’t in with us and now they’re at the World Cup.”
San Diego Loyal SC and United States U-17 Men's National Team goalkeeper Duran Ferree became the youngest player to record a shutout in the Championship this season. | Photo courtesy Ben Nichols / San Diego Loyal SC
Wynder might be the first player to come through a USL Championship or League One’s development pathway to compete at a World Cup, but there will almost certainly be more in the future. The next may be San Diego Loyal SC goalkeeper Duran Ferree, who last year signed professionally with his hometown club before being selected to the United States U-17 Men’s National Team to compete at the Concacaf Men’s U-17 Championship in February, where it qualified for the FIFA Men’s U-17 World Cup in November.
With more local talent signing professional deals at clubs with active Academy pipelines now in place like El Paso Locomotive FC, Sacramento Republic FC, New Mexico United and others, the pathways for talent across the United States are starting to expand more quickly, and more broadly.
Hopefully, that will mean far fewer players fall through the cracks in the development structure, and far more get their chance to fulfill their hopes to compete at the highest level, no matter where they call home.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to play in a World Cup,” said Wynder upon the squad’s announcement. “It’s exciting to represent the United States – and the city of Louisville – on the global stage.”