The U.S. men’s national team’s transition into a new era will take its next step this upcoming week in Philadelphia. Twenty-two players have been called in for a week-long training camp that will conclude with a friendly against Bolivia (Monday, May 28, 6:30 p.m. ET) in Chester.
And among those 22 players are two in particular whom U.S. fans have been waiting to see for some time: Manchester United defender Matthew Olosunde and Benfica midfielder Keaton Parks. There are five other uncapped participants. But those two names are the most interesting.
So who are Olosunde and Parks?
Matthew Olosunde, defender, Manchester United
Olosunde, a 20-year-old right-sided defender, has never appeared in a senior game for Manchester United. But he’s travelled with the first team and played with the reserves. And his path to the world’s biggest club is plenty intriguing.
Olosunde was raised in Trenton, N.J., and grew up playing for a local club. He gained valuable experience through Mooch Soccer, a program founded by Rider University coach Charlie Inverso and New Jersey youth coach Mike Van Wagner that gives opportunities to inner-city Trenton kids.
“The Mooch program helped me … because I always played against older guys who were bigger and stronger,” Olosunde told the Trentonian in 2012. “I was always big for my age and in the Mooch program I had to figure out how to do things without being able to use my size and speed.”
He joined the New York Red Bulls’ academy at 14, but also spent significant time at U.S. Soccer’s residency program in Bradenton, Fla. He had committed to play soccer at Duke, but that was before Man United came calling. Part of United’s pitch, according to Soccer America, was its ability and willingness to set Olosunde up with online classes at Oxford University. Olosunde made the jump once he turned 18.
At United, he progressed from the under-18s to the reserves. A month into his tenure, academy manager Nicky Butt called Olosunde “someone we’re really excited about.” He has the pace of a fullback but the height – 6-foot-1 – of a center back. He’s therefore versatile: he has spent time in midfield and on the right wing, as well as at right back and center back. He’s listed on the U.S. roster as a defender.
Keaton Parks, midfielder, Benfica
Parks has made four appearances in central midfield for Benfica, one of the top two clubs in Portugal’s Premeira Liga. But his path to Benfica was, even by American soccer standards, very unconventional.
Born in Plano, Tex., he played three years of high school soccer. Outside of school, he played for a Liverpool-affiliated American club. But never did he feature for a U.S. Soccer Development Academy club, nor was he involved with U.S. Soccer’s youth teams until last April, when he got an under-20 call-up from Tab Ramos. He was the only of 25 players on that U-20 roster to never have been a part of the DA.
Through his club, Liverpool Warriors, he got connected with several Portuguese outfits, and made the leap to second-division side Varzim. Here’s Parks, via DallasNews.com, on how the opportunity came about:
“My club coach used to play professionally in Portugal. He has a lot of friends on the teams here. The first summer I came here I trained with multiple teams. We met an agent, and he liked us. He helped us get more trials at Benfica, Braga and Sporting Lisbon. Later on in the summer, we came back and played in the Varzim tournament with the Liverpool Warriors, a NPSL side. The club watched us play and liked me from that tournament, and then approached our agent and then I signed for the team in the summer.”
Parks, after a brief stint with Varzim’s reserves, was promoted to the first team, for whom he played 10 times during the 2016-17 season. His performances reportedly caught the eyes of Monaco, Lille, Leicester City, Borussia Monchengladbach, and other Portuguese clubs. He chose Benfica, and signed for the then-reigning Portuguese champs last July. He spent much of the season playing – and impressing – for the reserves, but also continued his rapid ascent up to the first team.
After making his senior debut in a November cup match, he played three more times in official competitions. More importantly, he signed a contract extension in December that could keep him at Benfica until 2022. The club clearly likes what it sees in the versatile 6-foot-4 midfielder. He’s athletic for his size, and shows intelligence on the ball. It will be fascinating to see how Dave Sarachan and future U.S. coaches incorporate him.
Other uncapped players
There are seven uncapped players on the roster. Among the seven, three have never been invited to a U.S. men’s national team camp before. Olosunde and Parks are two. The third is Alejandro Guido, a 24-year-old Tijuana midfielder who can play a few different central midfield roles. Born in San Diego, he has played sparingly for Tijuana’s first team since signing for the Liga MX side in 2012. He had extensive experience at the U-17 and U-18 levels for the U.S., but national team opportunities dried up thereafter.
The other four are Toronto FC goalkeeper Alex Bono, Manchester City center back Erik Palmer-Brown, Everton left back Antonee Robinson and Werder Bremen striker Josh Sargent.
Here’s more on Sargent, who received his first call-up as an 18-year-old last November, but did not feature in a friendly against Portugal due to a minor injury. He’s the top young striker in the U.S. player pool.
Robinson, a 20-year-old dual national with England eligibility, spent this past season on loan at Bolton in the Championship. He appeared in 30 games, and now is back with Everton – whose academy he came through – for the time being. But he could be off on loan again next season.
Of those four players, though, the most intriguing might be the 21-year-old Palmer-Brown. He spent the latter half of this past season on loan with KV Kortrijk in Belgium. An Ohio native and DA kid, he signed a pro contract with Sporting Kansas City at the age of 16. For a few years now, he’s been rated as one of the top young American center backs. He, along with Robinson and Bono, received his first senior U.S. call-up in March, but did not see the field against Paraguay.
– – – – – – –
More soccer from Yahoo Sports:
• 2018 World Cup preview hub
• Jurgen Klinsmann Q&A: What’s next for former USMNT boss?
• How Putin can use the World Cup to his benefit
• FC Yahoo Mixer: The Ronaldo vs. Messi debate
• Jurgen Klinsmann, Bruce Arena open up about USMNT qualifying failure
• Ramadan dilemma for World Cup-bound Muslim players: faith or football?