The U.S. Under-17 national team heads into the Concacaf Under-17 Championships as a contender for the crown, with a strong contingent of players and boasting more professionals than any U.S. U-17 team before it.
Whether that is enough to help the Americans topple three-time defending Under-17 Concacaf champion Mexico remains to be seen, but if they do, it will be on the strength of performances from standouts Gianluca Busio and Giovanni Reyna.
New U.S. Under-17 head coach Raphael Wicky only took charge in March, but he has inherited a solid team capable of winning the tournament, though the main task will be qualifying for the Under-17 World Cup in Brazil.
“We knew we weren't going to come in here and change everything, because I don't have that much time to train with them,” Wicky said on Tuesday. “The new things we want to bring in are pretty basic concepts or basic principles. So far, I'm very happy with what I've seen."
What Wicky has seen is a team featuring nine players signed to professional first-team contracts, a number that doesn't include Reyna, who will finalize a move to Borussia Dortmund this summer. The Americans are balanced squad with dangerous attackers as well as a sturdy defense and an elite-level prospect in goal.
Here is a look at the top American players to watch at the Concacaf Championships, which the U.S. team will kick off on Thursday against Canada:
Gianluca Busio, Midfielder
The Sporting Kansas City midfielder recently put together a run of scoring goals in three straight matches, becoming the youngest player to ever accomplish the feat in Major League Soccer. An attacking midfielder who should run the attack, Busio's ability to create chances, both for himself and his teammates, will make him the focal point for the U.S. going forward.
“So far, I know his personality, he needs to be part of a team,” Wicky said of Busio. “He alone, even if he has regular minutes, he's not going to make a team alone. It's about the team, and he's aware of that. I'm very happy to have him here.”
Giovanni Reyna, Forward
While Busio has been earning regular first-team minutes, Reyna has been in a bit of limbo while he waits for his club situation to be sorted out. Despite a lack of playing time, Reyna still heads into the Concacaf Championships considered the top prospect in the tournament.
Wicky's task will be building the attack around Reyna and Busio, a tandem that will be a handful for every defense in the tournament.
“I think a player like him needs to be involved as much as possible in the game,” Wicky said of Reyna. “He makes the other players look better, he makes things easier for the other guys, so I would like to have him as much as possible in the center of the field.
“I don’t think the position where he plays when we have the ball is important. It’s more that he knows I want him in the center. So, he can start from the wing and come inside. He can be as a nine and drop down a little bit. He can start as a center midfielder, as an eight or a 10. So, there is a lot of different variations of him. I want to put him into positions where he touches the ball a lot. He has the potential, the quality to create chances.”
Ricardo Pepi, Forward
A 6-foot-1 striker who has earned regular playing time with USL League One side North Texas SC, Pepi is an FC Dallas academy product who has been the team's lead striker this cycle. His excellent hold-up play and technical quality on the ball should help him score goals with Reyna and Busio providing the service.
Pepi does have some competition for the lead striker role though in the form of Seattle Sounders signing Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez, who has already earned minutes in USL with the Tacoma Defiance, and recently helped lead the Seattle Sounders U-17 team to the Generation Adidas Cup title.
Damian Las, Goalkeeper
The Chicago Fire academy product is an imposing figure in goal, and while he hasn't signed a pro contract yet, it isn't because he hasn't had the chance to sign one. Las has turned down a contract offer from the Chicago Fire and will be a player scouts pay close attention to at the Concacaf Championships, and while he may not be called on early, Las will be a key figure in the U.S. team's attempt to unseat Mexico as regional champion.
Joe Scally, Right Back
The U.S. defense has several good prospects, including Kobe Hernandez and Tayvon Gray, but Scally is arguably the best of the bunch at the moment, and will be key to helping the Americans shut down some of the dangerous wingers who will be on display at the Concacaf Championships.
"He’s very important for this team, has been in the recent games," Wicky said of Scally. "His personality, his fighting spirit, his mentality to work for the team is really, really good and I’m really happy to have him."