USL Championship alumni Gianluca Busio, Tyler Adams and Brenden Aaronson could all have key roles to play as the United States resumes 2022 FIFA World Cup Qualifying this week.
When the United States Men’s National Team resumes 2022 FIFA World Cup Qualifying on Thursday night against Jamaica at Q2 Stadium in Austin, Texas, it will do so with 14 alumni from the USL Championship, USL League One and USL League Two preparing to represent their nation.
Among them are former All-League selections and league title winners, an indicator of the platform the USL’s professional and pre-professional divisions have provided over the past decade to the next generation of players making their way to the top of the sport in the United States.
Players like 2016 USL Championship Title winner Tyler Adams (New York Red Bulls II), two-time USL Championship Playoffs participant Brenden Aaronson (Philadelphia Union II), and 2019 USL League One Title winner Ricardo Pepi (North Texas SC) were among the notables last month, and they’re joined in the squad this time by youngster Gianluca Busio (Sporting Kansas City II) and veteran Gyasi Zardes (Ventura County Fusion).
The United States hosts Jamaica on Thursday night to open its qualifying campaign before visiting Panama on Sunday, October 10 and closing its three-game run with a home contest against Costa Rica in Columbus, Ohio on October 13.
In total, the players selected have made a combined 162 appearances in the USL Championship, 13 games in USL League One, and 78 appearances in USL League Two. Find out more about the players who came through the USL on the way to national team duty.
Brenden Aaronson, Philadelphia Union II (2017-18): Aaronson is the first of two players in the squad that came through the Union II on his way to Europe, where he now features for Red Bull Salzburg in Austria and has this season recorded three goals and three assists across all competitions. Aaronson made 24 appearances and recorded one goal and five assists for the Union II across his two seasons, and helped the side claim its first postseason victory when it defeated Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC in a penalty shootout in the 2018 USL Championship Playoffs.
Tyler Adams, New York Red Bulls II (2015-16): The first signing in New York Red Bulls II history may no longer be its youngest, but Adams’ progression from the Championship to the USMNT and one of the top clubs in Europe is one of the most remarkable in the past five years. Handed the captain’s armband in the last qualifying window, the 22-year-old made 33 appearances across the Championship’s regular season and playoffs on his way to helping the Red Bulls II become the first MLS-owned-and-operated side to win the Championship final in 2016, logging more than 2,400 minutes in the league.
George Bello, Atlanta United 2 (2018-20): Bello took his first steps into the professional ranks with ATL UTD 2 as a 16-year-old during the 2018 season. He went on to make 19 appearances overall and record one goal in just over 1,000 minutes of action for the side before moving full-time into Atlanta’s MLS squad. This year the 18-year-old has made 23 appearances for Atlanta and has made the step up to the senior national team after competing previously at the U-15 and U1-7 levels.
Gianluca Busio, Sporting Kansas City II (2017-20): Busio made his professional debut for Sporting Kansas City II in the 2018 season and quickly drew attention after recording two assists and 12 key passes in 10 games as a 16-year-old. Three years on – and with both 16 games in the Championship and another 61 in Major League Soccer for Sporting Kansas City – the 19-year-old this summer made the move to Serie A’s Venezia FC, where he has already notched his first goal and assist in six appearances in Italy’s top flight.
Sean Johnson, Atlanta Blackhawks (2009): The Georgia native spent time in USL League Two with the Atlanta Blackhawks prior to the start of his professional career, making six appearances in the 2009 season. Since then, he’s made more than 300 regular-season appearances in Major League Soccer at Chicago Fire FC and New York City FC, earning a reputation as one of the league’s top goalkeepers.
Sebastian Lletget, LA Galaxy II (2015): Sometimes you need a tune-up, and that’s exactly what Sebastian Lletget’s one appearance for Los Dos served as against Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC as he got acclimated after a move from West Ham United earlier that year. Four years after his senior national team debut, Lletget has become one of the indispensable members of Head Coach Gregg Berhalter’s squad and has recorded eight goals in 32 senior appearances.
Mark McKenzie, Philadelphia Union II (2016-2019): It’s remarkable to think that it’s only been two years since Mark McKenzie last suited up in the Championship for his final six appearances for the Union II, but that’s how quickly the big center back has risen up the depth chart for the USMNT. McKenzie made his debut for the Union II in 2016 and made a total of 17 appearances overall, recording 31 interceptions and 68 clearances in his final three years, and now has also made the move to Europe where he competes for Genk in Belgium’s top flight.
Ricardo Pepi, North Texas SC (2019-20): A native of El Paso, Texas, Pepi burst onto the scene in the opening weeks of USL League One’s inaugural season for North Texas SC as he became the first player to record a hat trick in the league in NTSC’s inaugural game, a 3-2 victory against Chattanooga Red Wolves SC. Pepi went on to record nine goals and earned League One All-League honors while helping his side claim the inaugural League One title at the end of the season as he scored twice in the postseason. The 18-year-old has since gone on to become the youngest player to record a hat trick in Major League Soccer history this season for FC Dallas, and last month scored on his senior national team debut in the side’s 4-1 win on the road against Honduras.
Miles Robinson, Charleston Battery (2017), Atlanta United 2 (2018): Robinson took some time to emerge in the professional ranks, making six appearances on loan with the Battery in his rookie season before recording another 14 with Atlanta United 2 in the 2018 season. That seemed to set him up for success, with the youngster earning MLS Best XI honors in 2019 while making three senior international appearances going into the 2021 Gold Cup this summer. With more than 80 regular-season appearances in Major League Soccer now under his belt, Robinson is fast becoming a fixture in the U.S. squad.
Cristian Roldan, Tacoma Defiance (2015): Roldan only made one appearance for the Defiance, but it certainly was a memorable one. Selected by Seattle Sounders FC in the 2015 MLS SuperDraft after competing in USL League Two for the Washington Crossfire, the former University of Washington standout made his debut in the Defiance’s first game in the Championship and scored in the side’s 4-2 victory against Sacramento Republic FC. It’s been up and up ever since as he approaches 200 regular-season appearances in the top flight.
Zack Steffen, Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC (2016): Steffen arrived on loan with Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC on loan from Columbus Crew SC after returning from an early stint in Europe, and arguably began his ascent to the top of the USMNT goalkeeping depth chart at Highmark Stadium. In nine appearances for the Hounds, Steffen recorded two shutouts and 37 saves before returning to Columbus the following year and becoming the club’s No. 1. Now at Manchester City, Steffen is entering his prime at the top of his game, last season winning the Premier League and League Cup with City.
Matt Turner, Richmond Kickers (2016-17): A former USL League Two standout, Turner made a handful of appearances for the Kickers in his rookie season in 2016 but then came into his own with 20 appearances for Richmond the following year. Now established as one of the top goalkeepers in Major League Soccer with the New England Revolution, Turner recorded 81 saves and seven shutouts while competing for the Kickers that helped set up his future success, which now sees Turner in line for a potential Goalkeeper of the Year award this season.
DeAndre Yedlin, Sounders FC U23 (2012): A graduate of the Seattle Sounders FC Academy, Yedlin returned to the Pacific Northwest in 2012 and had an outstanding season in USL League Two for the Sounders FC U23s, appearing in all 16 games and recording one goal and one assist on his way to being named to the League Two All-League Team at the end of the season. The following year he signed as a Homegrown Player with the Sounders and has gone on to achieve success both domestically and overseas in addition to making 67 appearances for the USMNT.
Gyasi Zardes, Ventura County Fusion (2011-12); LA Galaxy II (2014): Before joining the LA Galaxy as a Homegrown signing in 2013, Gyasi Zardes was one of the central figures for two season at USL League Two’s Ventura County Fusion, where he was named to the All-Western Conference Team in 2012 alongside Yedlin before the two squared off in the Western Conference Final of the USL League Two Playoffs that season. Zardes has since recorded 85 goals in Major League Soccer – and two in his two loan appearances for the LA Galaxy II in the Championship – while recording 14 goals for the United States.