U.S. Under-20s faced with brutal road, but golden opportunity at World Cup

U20 USA vs Mexico

 Photo by ISIPhotos.com

By IVES GALARCEP

There is something about youth that makes you fearless and far less concerned with things like failure and difficulty. How else could you explain the reaction of some U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team players when the Under-20 World Cup draw handed them the mother of all Groups of Death?

There was an excitement among U.S. players about the prospects of being in the toughest group in the Under-20 World Cup, which they kick off today against Spain, and the reality is that is how they should feel.

Standing before the U.S. is an opportunity to impress on an international stage, in front of scouts from around the world, and as much as results matter in any tournament, the Under-20 World Cup is just as much about showing off skill and playing quality soccer than it is about wins and losses.

“I don’t know, to be honest,” Ramos said when asked what expectations should be for this U.S. Under-20 team. “I like the players that we have. I like the talent that we have on our team. Obviously we play Spain in the first game. Spain happens to be the favorite to win the World Cup.

“At the same time, I see that as a great challenge for us that maybe tells us whether we’re close or really far away. At this point I don’t know the answers to that. I do know that if we can somehow survive in our group and get through to the next stage, I think that coming out of this group, we would probably be able to beat anybody.”

The U.S. Under-20s have their flaws, but there is also an exciting an intriguing quality to the group Tab Ramos has taken with him to Turkey. The team is built has been built with more of an emphasis on technical quality than physical attributes, and you can argue this is the first time a U.S. Under-20 team has played in a World Cup built in that way.

Ramos is charged with helping lead not just a new generation of American talent, but also implementing the new philosophies U.S. Soccer is trying to emphasize, which is a more technical brand of soccer, and players with the skill to play attractive attacking soccer that can stack up with the world’s best.

We will find out just how close the U.S. is to making that transition in the coming week, as Spain, France and Ghana will present the Americans with a litmus test that will either tell us this new, more skilled generation of U.S. players is closing the gap on the rest of the world, or that we still have a long way to go.

This U.S. team has already shown what it can do, pushing Mexico to the brink in the CONCACAF Under-20 World Cup qualifying tournament final before falling in extra time. In that game, the U.S. showed real quality and fearlessness in taking it to a Mexican team playing in front of a home crowd.

The U.S. will need that same fearlessness against the likes of Spain and France, with pros like Jose Villarreal, Luis Gil, DeAndre Yedlin and Cody Cropper expected to lead the charge. The team will also need Tab Ramos to show that he is capable of coaching the team to a successful result.

Ramos will be facing more pressure than his players because while his players can hide behind the fact that they are young, Ramos will have no excuse if the team doesn’t play well and is woefully overmatched. It might seem a cruel circumstance given the uncertainty of young players, but that is nothing new for coaches and Ramos is ultimately responsible for selecting his team and putting together the game plan.

So what does the U.S. Under-20 team look like heading into the World Cup? Here is a primer for those unfamiliar.

GOALKEEPER

Cody Cropper is the starter, and while he isn’t an established pro yet (he’s on the books at Southampton, but doesn’t have first-team experience), he is a highly-regarded prospect. Also, he isn’t likely to play, but third goalkeeper Zach Steffen is a future star and a name to remember.

DEFENDERS

The weak link on the team is the back-line, where there isn’t a natural centerback on the roster. Converted midfielders Caleb Stanko and Shane O’Neill will start, though regular right back Eric Miller will start in place of O’Neill (suspension) in the opener vs. Spain. Tab Ramos could wind up regretting his decision not to bring in FC Dallas centerback Walker Zimmerman, just the kind of imposing presence the U.S. roster lacks.

O’Neill’s emergence as a regular starting centerback for the Colorado Rapids has been key for a U-20 team that lost out on a pair of quality central defense prospects in John Anthony Brooks and Will Packwood. O’Neill was a midfielder until as recently as late last year, but his ability to play a good number of MLS matches at centerback should help him when he returns from suspension.

Fullback has some better options, with Seattle Sounders standout DeAndre Yedlin expected to feature at right back. Juan Pablo Ocegueda is the left back, and is likely to draw more attention from opposing attacks.

“We feel good about the fact that Yedlin has been added to the roster and he’s someone who has a lot of professional experience the last couple of months since the World Cup Qualifiers, which he was not involved in,” Ramos said. “We feel good about the level of play of Juan Pablo Ocegueda on the left side and obviously Caleb Stanko, as well as Shane O’Neill.

“I think we’re a little bit more experienced than we were a couple months ago, and the fact that we’ve been together for a couple weeks is really going to help us.”

MIDFIELDERS

The need to move Stanko to centerback hurt this group a bit, but there is still plenty of quality here, with Luis Gil the standout. His creativity and passing ability should help drive the U.S. attack, while Benji Joya is also a quality option in the midfield triangle the U-20s employ.

Columbus Crew midfielder Wil Trapp and Sporting KC rookie Mikey Lopez are the options in defensive midfield, and both have plenty to prove. Ramos could be forced to play both if teams like Spain and France prove too tough to handle in midfield.

Another player to watch is Daniel Garcia. The creative midfielder who recently signed with FC Dallas could wind up featuring heavily, especially if Gil has any continued issues with a concussion he suffered before the World Cup.

FORWARDS

Plenty of firepower for the 4-3-3 attack, with Daniel Cuevas and Jose Villarreal serving as the dynamic wide threats in the forward trident. Cuevas is a speedster who should give opponents fits, while Villarreal is the magician who can float all over the field and create chances for himself and his teammates.

The center forward spot will feature either relative newcomer Alonso Hernandez or Mario Rodriguez. Both fit in well playing as target strikers in the 4-3-3 system, with Hernandez looking like a good bet to start after impressing Ramos in recent weeks.

“Alonso is not someone that we had been tracking for the last few months,” Ramos said of Hernandez. “He was someone that got onto our radar in April when he debuted in a Liga MX game between Monterrey and Santos. That’s the first time we’ve heard about him. Then we just followed him. For the next month I followed all his touches on the ball and was able to see every play he was involved in during the next four weeks. From there we decided to call him.

“We thought he did well enough to deserve a call. He plays for Monterrey, a great team with great players, and not only that but he plays for Coach (Victor Manuel) Vucetich, and because I played for him I know how demanding he is,” Ramos said. “I know in order for a young player to earn playing time for one of the best coaches the Mexican league has ever had, I think says a lot about the player. We called him in and I think he’s been nothing but a great find for us. He certainly fits in well with the team. He works hard and has been a great last-minute addition for us.”

OUTLOOK

The U.S. has the attacking talent to score against anybody, but there are serious questions marks about the defense, which could struggle mightily in this tournament. Villarreal, Hernandez, Gil and Cuevas should find success, but just how well they do could depend largely on whether the defense can hold firm, and central midfielders like Trapp, Joya and Lopez can hold their own and keep possession.

A best case scenario? Stanko and O’Neill play very well, the U.S. scores plenty of goals, and the Americans finish second in the group. A worst-case scenario? Stank0, O’Neill and Trapp struggle badly and the U.S. finish winless (and even goal-less) in group play.

Look for the U.S. to fall somewhere in between, with an offense that should impress, even if the team falls short of advancing out of the group stage. For the Americans to do any better, they will need their defense to grow up quickly.

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36 Responses to U.S. Under-20s faced with brutal road, but golden opportunity at World Cup

  1. ATX_Colin says:

    Tabs comments concerning their chance to get out of the group leaves me less than confident about this bunch. I hope they can display some skill and confidence regardless of the scores.

  2. Alf says:

    Good to see such a positive approach to the tournament. If we weren’t in the group of death we’d certainly advance and may anyway.

  3. VMan says:

    It’s hard to get too crazy over the results either way in this tournament. If 2 or 3 guys end up being senior nat regulars several years from now, that would be impressive.

  4. 2tone says:

    Cropper last I knew was on the books at Southhampton.

    O’Neill is a natural CB. He has started at CB for Colorado. Yes he was converted to a CB two years ago, but now he is a natural CB. O’Neill is not the first youth player to change positions in an academy setting. Hell Vincent Kompany for Manchester City/Belgium started out as a DM not a CB.

    • The Imperative Voice says:

      “All red stripey players look alike to me.”

      At age 20 I’m sure it helps to be experienced at a position but I think the premium is more on quality. Unless you’re playing a 5’7″ wing as a CB I don’t think “natural CB” is that big a deal or necessarily final at that age. I think it’s more at the senior level where you need to be able to fill a role and with a few exceptions get typecast.

      • Dennis says:

        I disagree, the biggest quality a CB needs is 100% concentration for 90+ minutes at any level where the opposition can punish mistakes. That is not a quality that is required of forwards of midfielders, or at least it is not punished in the same way. I think, really the only way to learn if a player has that quality is to play them at CB for several games (or at least many practices) and let their play tell you.

        • The Imperative Voice says:

          I would agree that you either got it or not. I think you might even give a player a few games to adjust. But at their level, as long as you fit the positional criteria, eg, you might want a CB to have some height, I don’t think you’re so specialized you can’t move.

          I think specialization comes as the game starts demanding that you play a role well, or the attributes of players start forcing you to fit the roles. I think that’s more a senior thing where a team might show up with a 6′ 4″ forward and you’re either tall enough or not, or a team might be so tactically and formationally savvy that they can pick a lost player apart and win games just from that.

  5. Eurosnob says:

    It will be tough. Their games against Spain and France, who are loaded with talent, will be a real litmus test for this group.

  6. fifawitz1313 says:

    90% of the team is from California and Texas. I was surprised no one from Florida or the South East was on the team.

  7. Brett says:

    I think you nailed it. The youth cups are more about individual players testing themselves than they are about the importance of winning.

    A lot of these players are in reserves or get a small amount of minutes for professional clubs. An even smaller number are getting regular, top-flight football. This is more about showing those teams you deserve promotion, that you can handle the pressure of a higher level of competition.

    Spain is going to run away with this tournament if they play up to their talent. But the fun of the game is that on a given day they can stumble, and we all want to be that team that takes advantage of it. They probably won’t, but if they do it’d be nice to be the ones to take them down.

    Honestly, I’ll be happier to see a handful of these players see an upswing in their club situations as a result of their play than I would be if we lifted the trophy at the end.

  8. JP says:

    Why is a “best case finish” 2nd place in the group? The US has surprised in the past, and I don’t see why we couldn’t do so here as well. Is it probable? No. But definitely possible and I wouldn’t put it past these kids who are eager to take on Spain.

    • Brett says:

      This was said about the 2010 WC as well. We couldn’t possibly hope to beat England in the group and would probably have to win 2 games to take 2nd.

      • Josh says:

        I don’t know where you saw US in 2010 as second being the best case scenario. People didn’t expect us first but clearly nobody said it was out of the realm to beat a consistently under-performing England

        • Brett says:

          You must only follow US outlets for your football news. No one in the world saw us topping that group, many even saw us crashing out.

          • SanFran415 says:

            We were an awful goalkeeping mistake that happens 1/1000 times away from crashing out.

            • Geoff says:

              If we’re playing the notoriously stupid what-ifs game, there’s the game-winning goal against Slovenia being called back for a phantom foul (if anything, like four different Slovenes were committing fouls against U.S. players on the play).

              So whatever.

            • Bobb says:

              That’s ridiculous, we has two legit goals that went into the back of the net, called back by awful referee decisions. That’s on a different level than the opposing goalkeeper making an error. We should have beat Slovenia 3-2 and Algeria 2-0.

    • The Imperative Voice says:

      These are strong senior footballing nations but U-20 teams vary in quality, a relatively unknown team can have a burst of talent, a generally strong team can have an off cycle. These teams tend to be snapshots with few holdovers each two years.

      And then I think there’s an element of randomness in youth tourneys, France last time got clobbered by Colombia to start the group, finished second in it, but then outlasted Colombia in the knockout and finished third overall. Couple tournaments before that the US tied a Korea team that finished last in group and then beat the teams that advanced, beat Uruguay and then lost to mediocre Austrians. It’s still kids and you go or don’t go a game at a time.

    • Gary Page says:

      Did you see Spain in the European U-21 tournament? It’s like they are on a whole different level. I mean, they just dismantled Italy in the final. If their under 20′s have even half the talent as the U-21′s, they will be scary good. If the US is competitive with Spain it will be a moral victory. And France beat the US 4-0 in the Toulon Tournament. Admittedly we were missing some good players, but still, those are 2 superior teams the US will be facing.

  9. biff says:

    I think a few words were left off the end of this sentence in the article above: “It might seem a cruel circumstance given the uncertainty of young players, but that is nothing new for coaches and Ramos is ultimately responsible for selecting his team and putting together the game plan…” [...and tossing them into the frying pan.]

    Would love to see the boys start out with a draw (or better) against Spain. I got a feeling. Yep. I do.

    • the unmistakeable Ronaldinho says:

      I saw the highlights of our 3-1 win vs Portugal and they were pretty ugly. We scored on 3 Portugal mistakes (credit to them for taking their chances) but Portugal looked to have the huge majority of chances. Could have easily been 3 or 4-0 the other way. Obviously you can’t tell everything from a 5 minute highlight but it didn’t look good. We definitely have some potential out there but they seem to lack that 1-2 guys that can carry the team. I don’t expect us to do very well considering the quality we are facing.

      • Casey says:

        They could have not showed any of the US goals and just showed Portugal attacking and scoring once. Portugal is no slouch either but don’t take edited highlights by the other team too seriously.

        • the unmistakeable Ronaldinho says:

          Like I said, I’m not putting absolute faith in a Portuguese edited highlight. What I saw was not promising though. Our defense looked porous ad our attack wasn’t generating chances.

          • Casey says:

            But you are taking everything from a 5 minute highlight and making judgements off that.

            • the unmistakeable Ronaldinho says:

              “Obviously you can’t tell everything from a 5 minute highlight…”

              “Like I said, I’m not putting absolute faith in a Portuguese edited highlight.”

              seems like I’ve made it clear I know the highlight doesn’t tell the whole story.

              There are indisputable facts from the highlight though. Our goals were off huge mistakes that we can’t rely on and we allowed numerous chances that they really should have scored on.

              • Casey says:

                ” What I saw was not promising though. Our defense looked porous ad our attack wasn’t generating chances.” That is taking it as a the whole thing and not just edited highlights.

      • Dennis says:

        Well, that is one things good teams do, they punish the other team’s mistakes. So often lesser teams let their opponents off the hook by failing to capitalize on mistakes.

        • the unmistakeable Ronaldinho says:

          I agree with that but at some point they have to defend well and create their own chances. A team can’t rely on opposition’s poor finishing and ridiculous mistakes to get results. All I meant was the highlights didn’t look good despite our winning 3-1 and on another day we could have easily lost that game by a good margin. That day might be today where I doubt Spain will be as generous.

  10. SanFran415 says:

    It’ll be nice for the kids to play some top notch competition, but to be honest we have nobody that will come close to being able to mark either Jese or Deulofeu–arguably the best u20 wingers in the world.

    Spain is an embarr@ssment of riches. Can’t wait until our academies start producing this talent.

  11. g-dub says:

    Gotta love U-20 soccer. Open, fast, fearless, lotta attitude. Bring it boys. U-S-A!

  12. downintexas says:

    The real question is which US player plays the best and instantly becoming the next “savior” of american soccer only to be thrown under the bus when he plays one bad game?

    • Brett says:

      I’m more worried about who will be the next Freddy Adu, who parlayed a fantastic showing at the 2007 cup into a contract with Benfica, only to see himself flounder in Europe until he had to come crawling back to MLS.

  13. Dennis says:

    The group is strong enough that it seems unlikely any team will dominate it. That implies that a win and a tie could be enough to advance. In this group, that will be hard, but not impossible.

  14. DC Josh says:

    This throws a wrench into my weekend plans. Outdoor activities must take a back seat to soccer — at all times.

  15. chris thebassplayer says:

    I don’ think we see a 4-3-3 against Spain…probably 4-2-3-1 with the flanks pulled back or even the tree 4-3-2-1. Absorb pressure and try to hit them on a counter with Cuevas or Hernandez. I know Ramos prefers the 4-3-3 with high pressure up field, but that would be suicidal against Spain.

  16. petedx says:

    Ryan Giggs watching the game? Kinda random