Photo by ISIPhotos.com
By IVES GALARCEP
If you were hoping we could just forget the ugly result in the U.S. Under-20 National Team’s World Cup opening loss to Spain last Friday, think again. The U.S. team’s 4-1 loss was ugly in many ways, but there were some bright spots to build on.
The most forgettable aspect of the U.S. team’s performance was the work of the defense, which struggled badly against Spain’s deadly counterattack and the speed and skill of Barcelona starlet Gerard Deulofeu.
The absence of suspended centerback Shane O’Neill forced Tab Ramos to start UCLA defender Javan Torre at centerback, and Torre struggled mightily and looked every bit look a college underclassmen who started just five matches for UCLA last fall.
As for positives? Luis Gil was the lone clearcut bright spot for Americans, even before the beautiful consolation goal he scored. The Real Salt Lake midfielder never looked out of place and was responsible for the best U.S. chances.
So what else did we learn from Friday’s loss? Here are some more observations:
The Americans set out to try and impose themselves on Spain with a high-pressing approach that looked to take Spain out of their comfort zone. It worked for stretches as Spain never really could build through the middle. What the approach did though was leave space behind the pressing U.S. attackers for Spain to hit on the counter and the Spaniards did just that with brutal efficiency.
Was Ramos naive or unrealistic to try and approach Spain this way? That’s a big question coming off this loss, and some believe it was a foolish mission. This goes to the heart of the debate on whether results are more important than teaching and implementing a philosophy that can work its way through the U.S. National Team system. From that standpoint, you can’t really blame Ramos for having his team approach the match the way they did.
The biggest issue with trying to play that way is if your back-line isn’t strong, and your defensive midfielder isn’t capable of providing quality support to the defense, then a strong opponent can take advantage. Wil Trapp and the back four struggled badly, particularly in space when Spanish attackers were able to pressure the flanks and stretch the back-line, leaving the heart of the U.S. defense exposed.
Before the tournament, I said centerback was a problem area for the U.S., and leaving Walker Zimmerman off the World Cup roster was Tab Ramos’ biggest mistake. The Spain game drove those points home. Shane O’Neill’s opening-game suspension forced Ramos to turn to untested Javan Torre at centerback, when he had seen most of his time at left back. O’Neill being suspended wasn’t a surprise, so Ramos had to know he would need a centerback stand-in for O’Neill, and rather than include Zimmerman on the roster, he left him out and left his squad exposed.
Torre looked like a player who quite frankly isn’t nearly polished enough to play on that high a level at centerback. Meanwhile, Zimmerman was one of the top defenders in college soccer in 2012, and the first centerback drafted in the 2013 MLS Draft. I asked Ramos about Zimmerman on two occasions, before and after the roster was selected, and in both instances, he talked in terms of Zimmerman simply not being good enough to make the team. The fact that Torre was forced to start vs. Spain, and the fact that you won’t find a pro scout anywhere who would rate Torre anywhere near Zimmerman, suggests this blunder could have, and should have been avoided (and Zimmerman scoring a late equalizer for FC Dallas on Saturday only served to drive that point home even further).
Torre wasn’t the only clear-cut weak link in the back-line on Friday. Left back Juan Pablo Ocegueda looked terrible, and was beaten repeatedly. While you can chalk that up, at least in part, to the quality of the opposition, there were some plays where he just didn’t look up to the challenge. Ramos will have to consider a change at left back, but you also wonder whether the roster’s back-up left back (Torre) is ready to shake off his opening-game debacle to line up and start at left back. If not, Ramos might have to turn to the youngest player on the roster, FC Dallas defender Kellyn Acosta. It might seem a bit unwise to throw in a 17-year old into a World Cup match against France, but Acosta is highly regarded and if you can’t be confident in playing him in a game like the France game, then why was he even included on the roster?
DeAndre Yedlin showed some real quality throughout the match, but he also showed some of the rough edges to be expected from a player his age. There are some very appealing traits in his game, but anyone honestly thinking he should be anywhere the senior U.S. team isn’t being very realistic. He needs a few more years of seasoning before that happens.
As far as the attack goes, there were some good showings, including that of Alonso Hernandez, who showed some good signs before being subbed out with what appeared to be a foot injury. Danny Garcia also provided some good glimpses before leaving with what appeared to be a concussion.
If Hernandez and Garcia can’t go, Ramos will likely turn to Mario Rodriguez to replace Hernandez, but the Garcia replacement might be tougher to decide on. Daniel Cuevas was one of the most exciting U.S. players in Under-20 World Cup qualifying, but Ramos chose not to start him vs. Spain. Cuevas came off the bench, but showed little of the spark we saw in qualifying.
Ramos can either start him and give Cuevas a chance to impressive from the opening minute, or Ramos can start Mikey Lopez with the hope of giving the team a bit more strength in central midfield. It isn’t a coincidence that when Lopez entered the Spain match, and partnered with Trapp centrally, the U.S. began finding more success controlling the middle.
What will the lineup look like that faces France? if Garcia and Hernandez can’t play, or can’t start, here is how we could see the U.S. line up:
What did you think of the U.S. team’s performance vs. Spain? What changes would you make to the lineup? Do you consider implementing the 4-3-3 high-pressing system more important than changing up the system for a better chance of keeping things close and nicking a result?
Share your thoughts below.