The US U-20s aim to break an Olympic slump

By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Jun 30, 2022) US Soccer Players – Concacaf’s Under-20 Championship in Honduras served up some legitimate stunners Wednesday night. First, the Dominican Republic booked a place in its first-ever FIFA World Cup of any kind with a 1-0 quarterfinal upset of Jamaica. Then Guatemala pulled off an even bigger shock, knocking out Mexico on penalties after a tense 1-1 draw. That means El Tri, who won the gold medal at London 2012 and bronze in Tokyo last year, won’t be involved in the U-20 World Cup or the 2024 Olympic Games.

On Friday, the USMNT U-20s will try to make some history in a good way. Coach Mikey Varas’s side booked its place at next year’s U-20 World Cup in Indonesia by handling Costa Rica 2-0 in an intense clash on Tuesday. While significant, qualifying for that tournament was the expectation. It’s the young Yanks’ fifth straight qualification and 12th out of the last 13 cycles. What’s been far more elusive is a spot at the Olympics, with the USMNT U-23s last qualifying in 2008.

Now, thanks to Concacaf’s decision to make this U-20 tournament do double duty as the road to Paris 2024, it’s up to the U-20s to try to advance to the Olympics. A very talented group can end that streak of frustration with a semifinal win over Honduras in San Pedro Sula (9pm ET – FS1 and TUDN).

“We from day one knew the responsibility and honor that we had to play several qualification-type tournaments,” Varas told reporters after Tuesday’s win. “We were laser-focused on the first step, which was World Cup qualification. The boys are going to enjoy the win and the step that they made tonight, but we’re very cognizant that we’re not going to get too high. We’re going to stay on an even keel, because we have the potential to help the country in an even bigger way. The boys will be dialed in, and it’s a tremendous responsibility.”

As is so often the case in these competitions, the happenstance of the bracket looms large. The US U-20s have yet to lose this month, scoring 22 goals while conceding just two in their five games thus far. While the Cinderella teams face off in the other semifinal, the US faces the tournament’s hosts. Honduras is also the same nation that eliminated the United States at this stage of the past two Olympic cycles. Even if the players on the current squad are just inheriting all that backstory from their predecessors, they fully understand the stakes.

“Of course we can enjoy the moment tonight and enjoy the win. But as soon as tomorrow hits, we flip the page and we focus towards the game,” said Philadelphia Union playmaker Paxten Aaronson, who scored both goals in Tuesday’s win. “The Olympics is such a big deal. And for me and the team, we know that we get the chance to make history for the first time in, I think, three qualification stages we haven’t qualified. So the team knows how big it is and the team, I know, will be up for it.”

It’s truly a gut-check moment. For many players at this tournament, such high-stakes matches can be the most pressure-packed scenarios they have encountered in their brief careers. In terms of sheer physical output, Friday’s semifinal will be the sixth game in two weeks for those taking part. Varas and his staff take encouragement from the mettle their squad showed in handling a bruising challenge from Costa Rica.

“We talked about the idea of having fire and ice in our veins,” said Varas, a former FC Dallas academy coach. “We have to be able to be calm in those most emotional moments. And at the end of the day, without going into too much detail, because we need to see what Concacaf says and see exactly all the details of it, the boys showed that they’re there to protect each other. They got together, they found a way to calm down, even on the field. And they stuck together, which is something that I think from our perspective, from a coaching perspective, unity is really, really important.”

Like all youth national teams, the U-20 level is about preparing players for the senior side first and foremost. Towards that end, this team uses the same 4-3-3 formation and principles of play as Gregg Berhalter’s USMNT. Just as every team has its own personality and ecosystem, though, these coaches and young players must also build their own collective.

“I think (Varas) has done a great job of building a culture around the team where everyone buys into what he’s preaching,” said Aaronson. “We only get a certain amount of camps, he brings us in for two weeks and those two weeks we really have to grind and get what we want out of it. I think he’s done a great job in a short amount of time, with kids coming in and out, different kids, just preaching the culture, and getting everyone buying into the program and the way we want to play.”

Every member of this squad are full professionals despite being several years younger than the U-23 Olympic groups that came before them. In many ways they epitomize their country’s progress on the player development front. If they can end their program’s string of Olympic heartache, it’s another job done.

Charles Boehm is a Washington, DC-based writer and the editor of The Soccer Wire. Contact him at:cboehm@thesoccerwire.com. Follow him on Twitter at:http://twitter.com/cboehm.

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Photo by Brad Smith – ISIPhotos.com

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