By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (May 25, 2023) US Soccer Players – The US Under-20 national team has gotten almost everything right in its first two games at the FIFA U-20 World Cup. Wins over Ecuador and Fiji have assured the young Yanks of advancement to the tournament’s knockout phase. They can clinch 1st-place in group B by avoiding defeat vs Slovakia on Friday. Here are a few observations.
Collective, individual versatility
Coach Mikey Varas threw a curveball with his lineup in Saturday’s opener. A team that has, like the senior USMNT, long operated with a 4-3-3 formation as a default played in a 3-4-3 against Ecuador.
With Justin Che, Josh Wynder, and Brandan Craig in central defense, talented fullbacks Caleb Wiley and Jonathan Gomez shifted into wing back roles. Diego Luna played as a false #9 up top, flanked by Quinn Sullivan and Owen Wolff as wide attackers. Adding to the surprise, captain Daniel Edelman was left out of the lineup with Obed Vargas in center midfield next to Jack McGlynn.
It was a bold move, likely influenced by the absence of Cade Cowell to suspension and the delayed arrivals of Kevin Paredes and Rokas Pukstas from club duty in Europe. And it worked, limiting the impact of Ecuador’s speed and creativity as the US kept a clean sheet, won the possession battle, and generally controlled the tempo.
In injury time, Gomez turned what would’ve been a hard-earned scoreless draw into a dramatic injury-time victory, cutting inside to lash a beautiful left-footed finish into the top corner. That capped an impressive outing on the right attacking corner for someone who usually plays left back, underlining the FC Dallas product’s talent and soccer IQ.
Nailing the big calls
Varas took a measured gamble with that deployment of Gomez, and it paid off. The same can be said of moving Wolff, who assisted on Gomez’s goal, to a more advanced spot and slotting in the more defensively-oriented Vargas. The Sounders homegrown’s quietly effective ball-winning in the center of the park was vital. And in the 31st minute he tracked all the way back into his team’s six-yard box to make a massive clearance, denying Ecuador’s Kendry Paez a simple tap-in.
Varas faced another big decision when underdogs Fiji held the US scoreless in the first 45 minutes of Tuesday’s match. A halftime double substitution brought Luna into the fray. He would break the deadlock 20 minutes later, then add an assist on Cowell’s late strike. The coaching staff’s moves were further vindicated when another substitute, Wiley, bagged the third goal deep in injury time, which may yet prove important for goal differential purposes.
Taking full points from the first two games also cast Varas’s roster building in a favorable light. By doing without Paredes and Pukstas in the group stage, he was betting that his team could achieve the job of advancement without them, then reap the benefits of reinforcements for the round of 16. So far, so good on that front.
“The goal is to win the tournament,” said Gomez on Saturday. “I think we have a team to do that.”
With Slovakia having beaten Fiji 4-0, the US had hoped for a less arduous path to victory over the Oceania side. That didn’t materialize early on due to wayward finishing and some tenacious Fijian resistance. The U-20s showed persistence and organization.
Sticking to the plan, the US fended off frustration and continued to work through their patterns of play as the second-half wore on. Goalkeeper Gaga Slonina and the back line kept vigilant against the threat of counterattacks. As in the opener, adjustments in personnel and relationships kept the United States in control in inherently stressful situations.
“If we’re honest with ourselves, we were missing quality in our final actions. But we persevered and the goals ended up coming,” said Varas. “It’s one of our strengths, is the depth of the team, depth of the entire pool. We trust and believe in each one of these guys. So when they’re called upon, they know they need to make a difference.”
All that will be required all over again against Slovakia, who lost to Ecuador and now need a positive result to advance.
The high stakes and tight margins of a tournament environment tend to foster a “one game at a time” mindset, and the US U-20s have said as much. As understandable as that is, ambitions of making a deep run are aided by careful management of small details.
Posting two shutouts sets the US up well for the next round. So does rotating the squad to keep the miles from stacking up too heavily on anyone’s legs. Craig, Gomez, and McGlynn are the only players to log all 180-plus minutes of play so far. Avoiding yellow-card accumulation is also a key matter, with just two cautions triggering a one-match suspension.
Wynder took a yellow against Ecuador. McGlynn and Luna picked up cautions against Fiji. All three are important contributors who must now be carefully managed by the coaching staff to avoid missing action in the elimination phase, where the room for error shrinks dramatically.
1st-place in group B would earn the young Yanks a round of 16 fixture in Mendoza, about 100 miles from their current base in San Juan, compared to a trip nearly five times longer to Santiago del Estero should they finish second. A 3rd-place finish could keep them in San Juan for their next match.
Even when teams keep mistakes to a minimum, the bracket can spring nasty surprises. For example, the US could win the group and still have to play a giant in the round of 16, considering that the likes of Brazil, Italy, and Nigeria are among the potential matchups. Even that seems unlikely to rattle this team’s sense of purpose.
“Today we were a little off. I think it was a difficult game on the mental side. But getting the result is the most important thing,” said Luna after the Fiji win. “I think we can achieve big things. We’re coming in as the underdogs. A lot of people underestimate us, but we’re going to keep showing what we can do game by game. We’ll do our talking on the field.”
More from Charles Boehm:
- United States aims for a new level at U-20 World Cup
- Charlie Davies on his new role at CBS Sports Golazo Network and more
- LAFC aims to break new ground on Champions League run
- US Soccer sporting director Matt Crocker outlines the scope for “the whole ecosystem”
Photo by Oscar Barroso – ISIPhotos.com